Fostering Critical Thinking through Effective Pedagogy: Evidence from Four Institutional Case Studies

Article excerpt

Although Americans today are more highly educated than ever before, they are not necessarily better educated. In this country formal education largely entails knowledge building through subject matter content coverage. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of skills building. Rather than devote so much effort to teaching students what to think, perhaps we need to do more to teach them how to think. Higher-order cognitive skills, such as the ability to think critically, are invaluable to students' futures; they prepare individuals to tackle a multitude of challenges that they are likely to face in their personal lives, careers, and duties as responsible citizens. Moreover, by instilling critical thinking in students we groom individuals to become independent lifelong learners--thus fulfilling one of the long-term goals of the educational enterprise.

A preponderance of evidence from the research literature on critical thinking suggests that significant gains in critical thinking are both perceived (Astin, 1993; Pace, 1974; Terenzini, Theophilides, & Lorang, 1984; Tsui, 1999) and experienced by college students (Dressel & Mayhew, 1954; Keeley, 1992; Keeley, Browne, & Kreutzer, 1982; King, Wood, & Mines, 1990; Klassen, 1983; Lehmann, 1963; Mines, King, Hood, & Wood, 1990; Pascarella, 1989; Spaulding & Kleiner, 1992). Yet, many consider the level of critical thinking displayed by students to be inadequate. Norris (1985) noted that competence in critical thinking is lower than it should be at every stage of schooling. In a study by Keeley, Browne, and Kreutzer (1982), seniors outperformed freshmen in analyzing articles through an essay response format despite showing "major deficiencies" in their performance. For instance, 40-60% of the participating seniors could not provide a single example of a logical flaw, significant ambiguity, or misuse of data, when a sked to assess a written passage containing several such errors. Using the same data source, Keeley (1992) found both freshmen and seniors exhibiting "poor performance" at identifying assumptions. In a study involving 874 sociology students, Logan (1976) concluded that those at every level (from freshmen to graduate students) scored "very low" in critical thinking as measured by a test to assess students' abilities to recognize uncritical or unsound thinking.

Research can and should assist faculty in their efforts to nurture students' abilities to think critically. As yet, however, little substantiated knowledge on effective pedagogy comes from research on critical thinking. Very few studies on critical thinking among college students examine the impact of instructional factors (see Tsui, 1998b). Limited efforts to investigate the effects of specific teaching techniques may stem from the difficulty of attaining direct indicators; studies that address classroom experiences tend to rely on self-reported data rather than observational data. Among the research that examines the influence of instruction on critical thinking, the focus on pedagogy varies. Moreover, studies addressing the same teaching elements have yielded some conflicting findings. Consequently, little consistency emerges from the empirical research literature as to specific instructional techniques that effectively enhance students' abilities to think critically (McMillan, 1987; Tsui, 1998b).

In a 1995 study by Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella, and Nora, critical thinking, as measured by scores on the critical thinking module of the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP), was found significantly and positively related to only a few classroom and instructional experiences. Once students' pre-college level of critical thinking was controlled for, however, only hours per week spent studying remained statistically significant.

Smith (1977, 1981) found three kinds of instructor-influenced classroom interactions to be consistently and positively related to gains in critical thinking (as measured by the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Chickering behavioral self-report index): the extent to which faculty members encouraged, praised, or used student ideas; the amount and cognitive level of student participation in class; and the amount of interaction among students in a course. …