Fostering Critical Thinking in Personality Psychology: The Trait Paper Assignment

By Hittner, James B. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Fostering Critical Thinking in Personality Psychology: The Trait Paper Assignment


Hittner, James B., Journal of Instructional Psychology


A personality trait-based term paper assignment that is appropriate for use in personality psychology courses and that is designed to foster critical thinking skills is introduced. The extent to which the trait questions correspond to generic critical thinking questions is considered, the specific thinking skills induced by each trait question are discussed, and potential limitations of the assignment are noted. Preliminary data are also presented which suggest that the trait-based term paper assignment stimulates critical thinking and enhances knowledge about personality traits. It is hoped that the ideas presented and issues discussed in the present article will encourage academic psychologists from all subdisciplines to develop writing assignments that foster critical thinking skills.

The purpose of this article is to introduce a personality trait-based term paper assignment for use in undergraduate personality psychology courses. The specific goal of the assignment is to stimulate critical thinking skills and as such the assignment's format was driven by current theory and research in the area of critical thinking. Although there is no one single ubiquitous definition of critical thinking, most experts in the area (e.g., Gray, 1993; Halpern, 1994; King, 1995; McPeck, 1981) agree that critical thinking involves (a) the process of reflecting upon thought provoking ideas and concepts, (b) actively generating hypotheses about those ideas and concepts, preferably in a way that has personal relevance, and (c) gathering pertinent information in an effort to either confirm or disconfirm the hypotheses generated. Questions that induce critical thinking also stimulate high-level cognitive processes such as inference, evaluation, analysis of ideas, and analysis of cause-effect relationships (King, 1995). Critical thinking is particularly likely to occur when questions are both thought provoking and personally challenging (Halpern, 1994; King, 1995).

Aside from being influenced by the above considerations, I was also guided by two additional points when conceptualizing the trait-based term paper assignment. First, my intent was to develop questions that asked about ideas rather than facts. According to Gray (1993), the search for facts alone represents too narrow of an endeavor and is often perceived by students as being unchallenging. Interestingly, when students are asked to formulate their own questions, they often generate ones that are factual rather than thought provoking and idea-based (Dillon, 1988; Kerry, 1987; King, 1990). Investigating questions about ideas, rather than facts, and generating original hypotheses about those ideas, is a much more effective strategy for stimulating critical thinking skills (Gray, 1993; King, 1995). The second additional influence on my thinking concerned the generic questions for guiding critical thinking developed by King (1992) and Halpern (1994), and reprinted in King (1995). In particular, my goal was to write trait- based questions that corresponded conceptually to one or more of the generic questions for guiding critical thinking. The actual term paper assignment is presented in Table 1 and the generic questions tapped and specific thinking skills induced by each trait-based question are presented in Table 2.

Table 1

The Trait-Based Term Paper Assignment.

Personality traits may be defined as "the characteristics or dimensions of personality on which people vary". Traits can be thought of as falling along a continuum that ranges from traits considered by many to be desirable (e.g., happy, self-confident, considerate) to traits that are often considered to be undesirable (e.g., aggressive, spiteful, crude). Presented below is a list of some common personality traits. The list is far from exhaustive and you should have no difficulty coming up with an additional list of traits (for help, see any unabridged dictionary).

Passive          Outgoing       Unsociable    Active
Careful          Talkative      Sober         Optimistic
Thoughtful       Responsive     Rigid         Impulsive
Peaceful         Easygoing      Moody         Changeable
Controlled       Lively         Anxious       Excitable
Reliable         Carefree       Reserved      Aggressive
Even-Tempered    Leaderly       Depressed     Restless
Calm             Quiet          Lonely        Touchy
Sociable         Pessimistic    Confident     Jealous

Successful completion of the term paper assignment requires that you select one personality trait and then review the relevant research literature in order to answer each of the following questions:

1) How does the personality trait develop in humans? …

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