How to stop lamenting our students’ critical thinking and do something about it.

"If I read one more bad argument my head will explode... What to do?!? OK, going into my mind palace..."

Been there, right?

As a long-time teacher at a liberal arts college, and as a friend and colleague of loads of teachers at colleges and universities, I’m pretty sure I’m not going out on a limb here when I assert three truisms about the tension between the typical teaching philosophy and the typical teaching practice:

  1. Teaching students to think critically is central to our mission;
  2. We lament that our students frequently demonstrate that they can’t do it;
  3. However, most of us frequently wonder (and even worry) that we’re not actually teaching them to think critically.

This, clearly, is a quandary.  Some of our fields have built-in  or disciplinary practices or pedagogies that center on critical thinking. Others may not. And the related and growing emphasis on “creative thinking” can be even more elusive… can creativity actually be taught?

This brief yet helpful piece recently shared on the tomorrows-professor e-mail list (have you subscribed yet???) might be useful for you to start tackling this quandary. Rebecca Brent from the ASEE National Effective Teaching Institute and Richard M. Felder from North Carolina State University (2014) published this piece in Chemical Engineering Education, 48(2), 113-114.  Rick Reis from tomorrows-professor also suggests that you check out Felder’s website at http://www.ncsu.edu/effective_teaching.

So, let’s stop lamenting and start these folks thinking!

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Thinking Creatively and Critically

Want Your Students to Think Creatively and Critically?  How About Teaching Them?

 

Ever hear a conversation like this in your department?

Professor X: “All these students can do is plug numbers into formulas-give them a problem a little different from the one in the text and they’re helpless.”

Professor Y: “Yeah, and they’re also functionally illiterate-most of them couldn’t write a coherent grocery list. On a quiz last month I asked for a clear and grammatically correct definition of vapor pressure, and a bunch of the students stomped me for it on the midterm evals. “I went into engineering to get away from this crap,” one of them said.

Professor Z: “It’s this whole spoiled generation-they want the grades but don’t want to do anything for them!”

If you haven’t heard anything like that, you haven’t been listening.

Two popular targets on the list of Things These Students Can’t Do are creative thinking (coming up with innovative ideas) and critical thinking (making judgments or choices and backing them up with evidence and logic). When our colleagues complain to us that their students can’t do them, after we make appropriate sympathetic noises we ask, “Where were they supposed to learn to do it?” The answers may vary, but one we rarely hear is “In my class.”

Leaving aside anomalous prodigies like Mozart and Gauss, people develop skills of any kind — musical performance or composition, math or physics, critical or creative thinking — through practice and feedback. That’s how you acquired your skills. You were either given or voluntarily took on tasks, and with someone else’s help or on your own you learned how to do them. The more you did them, the better you got. Unfortunately, creative and critical thinking are not routinely taught in our schools, nor are they activities that students eagerly learn on their own. It shouldn’t surprise us when our students can’t magically do them on our assignments and exams.

Let’s suppose you decide to take on the job of helping your students learn to think creatively or critically. Can you equip all of them to be brilliant at it? No, any more than you or anyone else can turn them all into brilliant scientists and engineers-they don’t all have the talent. How about the ones who have it-can you do it for all of them? Probably not — some lack the motivation to do the required work. Well then, can you help the talented and motivated students become much better at creative and critical thinking than they were at the beginning of the course? Definitely!  How? Easy — show them examples of the kind of thinking you have in mind; ask them in class and in assignments to complete tasks that require that kind of thinking; give them feedback; and repeat.

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Summer goal: Crane-kick that publication!

I’ll be blunt: my publication record is seriously so-so.That’s OK for now… after all, I work at a teaching-intensive college and get involved deeply in campus service and some administrative stuff. Those are my primary emphases, and I love that work. But I enjoy finishing a research project, especially when I’m proud of the final product. I’ve had some success getting book chapters and conference proceedings submissions published, but I’d love to get some more stuff in peer-reviewed journals. Sure it’s nerdy, but closing the deal on a publication always makes me feel like I’m Daniel LaRusso polishing off Johnny the Cobra Kai with a sweet crane kick.

There are a couple of projects that are nearly there, including one that, in a former life, experienced some serial rejection. That was a bummer. So as my summer school commitments wrap up next week, I’m planning on devoting a chunk of my summer — as are many of my fellow travelers, I suspect — to nail down a couple of writing projects and submit for publication. It’s officially summer starting today — for academics that are primarily teachers from September to May, ’tis the season!

So this blog post from Kirsten Bell, a journal editor at the University of British Columbia, published in Vitae from the Chronicle, is well-timed — and it has some sound advice. So let’s get cracking, summer scholars — after all, we’re the best around!

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Research Associate at University of British Columbia

 
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June 17, 2014

Need more publishing tips or support? Swap strategies at our On Scholarly Writing discussion group.

Anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript to an academic journal will likely have had some opportunity to reflect on the capricious nature of the peer-review process. Attempting to publish is, at best, a frustrating experience. At worst, it seems that banging one’s head against a brick wall would be more fun.

But let’s step aside from what’s wrong with academic publishing, important though that may be. Junior scholars need to get published, and they need to consider—pragmatically—how to go about doing that within the current system.

So is this the article where the illustrious academic at the end of a long career generously imparts her pearls of wisdom, Mr. Miyagi-style, on a new generation of academics? No. But I have experienced the publication process from a variety of perspectives: as an author, a reviewer, and an editor. Especially in the last role, I can’t help but notice that there are several errors I see again and again—the sort of things that make me shake my head (and bang it against my desk on occasion). So with this in mind, I provide some tips on getting journal articles published. As promised, they are obvious—really obvious—which is why it’s a little surprising that I see them ignored so frequently.

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Suggestions for your summer reading list

How's this for a summer agenda?

As I prepare to take on a new role at Augie as the Director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment, I’m starting to look into the possibility of building a professional development library for my colleagues, as well as locating some good options for faculty reading groups. So once summer school is over at the end of June, I’m looking forward to a good month and a half of reading. (Actually, this will get to extend into the next school year, as my new post corresponds with a fall sabbatical. Good books instead of student essays for a couple of months? Yes please!) So this blog post from James M. Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education has fortuitous timing… for you as well as for me, I expect.

Summer is a good time for catching up on the reading we might not enjoy as frequently during the academic year — rich literary texts to nourish us, pulpy beach reads for a tasty fix of mental junk food.  And lots of us read to advance our scholarly project, of course. But this is also a great opportunity to take in some fascinating research and useful advice on teaching and learning… because course prep in August will hit us before we know it, and why not kick off the next year by trying something new?

A few of these books have been featured in previous Augustana faculty retreats and reading groups — so I can recommend the volumes by Ken Bain and Susan A. Ambrose et al. For myself, after taking a great webinar with him, I can’t wait to dig into José Bowen’s Teaching Naked (no, I’m not a pervert).

If you have any suggestions for good reading on the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning, please share them in the comments below. I’m always looking for another addition to the library!

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Top 10 Books on Teaching

Spend some time this summer with at least one book about improving your college classroom

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[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Raoul Luoar.]

IThe Vocation of a Teacher, Wayne Booth, the literary critic and longtime English professor, posed a question that floats into my mind every May: “Why, if I claim to love teaching so much, am I so relieved when it’s over?”

I was especially glad this May because I will be on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities for the 2014-15 academic year. I have two book projects I hope to complete over the course of the next 15 months. That might sound like an overly ambitious agenda, but the last time I was on leave, my wife and I couldn’t afford full-time child care for our 2-year-old twins on my reduced sabbatical salary. Now that all of our children are in school, I am counting on a major increase in my productive writing time.

Before diving into those writing projects, though, I will spend a little time reflecting on the semester that has come and gone, and looking to discover at least one great new book on teaching and learning in higher education. As much as I love what I do, and seek ways to improve the learning experiences I shape for my students, I find little or no time for substantial professional reading during the academic year. The summer offers me the opportunity to catch up.

I have been trying to stay current in small doses. Colleagues on Twitterhave been especially useful in pointing me to articles, blogs, and resources that are worth my attention for the first 10 or 15 minutes of my working day. And I will confess that, as a result of that reading, I have been suffering from some revolution fatigue this year. I’m not sure I can stand to read one more warning about how the entire system of higher education is about to collapse, or yet another celebration of the fact that it has begun collapsing already and we should help it along.

Big changes are both coming and necessary, no doubt about it—especially in terms of the financial model of higher education, and its increasing exploitation of adjunct labor. But in the meantime, the work of teaching our students, as many of us do on heavy teaching loads, has to continue. And I firmly believe that if every teaching faculty member could carve out the time to read one or two great books on teaching and learning every year, we would collectively serve our students much better than we do already.

In service to that conviction, I offer below the top 10 books on teaching and learning in higher education that I have encountered over the course of my teaching career. Each of these books has shaped—or reshaped—my teaching in some substantive and practical way: the construction of my syllabus, the nature of my assignments, the way I conduct class,the feedback I give to students. All of these books deserve a wide readership among faculty members, and any one of them represents a great place to start or continue your professional development.

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