LTAC Speaker Spotlight: Scaffolding Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

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Virtually every degree program in every educational institution cites critical thinking as an important educational objective. How is it, then, that students continue to graduate with inadequate critical thinking skills?

In this article, I outline three major ways for professors to scaffold improvements in their students’ critical thinking skills.

Clarify Critical Thinking in the Context of the Course

Students have preconceived ideas about what critical thinking is, and those ideas are often different than yours. Students need a road map of the specific critical thinking skills required and their relationship to course content. Here are some ideas:

  • Illuminate your own thinking for students. First, identify all of the details of the process that students must follow if they are to think about a problem the way you would. Keep in mind that students are usually not subject-matter experts; they need to be guided through steps that may be automatic to you.
  • Provide students with a consistent framework across problems. Consider introducing and repeatedly applying a critical thinking model (such as Steps for Better Thinking, freely available at http://www.wolcottlynch.com/educator-resources).
  • Use a rubric to describe levels of critical thinking skills and to explicitly link performance of skills to grades. Ideally, use the same rubric (or rubrics having similar wording) across assignments.

Focus Learning on the “Goldilocks Zone”

Students are most likely to develop stronger critical thinking  when they are working on skills at the right level—not too complex and not too simple. Some professors mistakenly expect their students to be able to demonstrate expert-level critical thinking, and they assign tasks that are too far above students’ current abilities. Other professors, perhaps frustrated by poor performance, assume that their students are not capable—and they fail to adequately challenge their students’ thinking. In both of these situations, students will fail to develop stronger critical thinking skills.

A more effective approach is to engage students in learning activities that are just above their current skills levels. According to developmental psychology, critical thinking skills develop sequentially from less complex to more complex. Most importantly, less complex skills lay the foundation for the next more complex set of skills. By identifying where students are in the progression, you can do a better job of challenging students at an appropriate level. Use a developmentally-designed rubric (such as those illustrated on my website) to ascertain your students’ current skills. Then use the assessment information to determine the “next steps” in your students’ skill development.[1] Although different students in your course probably operate at different thinking levels, you can learn about the distribution in your classroom and design learning activities to more closely focus on student needs—i.e., the “Goldilocks zone.”

Provide Students with Time and Practice

It is not sufficient to help students learn a critical thinking skill and to then expect students to consistently demonstrate that skill. Critical thinking development usually requires many opportunities for practice. Students often begin to demonstrate a new skill, and then revert back to their previous ways of thinking. Such reversion might occur when students are stressed (such as during an exam) or when the learning environment changes (as when students move from one course to another).

Because critical thinking skills develop slowly and tend to be unstable, it is highly unusual to observe significant increases in students’ skills during the span of a single course. This can be quite frustrating for the professor! Students might need more practice in future courses before they consistently demonstrate new skills. To maximize the likelihood of faster development, professors can:

  • Provide students with many opportunities to develop new skills within a course, and include critical thinking tasks on exams.
  • Coordinate efforts with colleagues who teach other courses in a degree program to ensure that students can recognize the connections in critical thinking skills across courses.

Combine All Three Recommendations

Overall, you can think of the three recommendations in this article as working together for more effective student learning, as illustrated in the following diagram.

[1] Unfortunately, skill development is not necessarily straightforward. Students might operate at a higher or lower level depending on the subject matter, or they might exhibit different levels based on their degree of motivation or other factors. Nevertheless, I have found student performance to be fairly consistent within a single course.

About the Author:

Susan K. Wolcott, PhD, is an educational consultant with WolcottLynch Associates (www.WolcottLynch.co,) and Thought Leader for professional education at CPA Canada. She works with faculty and programs around the world to support critical thinking development, competency assessment, and curriculum innovation. Susan is also a part-time professor at University of Iowa and Aalto University in Finland. She has received teaching awards at IE Business School in Madrid and the Daniels College of Business at University of Denver. She has also taught at University of Washington and the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

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Dr. Susan Wolcott is a featured workshop presenter at this year’s Conference who will focus on approaches to improving students’ critical thinking skills.

To learn more about this year’s Conference, visit www.livetextconference.com. Hear what your peers are saying  about the LiveText Conference… click here.

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