Teaching Long-Term Critical Thinking

August 18, 2015

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there’s a dependable way to foster long-term improvements in students’ critical thinking skills. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia developed a framework consisting of cycles and decision making based on comparisons between data sets or data and models, and applied the learning structure to 130 students in an introductory physics lab.

During a series of simple physics experiments, the students received instructions to compare new data to existing data, and to decide how to act on those comparisons based on statistical tests. For example, students used a stopwatch to time a pendulum swinging between two angles of amplitude. Rather than just conducting data and comparing them to equations in a textbook, as a control group of students did, the students in the modified course were instructed to make decisions based on the comparison. What should they do to improve the quality of their data and better explain the difference between their results and the equation in the textbook? Students chose everything from conducting more trials to putting the team member with the biggest finger on stopwatch duty. Their data improved, along with their understanding of the process.

Even after the instructions were taken away, the students in the test group were 12 times more likely than a group of 130 students the previous year (the control group) to propose changes to improve their data or methods. The test group students also were four times more likely to identify and explain a shortcoming of the model using their data.

The test group students demonstrated similar critical thinking skills in a second course the next year, suggesting that their learning was long-term. Lead author N. G. Holmes, a postdoctoral researcher in physics education at Stanford, and her co-authors argue that the framework they developed could be adapted to a range of settings beyond physics. The study is available here.

Holmes said via email that "giving students the space to make decisions about how to follow up on an experimental result, with careful guidance, ingrained critical thinking long-term. … I think this adds to the existing literature a concrete, yet simple way to structure how these skills can be taught with lasting improvements. It is a demonstration of how to teach expert-level skills in context that can be generalized outside a particular classroom."

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