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Pedagogical tools to develop critical thinking.


Faculties in college and university programs strive to graduate individuals who are experienced and adept in critical thinking. This article discusses the value of three pedagogical tools for developing students' critical thinking skills. The authors suggest learning journals, book critiques, and persuasive essay assignments can provide students with opportunities to reflect upon and synthesize information, to adopt a position or view about an issue based on valid, carefully considered evidence, and to communicate clearly their position to others in a persuasive manner.


College and university programs are continually striving to graduate individuals who are experienced and adept in critical thinking (Brown & Meuti, 1999; Halpern & Riggio, 1996). Barnes (2005) notes that most colleges in the country now feature critical thinking as an essential component of successful college experiences. Students must be able to think critically about an issue, communicate persuasively their point of view, synthesize information from divergent sources, and substantiate their recommendations and actions. With these goals in mind, college and university professors seek to design courses of study which will encourage students to think independently and which will develop students who are able to support empirically and experientially their conclusions, recommendations, and actions. A continuing challenge for many educators is translating the philosophical desire and the empirical support for critical thinking into pragmatic, pedagogical practice. Given this challenge, the purpose of this paper is to discuss three pedagogical tools which support the development of critical thinking skills.

In this paper, a framework for critical thinking will first be presented. Following the discussion of the skills and dispositions of critical thinking, the authors will present three pedagogical tools currently used in higher education courses to promote critical thinking: Learning Journals, Book Critiques, and Persuasive Essays.

Critical Thinking Defined

There are several models and definitions for critical thinking; however, implicit in each is the need for students to skillfully analyze and assess the quality of their thinking based on careful consideration of personal beliefs, knowledge, and understandings (Dewey, 1909, 1997; Elder & Paul, 2002). The process of critical thinking encourages students to realize everything is not as it may seem to be on the surface; therefore, maintaining a healthy skepticism and suspending judgment is foundational (Burback, Matkin, Fritz, 2004; Dewey, 1997). Learners engaging in critical thinking must also provide explanations of the conceptual and methodological considerations upon which their judgment is based (Facione, 1998).

For this article, the critical thinking elements developed by Richard Paul, director of the National Council on Excellence in Critical Thinking (NCECT), will be used as a framework in discussing the merits of learning journals, persuasive essays, and book reviews as sound pedagogical tools for developing critical thinking skills. The NCECT model was selected due to its strong historical and theoretical base, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions, and the emphasis on the ability for excellence in critical thinking to be systematically cultivated (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2004). According to NCECT, critical thinking focuses on a set of skills and attitudes that assist students in skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information that is generated through reflection, observation, experience, reasoning, or communication (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2004). Good critical thinkers clearly formulate vital questions and problems, gather and assess relevant information, come to well-reasoned conclusions, test their conclusions against relevant criteria and standards, think open-mindedly, communicate effectively, and are self-directed and self-disciplined (Browne & Freeman, 2000; Elder & Paul, 2002).

Critical Thinking Can Be Learned

According to Browne & Freeman (2000) critical thinking is a mental habit, which involves examining and testing propositions. Implicit in their definition is the assumption that critical thinking is not something in which humans naturally engage. The assumption is supported by an early study by Logan (1976), in which 874 social science students scored low in their ability to recognize uncritical and unsound thinking. In 1982, Keeley, Browne, & Kreutzer supported Logan's study and indicated that college seniors outperformed freshman; however, they still exhibited major deficiencies in critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking, in order to become a mental habit as Broadbear (2003) asserts, assumes that individuals can, with instruction and practice, improve their critical thinking capacity. To assess critical thinking and reflection skills, Langer (2002) undertook a study using dialogue journals. The degree of student self-reflection increased as the instructor provided more written feedback on journal entries. When engaging in critical thinking, students must find reasonable, supportive evidence to support their ideas and positions. Instructors can assist students in learning how to seek multiple sources of information and multiple perspectives and to approach their critical thinking topic from multiple points of view (Browne, & Freeman, 2000). Reed and Kromrey (2001) conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of infusing Paul's critical thinking model into a one-semester, U.S. History community college course. Results indicated students in the experimental group performed significantly higher in historical thinking and general critical thinking skills. In Burbank, Matkin, and Fritz's study (2004) students in an introductory leadership course significantly increased their critical thinking skills in the areas of deduction, interpretation, and total critical thinking skills. Systematic instruction in critical thinking skills improved undergraduate students' abilities to evaluate and understand research-based publications (Tremblay, Kenneth, and Downey's study, 2004).

It is evident within the literature that critical thinking can be encouraged through the use of tools and lessons which provide a structure for the systematic development of student thinking. Learning Journals, Book Critiques, and Persuasive Writing are three tools which educators can use to infuse the practice of critical thinking throughout course curriculum.

Learning Journals

While journaling is not a new practice, the research and discussion of its use within college and university management disciplines is sparse (Jarvis, 2001). However, where journaling has been studied in higher education, its value for student learning is asserted. Moon's research (1999, p.188) identified several valuable purposes for journals including:

* To deepen the quality of learning, in the form of critical thinking of developing a questioning attitude;

* To enable learners to understand their own learning process;

* To increase active involvement in learning and personal ownership of learning

Referring back to NCECT's framework, learning journals can assist students in clearly conceptualizing questions that arise as they reflect upon and reason through the concepts and opinions presented during class sessions and during field based experiences. Barclay (1996) found that participants who did well journaling also did well on their exams. She also found that while journaling may suit reflective learning styles more than other styles, individuals with all types of learning styles could benefit. McCrindle & Christensen (1995) found in their study of forty undergraduate biology students that the group of twenty that were required to keep a learning journal performed significantly better than the control group on the course final exam. They noted the same group also showed more sophisticated conceptions of learning and greater awareness of cognitive strategies. Students in the study who kept a journal commented they felt journaling helped them learn more in the course.

Journaling has also been identified with improving students' metacognition. Metacognition is the knowledge and awareness of one's own cognitive processes and the ability to actively control and manage those processes (McCrindle & Christensen, 1995). The NCECT framework refers to these processes as self-corrective, selfdirected, self-monitored thinking (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2004). Loo's (2002) research study of undergraduate management research students yielded some interesting excerpts from students:

"I like the idea of a learning journal because I get to see my thoughts in black and white, which is what I know I need." (NCECT's conceptualizing)

"I do agree that learning journals are a powerful tool in helping students become more effective learners through reflective thinking about their learning experiences." (NCECT's Analyzing/Evaluating)

"This learning journal has helped me to be a more effective learner through critical reflective thinking about my learning experience." (NCECT's Analyzing/Synthesizing/ Evaluating)

While different educators will emphasize various aspects of a journal assignment, one common aspect is likely to be the desire for journal entries to contain student reflection (Boud & Walker, 1998; de Acosta, 1995). Through reading student reflections, the educator can ascertain the ways in which students are conceptualizing course information, student reasoning skills, and students' adeptness with applying and synthesizing information within the course. Langer (2002) studied the use of dialogue journals for adult non-traditional students in a computer course. Results indicated that, though the non-traditional students were more skeptical about using the learning journals, they were more likely to use them as study tools.

An important finding from the research of Spalding & Wilson (2002) suggests careful consideration be given as educators prepare to introduce journaling in their management courses. The study found that because journaling is new to so many students in terms of a college assignment, many are unclear as to the expectations. The researchers noted that many students in their classes remarked when handing in the journal "I hope this is what you want" (p. 1393). In our courses, guidelines are provided for students regarding the aspects of critical thinking that are to be included in their learning journal entries. Rubric components require students to demonstrate: consistent and regular journaling, analyzing and evaluating questions and assumptions concerning personal and professional development, application of course competencies within real world contexts, and inclusion of a comprehensive 3-5 year development plan which is linked to insights gained throughout the journal assignment.

Book Critiques

Book critiques are another set of tools that instructors can use to encourage higher education students to think and reflect upon that which they read. Book critiques require students to think critically, to reflect, and to provide their own conclusions about the merit of a book that is relevant to a particular course topic. To write effective critiques, students must clearly communicate the ways in which the book supports or does not support the major competencies covered in the course. Students gather and assess relevant information from the text and from other sources in order to come to well-reasoned conclusions regarding the book's merit. The assignment emphasis is on assisting students to reflect and to critically analyze the material presented within the book and to compare and contrast the information with what

has been learned in the course, in other courses, and/or within his/her own experiential understanding of the topics being studied within the selected text. Book critiques require that the students focus on discussing the treatment of stated topics within the book rather than the topic itself. Students must clearly state a thesis regarding the value of the book for the course, then support the thesis statement with material from the text as well as other professional literature. We find this requires students to engage in self-disciplined, selfmonitored, and self-corrective thinking, which are important aspects of critical thinking as presented in the NCECT framework. Books can be placed on a selection list by the instructor, can be student generated, of can become a collaborative effort between instructor and students. Students receive guidelines and rubrics which include specific criteria for grading.

Persuasive Essays

Persuasive essays are another area in which research at the college and university levels is limited. In persuasive or argumentative writing, the writer attempts to convince others to agree with the argument, conclusions, and viewpoints presented. Skills in persuasive writing that are supported by the NCECT critical thinking framework include: conceptualizing the problem to be solved (Dewey, 1997); making inferences and drawing conclusions based on information not always readily apparent (Facione, 1998); selecting critical facts and details which are supported by empirical and experiential evidence rather than personal opinion (Facione, 1990); and controlling one's emotions while presenting one's position (NCECT's self-monitoring and self-discipline).

Writing cogent persuasive essays requires that the writer clearly formulate his/her position, gather information that clearly supports that position as well as consider relevant information that supports opposing viewpoints, and evaluate and test conclusions against relevant criteria and standards. The writer must also be fully away of his/her own assumptions and the assumptions of potential readers (Elder & Paul, 2002). To facilitate these aspects of critical thinking, many education programs include persuasive essays as a means to integrate critical thinking with course content. Students taking our courses are taught to use persuasive writing as a means to communicate their own critical analyses of course content and to critically analyze examples of persuasive writing. Grading rubrics provided to students for persuasive writing essays include points for conceptualizing and clearly stating a thesis, organizing and demonstrating logical progression of ideas, basing evidence in scholarly research and practitioner literature, and following the proper format for the paper.

Impact of these Pedagogical Tools on Student Learning

While we have just begun collecting survey data from students on the impact of these three pedagogical tools, the preliminary findings are encouraging. A survey question for each of the three tools was developed using a five-point Likert scale which asked students to rate to what extent they agreed with the following statement: "The [specific tool] assignment was challenging and helped me learn." Data has been collected from five small graduate classes that used one or more of the tools in the course.

Survey Results

The Journal assignment was challenging and helped me learn (n=29): Strongly Disagree: 0, Disagree: 4, Neutral: 0, Agree: 16, Strongly Agree: 9. Mean Rating= 4.0/5.0

The Book Critique assignment was challenging and helped me learn (n=10): Strongly Disagree: 0, Disagree: 0, Neutral: 2 (20%), Agree: 2(20%), Strongly Agree: 6 (60%). Mean Rating= 4.4/5.0

The Persuasive Essay assignment was challenging and helped me learn (n=48): Strongly Disagree: 1 (3.4%), Disagree: 1 (3.4%), Neutral: 0, Agree: 23 (48%), Strongly Agree: 23 (48%). Mean Rating= 4.4/5.0


Throughout our educational careers in special education and human resources respectively, we have each experimented with various methods of incorporating the teaching of critical thinking skills into our lessons and instructional routines. The pedagogical tools discussed in this paper, Learning Journals, Book Critiques, and Persuasive Essays have preliminary support for being effective techniques in accomplishing the goal of teaching critical thinking skills and developing skillful learners and thinkers. Our experiences indicate that the use of these tools can, with guidance, enhance students' ability to reflect upon and synthesize information, to adopt a position based on valid, carefully considered evidence and to clearly communicate their position to others in a persuasive manner.

While each of these pedagogical tools has been educationally valuable, a further benefit may be derived through a combination of all three as a unified process. When thoughtfully constructed, the use of the Learning Journal, Book Critiques, and Persuasive Essay in concert may lead to a more in-depth learning experience, resulting in a broader conception and deeper understanding of the complexities of the issue being studied. The utilization of the Learning Journal provides students with the opportunity to carefully reflect on their personal perspective regarding the issue at hand. Students must consider their personal experiences in relation to the issue, carefully analyze their personal biases, and assess their personal beliefs and assumptions about the issue. They are provided the opportunity to assess the validity of their beliefs and biases in light of thoughtful consideration of the information and evidence revealed during their studies. This self reflection is further enhanced by the use of the Book Critique. The Book Critique provides students with additional information and, often times, with alternative perspectives about the issue being studied. This additional information may provide the student with further support of the student's view point, or it may persuade the student to modify or adapt his/her position. This clarity of thought allows students to select evidence that most strongly supports their positions and to more clearly communicate their position through carefully constructed Persuasive Essays.

It is our hope that this article will stimulate an interest in including one or more of these pedagogical tools into class syllabi as college and university faculty consciously choose to include the teaching of critical thinking skills as a vital part of their curriculum.


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Reed, J. H. & Kromrey, J. D. (2001). Teaching critical thinking in a community college history course: Empirical evidence from infusing paul's model. College Student Journal, 35(2), 201-216.

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Pamela Vesely, Ed.D., Western Carolina University, NC

John Sherlock, Ed.D., Western Carolina University, NC

Vesely, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor of Special Education and Sherlock, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor in Human Resources, in the College of Education and Allied Professions.
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Author:Sherlock, John
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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