Even harder is to figure out approaches to engage students in critical thinking — a central goal embraced, at least philosophically, by most all college and university teachers — in ways that can actually lead to observable outcome gains. It’s a tricky business. The VALUE rubric developed by AAC&U for assessing student development in critical thinking defines it as “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” The rubric is a useful tool, largely because it lays out stages of critical thinking development from initial benchmark to capstone in a variety of important areas: explanation of issues, use of evidence, considering assumptions and contents, establishing a position, drawing conclusions.
So we’ve got some guidance on assessing what students do… but how can we provide them explicit practice in doing it, in ways applicable to a broad range of learning contexts?
Coming to our rescue again, Maryellen Weimer from the Teaching Professor Blog shares what appears to be a too-simple pattern of four question prompts that guide students through four important paths to critical thinking: analysis of concepts, reflection on the relevance of concepts, application of concepts to other situations, and continued questioning about concepts. The four-question plan comes from Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009), whose SOTL research on the use of this question set revealed significant effects on student performance!
So you don’t have to bruise the side of your head like poor little Pooh to think of ways to get your students to think. When in a pinch, just take them down the four-question path! And stop for some hunny on the way, silly old bear.
AUGUST 28, 2013
A simple teaching technique that helps students learn; now there’s something few teachers would pass up! This particular technique involves a four-question set that gets students actively responding to the material they are studying. They analyze, reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:
- “Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea … that you learned while completing this activity.”
- “Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea … is important?”
- “Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life.”
- “What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?” [You might need to prohibit the answer “nothing”.]
Dietz-Uhler and Lanter, who authored the set, had students in an introductory psych course answer the questions about a Web-based activity that they had completed in groups. Alexander, Commander, Greenberg, and Ward used the set to promote critical thinking in an online course. Their students answered the questions before discussing a case online.
The question set is versatile. Here are some examples of how it could be used.
- Use the four prompts as a way to summarize an in-class discussion, adjusting the wording of the questions: “Identify one important idea that you learned during this discussion,” etc.
- Have students answer the questions about a reading assignment. Dietz-Uhler and Lanter had students write 100-word responses to the first three prompts. Written answers could be shared in small group discussions.
- At the beginning of class, give students five minutes to write answers to the questions as a way of reviewing notes taken in a previous class session. Or, have students submit answers online before class and use sample responses to review the material.
- A version of the question set could be the template used to provide peer feedback on a paper. (What’s one important idea presented in this paper? Why does the author think the idea is important? Is that idea important to you? Why or why not? What question(s) do you think the author still needs answer?)
- Use the questions as way to end and evaluate a course. (What’s one important idea you’ll take from this course? Why do you believe it’s important? How does it relate to your life? What are the next questions you want to find answers to?) To answer these questions, students must reflect on their learning. Their answers might cause teachers to reflect as well.
Does this question-set have an effect on student learning? Yes, it does! Dietz-Uhler and Lanter’s students who answered the four prompts before taking a quiz did significantly better than students who completed them after they took the quiz. The average quiz score for those answering the questions first was 74% (SD 25.48%) and 59.18% (SD 29.69%) for those answering them after the quiz. The second author group analyzed the level of critical thinking in the online discussions of a case when students answered the four questions before they participated in the discussion. They discussed two other cases without using the prompts. Critical thinking scores were significantly higher when students used the question set first.
If the technique is used in a dissimilar way the same results aren’t guaranteed, of course, but you can test your results. Short of an empirical analysis, you can ask students whether the questions enhanced their understanding. When asked, Deitz-Uhler and Lanter’s students said that they did. You also could decide to make a critical assessment of the questions’ effectiveness.
Sometimes I think we gravitate toward fancy techniques—the ones with lots of bells and whistles. It’s nice on occasion to wow students, but it’s not always necessary. A technique like this showcases a simple but useful way students can interact with the content. It’s a teaching technique that becomes a study strategy capable of moving students toward thinking and learning on a deeper level.
References: Dietz-Uhler, B. and Lanter, J. R. (2009). Using the four-questions technique to enhance learning. Teaching of Psychology, 36 (1), 38-41.
Alexander, M. E., Commander, N., Greenberg, D., and Ward, T. (2010) Using the four-questions technique to enhance critical thinking in online discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6 (2), 409-415.