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:

  1. Thesis support assignments, in which students are given a controversial thesis to defend or attack. In its concern for reasons and evidence, coupled with a demand that the writer or speaker attend to opposing views, the assignment requires a high level of critical thinking. Thesis support assignments also lend themselves to “believing and doubting” exploratory tasks or collaborative learning exercises in which groups are asked to develop arguments for and against the thesis. Famous historical controversies, such as prima vs. seconda prattica or the battle between Italian vs. French opera are examples of topics where in-class debate could enhance students’ engagement with the topics and their critical thinking skills in a way that could be very enjoyable for the students.
  2. Problem-posing assignments, in which the professor gives the students a question which they have to try to answer through thesis-governed writing, or to contemplate through exploratory writing or small group problem solving. Often the assignment specifies an audience also – a person other than the teacher who either poses the question or needs the answer. Most teachers can get a ready supply of these questions by sorting through old essay exams, which often make excellent small group tasks or write-to-learn tasks for journals, practice exams, or papers. Often the questions can be incorporated into humorous studies or problem situations that make the assignments more fun.
  3. Data-provided assignments, which in a sense are the flip side of the thesis-provided assignment: the teacher provides the data, and the students must determine what thesis or hypothesis the data might support.
  4. Frame assignments: the professor provides a topic sentence and an organizational frame that students have to flesh out with appropriate generalizations and supporting data, generating ideas and arguments to fill the open slots in the frame. Often the frame is provided by an opening topic sentence, along with the major transition words in the paragraph. Students report that such assignments help them learn a lot about organizational strategies.
  5. “What if” assignments that ask the students to step out of their normal point of view and to adopt an unfamiliar perspective or assumption. Such assignments stretch students’ thinking in productive ways, and are excellent critical thinking exercises.
  6. Writing summaries or abstracts of articles or course lectures: this is a superb way to develop reading and listening skills, and to improve the precision, clarity, and succinctness of students’ thinking and writing. In composing a summary of an article, for example, the writer must determine the hierarchical structure of the original text, retaining without distortion the logical sequence of its general statements while eliminating its specific details. Summary writers must also suspend their own views on a subject to articulate fairly what may be an unfamiliar or even unsettling view in the article being summarized. Summaries can vary in length: perhaps the most common length is 200-250 words, but some instructors have used one-sentence summaries. In another variation, students can be asked to write a one-sentence précis or abstract that is exactly twenty-five words in length. By requiring exactly twenty-five words, the assignment forces students through considerable revision, in which they must play with syntax and question the value of every word. Asking students to write summaries of class lectures promotes careful listening and note-taking skills, and has been shown to improve test scores.

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.

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
About this site