Assignments that teach critical thinking
One important way to improve students’ writing is to engage them in critical thinking about a topic at hand. Professors in a discipline traditionally focus assignments on tasks that are traditional to their discipline, and that address topics that are central to the material being learned. However many instructors are not accustomed to considering relationships between assignments and critical thinking. It is useful to think of part of the teacher’s role as that of a coach. In adopting this role, the teacher presents students with assignments that require critical thinking, gives students supervised practice (through in-class lectures and discussion) in thinking through and solving the challenges of such assignments, and coaches their performance through encouragement, modeling, helpful intervention and advice, and critiquing of their performance. Once professors focus on critical thinking, planning lectures and class discussions can shift from the traditional model of simply imparting information to incorporating critical thinking problems for students to wrestle with. This process entails shifting the focus of a course from being entirely text- or assignment-centered to incorporating problem-centered, challenging thinking that can also be incorporated in objectives of the writing assignments. Critical thinking that will lead to more thoughtful writing can be incorporated into the course in a number of ways: (1) As an exploratory writing task (see Informal low-stakes assignments); (2) As a formal writing assignment; (3) As an essay exam question; (4) As a problem-solving task for small-group discussion; (5) As an opening question for whole-class discussion or as a problem for an in-class debate, mock trial, simulation game, or individual or group presentation.
Tasks linking course concepts to students’ personal experience or previously existing knowledge are especially good for engaging students’ interest in a problem or a concept before it is addressed formally in class or in readings. These tasks also help students assimilate new concepts by connecting the concepts to personal experience. Cognitive research has shown that students best assimilate a new concept by linking it back to a structure of known material, determining how a new concept is both similar to a different from what the learner already knows. The more that unfamiliar material can be linked to the familiar ground of personal experience and already existing knowledge, the easier it is to learn. Another way to develop students’ abilities to think critically is to ask them to explain course concepts to the class or to a fellow student, either during a class (in relation to material currently under discussion) or at the beginning (in relation to material covered in a previous class). This can be an excellent way to vary the pace of a class and to incorporate review without taking excessive class time. In so doing, students search for ways to tie the course concept into the knowledge base of their peers. It also takes them temporarily out of the student-to-examiner role and can help them to develop confidence in what they know.
Here are some specific types of assignments that can help to develop critical thinking:
Traditionally teachers have often thought of writing like a box and wrapping paper into which we put our already formulated ideas. The problem is that, once writing is imagined as “packaging,” students often find little use for it. Separated from the act of thinking and creating, writing becomes merely a skill that can be learned through grammar drills and through the production of essays that students do not want to write and that teachers do not want to read. But the writing process itself can provide one of the best ways to help students learn the active, dialogic thinking skills valued in academic life. Students need to learn that the elegance and structure of thesis-governed writing as a finished product evolves both from critical thinking, and from the process of drafting and redrafting. Thesis-governed writing is thus the exterior sign of an interior thinking process that we as faculty need to help our students develop. Teaching this process is itself a slow developmental task. The habit of problem posing and thesis making critical thinking does not come naturally to beginning college students, who write more clearly when given assignments that do not challenge them as thinkers. Students will produce cognitively immature prose as long as their attitude toward knowledge remains in the early stages of intellectual growth. To use writing as a means of thinking, teachers need to make the design of writing assignments a significant part of course preparation and to adopt teaching strategies that give students repeated, active practice at exploring disciplinary questions and problems. Additionally, it is important to emphasize inquiry, question asking, and cognitive dissonance in courses and, whenever possible, to show that scholars in a discipline often disagree about answers to key questions. Teachers need to show that writing through critical thinking is a way of discovering, making, and communicating meanings that are significant, interesting, and challenging.