The Critical Thinking Habit

My last post mentioned the Faculty Learning Community I’m a part of at the community college where I teach and the assessment project I’m expected to complete this year. It’s already July, and I’ve been floundering about which project to choose.  There are plenty of possibilities, and that’s the problem.  Narrowing down to one new assessment to practice and then report on to the full-time college faculty is difficult—and daunting.  Just like every other semester in the last ten years, I’m adding several new strategies to my class at once. Should I choose the portfolio project? The student-written and administered survey? The metacognitive reflection assignments? While I’ll still add these activities, I decided against all of them for this project; I’ve chosen instead to assess my students’ critical thinking habits.

Critical thinking is the most valuable skill a college student can develop, in my opinion, but I’ve always assumed it’s impossible to assess a “hidden” activity like thinking.  After some intense reading and researching, though, I’ve idthinking statueentified some essential elements of critical thinking that students can demonstrate in the classroom. My essay and assessment rubrics this fall will now reflect those elements.

Critical thinkers exhibit at least four common characteristics. As an instructor, I can also make use of several questions to guide the process of thinking through new information or ideas encountered in class.

Critical Thinker Habits: Guiding Questions:
Consider new or diverse perspectives about a topic How do other people see this topic? Are their perspectives different from yours?
Compare new information to prior knowledge What have you experienced or read/heard previously that might provide context for this topic?  What are the issues?
Examine all relevant assumptions What assumptions or biases do you hold?  Are they similar to or different from the source? Are they reasonable?
Express conclusions in meaningful & appropriate communication How can you clearly communicate your conclusions about the topic and the steps that led to them?


This project presents a bit of a challenge for me.  If I’m going to assess my students on their thinking skills, I’ll have to more clearly demonstrate my own. And while I’ve always thought I enjoyed the critical thinking process, apparently I need to think again. I’ve discovered via a book called The Hidden Brain I don’t employ the skill nearly as often as I think I do. It’s a little scary, but according to the author, Shankar Vedantam, our “hidden” brain makes most decisions in our lives without our being aware of it. It confirms a statement one former high school student made to me after I advised her class to think more deeply about something, “But we don’t like to think!” Mr. Vedantam would agree with her.  We prefer to let our hidden brains use what we’ve learned from past experiences to control our responses to today’s events.

One goal of the semester, then, is for me to become more deliberate in thinking tasks and to demonstrate the steps so that students can learn from them. As I continue with Mr. Vedantam’s book, I hope to learn–among other things–how to more effectively spot my own biases and help students identify theirs.

It’s all a matter of adopting better habits when it comes to thinking critically about topics, and that’s something we can all stand to improve on. In an election year as contentious as this one, there should be no shortage of opportunities for critical thinking—or a more important time to get better at it.

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