The four-question path to critical thinking. Really? Really!

Thinking is hard — just ask Christopher Robin’s friend, who observes that even valiant efforts at problem solving can suffer from underdeveloped critical thinking skills:

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,  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

Prompts That Get Students to Analyze, Reflect, Relate, and Question

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

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:

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Don’t let your students fall off the concept map!

Maps can be amazing things — they can not only reveal what is there, and how things are connected, but also how to navigate and master a terrain. Of course, some maps are more amazing than others…

For high-impact pedagogy that can apply in a variety of situations, though, the concept map can be hard to beat. A “concept map” is defined by Cañas and Novak of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in this way:

Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts.

If you’re unfamiliar with concept maps and their potential uses for student brainstorming, classroom discussion, and assessment of learning, check out this brief, useful video by Karen Rohrbauck Stout from Western Washington University’s Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment.

I experimented with concept mapping in my Rhetorical Theory class last year. While I found it a great tool for guiding class discussion in a way that helped students define tools and shape the key ideas of a theoretical perspective, I had less success helping students use concept mapping independently to study course material.

If you’re unsure about incorporating concept maps in your classes (especially if you’ve tried, crashed and burned before, or heard of someone who has), Maryellen Weimer‘s advice might help you rethink how to use this potentially powerful tool for student learning.


Keeping Students on Board with Concept Maps

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: August 25, 2014

The benefits of concept maps are well established. They encourage students to organize knowledge and do so in ways meaningful to them. They help students sort out, prioritize, and understand relationships between terms, concepts, and ideas. Students can also use concept maps to forge relationships between new knowledge and what they already know.

But students don’t always see these benefits when first introduced to concept maps, and as the authors of the article referenced below discovered, how concept maps are used in a course directly affects student perceptions of their value.

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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

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


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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“Tips for Writing Good Multiple-Choice Questions” (Teaching Professor Blog)

Augustana starts its Spring trimester today… so what better time to think about writing midterm exams? For those of you on normal semester calendars, this might be a bit more timely.

Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor, also writes a companion blog. Last Wednesday she wrote on one of those “actually harder than it seems” issues: writing good multiple-choice questions for exams. This has often been tricky for me, so I found this helpful.


March 5, 2014

Tips for Writing Good Multiple-Choice Questions

By: in Teaching Professor BlogI remember with horror and embarrassment the first multiple-choice exam I wrote. I didn’t think the students were taking my course all that seriously, so I decided to use the first exam to show just how substantive the content really was. I wrote long, complicated stems and followed them with multiple answer options and various combinations of them. And it worked. Students did poorly on the exam. I was pleased until I returned the test on what turned out to be one of the longest class periods of my teaching career. I desperately needed the advice that follows here. Continue reading

Better class quizzes and discussion? Roll for initiative, adventurers!

Some things we get aggravated about:

  • Students don’t read for class; or,
  • Students read for class, but in a crappy way that doesn’t focus on what we want them to focus on; so,
  • Students aren’t prepared for what we want to accomplish in class.

The good news is that we know that students, particularly in the millennial generation, crave formative feedback on their progress and want reinforcement that they’re learning what they should. And so, despite their whining, by and large they actually like quizzes! We also know that frequent quizzing actually provides better learning outcomes than fewer summative exams (see, for instance, Roediger and Karpicke, 2006).

So when my friend Margaret posted this short article in Vitae / Pedagogy Unbound by David Gooblar, reminding me of an approach to quizzes I actually use all the time (after I stole the idea from my colleague Ellen), it felt a bit nifty to be indirectly affirmed! When I do this approach to randomized selection of quiz questions announced in advance, I use this virtual Dungeons and Dragons dice-roller — it lets me use more options than the typical 6-side cube (4-siders, 8-siders), channels my inner Dungeon Master and scores me a few desperate pop culture geek points.

Anyway, check this out, continue to check out Pedagogy Unbound, and steal this idea!


Want Students to Come to Class Prepared? Try Rolling the Dice.

For many instructors, myself included, chance is the enemy. I know that I can’t control everything that will happen during class time. But I aim to prepare well enough that, for the most part, things go according to plan.

Yes, there can be happy surprises when a class discussion unexpectedly takes on a life of its own and goes to new and exciting places. But most of the time I worry that if I don’t keep a firm hand on the steering wheel, the class will slip off track, become unfocused, or get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae. Whenever I have a bad class, the lesson I usually take home is that I didn’t prepare enough. I left too much up to chance.

But a couple of tips I recently stumbled upon actually embrace chance as a tool to help instructors encourage active learning and participation among students. These tips suggest that allowing a little randomness into our classrooms can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

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