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Teaching Critical Thinking

to Foundation Year Students

This paper examines the link between academic study and critical thinking skills and how the explicit teaching of the latter can be an important step in improving the students’ overall academic performance. It draws on the experience of teaching critical thinking skill to Foundation Year students at the German University in Oman (GUtech), where the explicit teaching of critical thinking was recently included in both the Study Skills and Academic English programmes.

Defining critical thinking

Critical thinking, which is often characterised as the search for ‘truth’, is one of a number of different types of thinking that are commonly identified (Fisher, R. 1998). These include: creative thinking (the search for beauty) , scientific thinking (the search for scientific truth), caring thinking (the search for goodness) and ‘everyday thinking’. Critical thinking, unlike ‘everyday thinking’, is reflective and based on reason.  Ennis (1996) describes it as:
".... reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do."
Dewey ( 1909 ) describes it as being conscious and voluntary:
"... a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons."

The idea that critical thinking is conscious is important as underlines the fact that critical thinkers ‘think about their thinking’. This is expressed by Paul, Fisher and Nosich (1993) thus:
"..that mode of thinking – about any subject, content or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposes intellectual standards upon them." 
Similarly, Fisher and Scriven (1997) make the point that critical thinking is an active process involving thinking about thinking (or, ‘meta-cognition’):
"……. an active process that involves both questioning and meta-cognition)…" 
Critical thinking, like any other skill such as reading or driving, can be broken down into elements, or sub-skills. These include: reasoning, estimating, classifying, hypothesizing, analyzing, and justifying. Fisher (1998) shows how these skills differ from those used in everyday thinking. 

Figure 1: Everyday and critical thinking compared

Everyday Thinking Skills Critical Thinking Skills
Guessing Estimating
Preferring Evaluating
Assuming Justifying
Listing Classifying
Accepting Hypothesising
Judging Analysing
Inferring Reasoning

If, for example, we were asked about the population of Oman, a non-reflective thinker might make a guess of ‘around 2 to 3 million’. A critical thinker might argue as follows: ‘The population in the 1993 census was 2.018m and in 2003 it was 2.340m. Given a similar rate of growth I estimate that the population will be around 2.6m in 2010’.  Similarly a non-reflective thinker if asked about all the wildlife in Oman might start to as many as he can remember. A critical thinker, however, would classify the wildlife in a systematic way (mammals, reptiles, insects, birds, etc). 

These thinking skills are an integral part of academic life, covering all of the disciplines and all academic activities, whether listening to lectures, reading texts, answering examination questions or looking for trusted sources of information. As such their acquisition is often taken for granted by university or college programmes. It is assumed that critical thinking will be taught implicitly as a natural part of university life.

An important conclusion from research into the field is that critical thinking skills can be learned and can be improved by firstly, getting students to think about their own thinking and secondly, by continuous practice in thinking skills.

Students in the Foundation Year at GUtech
Foundation Year students at GUtech have, in the main, come directly from the secondary school system. As a result they face a number of challenges in adapting to their new academic environment. For example, they are expected, to a certain extent, to take  responsibility for their own learning, they must tackle entirely new academic subjects, and last but not least, they need to master another language (English) for study purposes. 

However, academic staff at GUtech, are aware that the difficulties their students face are not just related to mode of study, the correct or appropriate use of language, or knowledge of the academic subject matter. They also reflect difficulties in thinking in a critical or analytical manner. This is evident in a number of areas of academic life: for example, in the students’ approach to essay or report writing, contributions to seminar discussions and answers to examination questions. As one science lecturer expressed it when receiving his students’
reports, after the students had received intensive language support from English Language lecturers: 

"Now that the English is better [in the reports] I realise how bad the reports are!"  

The problems in the reports, it seemed, were not just to do with language, organisation and format, but also to do with knowledge of the field and the ability to think critically about the data that the students had collected. 

In the Academic English programme, lecturers faced similar difficulties. They found that students had plenty of opinions to express but were not able to argue their case in a reasonable way. In particular, essays were characterised by the following: poor/illogical arguments, trivial/irrelevant points, exaggerated claims, lack of evidence or support for claims, emotive language, lack of balance and misrepresentation of data. 

The overall problem could be summarised as ‘woolly thinking’.
Bloom’s taxonomy
Bloom’s taxonomy (levels of understanding in the cognitive domain) which was subsequently updated by Anderson and Krathwohl in 2001, (Fig. 2) is a useful tool for reflecting on the performance of Foundation Year students.  In terms of levels of the ‘cognitive domain’ (following the Anderson and Krathwohl model), these students remain at the lower levels of the pyramid, i.e. they are able to ‘remember’ and ‘understand’ but have yet to progress towards the higher cognitive levels, i.e. the ability to ‘apply’, ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’ and finally ‘create’.  

Figure 2. Bloom’s Taxonomy - adapted by Anderson/Krathwohl (2001)

 One of the aims of the Foundation Year, it is felt, should be to help students to progress upwards through these levels of understanding.

Improving critical thinking skills
Although the aim was clear, the difficult question remained – ‘How can we improve the students’ critical thinking skills?’ It can be argued that critical thinking is implicit in everything that we do in the university and there is no need to teach it explicitly. However, the view was taken that students would develop those skills more rapidly by direct tuition in which the students are made aware of their own thinking processes and are given practice through tasks designed to develop these skills. 

The question arises, however, of where to place critical thinking in the curriculum. Rather than overload the students with another course, it was decided that the Academic English and Study Skills courses, both components of the GUtech Foundation Year Programme, 10 and 2 hours per week respectively, would be useful mediums for exploring critical thinking skills with students. 
Academic English
Within the Academic English syllabus, areas which were felt especially suited to teaching thinking skills were: 1) academic writing, 2) reading, 3) seminars/discussions, 4) presentations

1) Academic writing. 
Academic writing is a particularly valuable tool for assessing the students’ thinking skills as the evidence of the students’ reasoning is there in print for all to see. Essay and report writing often includes the following types of text (rhetorical patterns): advantages/disadvantages, opinion, classifications, comparing/contrasting, cause and effect, extended definitions, problem-solution-evaluation, and analysis of data. 

The approach taken was to use critical thinking in the planning stages of these essays, mainly using frameworks as a tool to organise the students’ ideas and reasoning. For example, a simple framework (Fig. 3) was used to get students to list advantages and disadvantages of a particular course of action. Reasons why this was an advantage or disadvantage were added in the appropriate columns. The framework was then checked before the students began to write. 

Figure 3. Framework for advantage/disadvantage essay preparation

Advantages Reasons Disadvantages Reasons
1   1  
2   2  
3   3  

Similar frameworks were used for the other types of essay. Opinion essays, for example, should list reasons why such a view is justified, along with supporting evidence. The main counter-argument, and reasons why the counter argument is not valid, could also be added. 
Such frameworks serve the purpose of organising the students thoughts by getting them to justify their opinions, evaluate evidence, and explain logical relationships  – all valuable critical thinking skills.

In addition students are trained in using tentative language (could possibly..., it would appear that...., are likely to..., results suggest that...)  rather than making bold and sweeping statements in their writing. Attention is also given to signal words such as ‘therefore‘,'as a result‘, 'because of this‘, 'in addition‘, 'in conclusion‘. An understanding of these words and phrases and their correct use is vital as they indicate the backbone of the text, i.e. the logical structure.

2) Reading. 
Using a variety of reading texts, ranging from newspaper and magazine articles to academic journals and textbooks, helps students to analyse the writer’s line of reasoning and supporting evidence. Students can also be trained to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments being presented and to differentiate between that which is fact and that which is merely the writer’s opinion. Training can also be given in spotting unspoken assumptions, false analogies, and devices such as the use of emotive language.

3) Seminars/discussions
Seminars and discussions are an area in which views are aired and arguments presented and challenged. Students need to be aware that points of view need to be presented in a logical way and backed by strong evidence, not just anecdotes. Again planning in preparation for a discussion can be an important stage in training and developing thinking skills.

Like an academic essay or report, a presentation should be logically ordered, and if a point of view is presented, should be well-reasoned and supported by examples and evidence.  Again the preparation stage is key, and frameworks can be used to plan and structure of the case presented in the students’ talks.

Study Skills
Critical thinking as an element of the Study Skills course covers the following components:

a) Puzzles and ‘brain teasers’ which train students in skills such as looking for patterns, identifying similarities and differences, categorising, and following a line of reasoning. An example of a categorising activity is given below (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Categorising activity (adapted from Cottrell, 2005)

For each box organise the set of items into two groups. Identify the characteristics of  each group.

A.    mouse  typing  drive   printer
monitor    talking screen          scrolling        eating

B.    pyramid immense              vast     oasis   gigantic
palm-tree massive  desert          Nile  enormous

b) Reordering sentences. In these activities students reorder jumbled sentences to show the logical structure of an argument, for example (fig. 5). This type of task, leading up to more complex tasks, gives students training in analysing arguments, by identifying conclusions and reasons that build up the argument.

Figure 5. Logical structure activity

Find the conclusion in these statements. Reorder the sentences. Add the signal word: therefore

Bottled water is extremely expensive.
People should use tap water instead of bottled water.
Tap water tastes very similar to bottled water.
Plastic bottles are very bad for the environment.

(adapted from Butterworth and Thwaites)

The correct solution follows the pattern: R1 + R2 + R3    C  (where R = reason and C = conclusion.)

c) Texts to train students to recognise strong and weak arguments. Students are given specially designed texts to exemplify strong arguments (containing sound inferences from available evidence, well-developed reasoning, fact separated from opinion, etc.) and those which are weak (containing false correlations, false analogies, emotive language, misrepresentation of others’ opinions, etc.)

Critical thinking is tackled by lecturers, on an ad hoc and individual basis, in all sections of the German University of Technology. Although the introduction of the explicit teaching of critical thinking skills as an element of the Foundation Year programme is a recent development, it can be seen to have a number of distinct advantages. 

Firstly, it raises awareness of the thinking process, i.e. it gets students to ‘think about their thinking’ and to view thinking as an important element of the preparation for academic study. It emphasises the fact that critical thinking is a basic study skill, alongside research skills, time management, note-taking, etc. As such, it is a skill which, like any other, can be improved through application and practice. 

Secondly, critical thinking activities act like a ‘mental gym’ by giving students the chance to ‘work out’, i.e. practise and sharpen their thinking processes. 

Finally, the inclusion of critical thinking in the Academic English programme, shows students that there are immediate and practical benefits of applying thinking skills. Writing, reading, and presentations, as well as students’ participation in seminars and discussions, can all be improved.