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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Letting our students think in “The Sound of Silence”



Pedagogical wisdom, from Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (fair warning: 2-3 F-bombs in this brief scene):

Mia’s encounter with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is instructive for considering options for classroom discussion.

No, really.

Consider: The relationship between the two is very new; they don’t know each other well. For Vincent the encounter is a high-pressure moment (Vincent’s boss has instructed him to keep his wife Mia entertained), but in the stress of not knowing how to respond appropriately he opts to play it cool and keep his mouth shut. How often have we encountered students like that?

But Mia wants Vincent to engage the encounter actively. So she is supportive of Vincent’s brief request for a taste of what she has to offer, recognizes the discomfort of silences explicitly… and then provides Vincent with a prompt, followed by a low-pressure opportunity to quietly contemplate a response without the pressure of her evaluating presence.  Mini-spoiler alert: after Mia’s “powder-her-nose” break (yes, that powder), Vincent is comfortable enough to ask a provocative question that is followed by Mia’s response, a more engaged conversation, and a relationship furthered by additional mutual understanding.

Rocky Dailey of South Dakota State University provides similar, safer-for-work advice in a recent column in Faculty Focus. I’ve tried to be more intentional about making “uncomfortable silences” a bit safer in my classroom this term… not always successfully, but I think the efforts are starting to bear fruit in broader class participation and better answers. So check this out!


APRIL 21, 2014

The Sound of Silence: The Value of Quiet Contemplation in the Classroom

By:  in Teaching and Learning

As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.

When I became an instructor, I was now on the other side of the equation. I was asking questions for several reasons; to gauge students’ understanding of course concepts, to determine if they had completed reading assignments, and mainly to start an engaging discussion. But once again, those silences followed many of the questions I posed. It was a concern for me because I felt I had failed as an educator. Either my expectations were too high or my assignments were not designed well enough to cover course concepts and goals.

The scenario is all too familiar to most educators. The instructor asks a question to the class, the class either looks down or passes quick glances around the room to see if anyone looks like they are about to answer, and if no one is giving any indication of preparing a response the atmosphere becomes tense. Eventually, either some brave soul will wade into the discussion in the hopes of breaking the awkward silence, or the instructor will answer the question and continue on.

But why is that silence so uncomfortable?

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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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