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Teaching critical thinking online: case study.


Coupled with the technological challenges facing traditional institutions, as they become more involved in distance education, are the pedagogical challenges confronting faculty as they transition courses from the physical to the virtual classroom. Implementation of an online Jurisprudence course requiring that students acquire not only content knowledge but also critical thinking skills while successful in that regard, yielded disturbing observations about the impediments faced by economically disadvantaged students as they attempt to avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by online courses.

Background: Content and Context

The rapid growth of distance education among traditional four-year institutions presents academia with a variety of challenges. The transition of distance education from "offshoot" to "mainstream" requires consideration of how the pedagogical demands of different types of courses are adapted to the distance environment. Often overlooked is the necessity to design courses specifically for the distance medium and not merely transplant courses from the traditional classroom (Oliver, 1999). This design issue was explored when the Administration of Justice program at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) offered Jurisprudence during the Spring 2003 semester as an upper division undergraduate course in legal philosophy. The challenge confronted was how to best utilize online instruction as a pedagogical approach when one student's accomplishment of the course goals is dependent on interaction with other students.

Jurisprudence presented several design challenges in its development as an online course. UDC's prior experiences with distance education involved English Composition and independent study courses in history where student mastery of the material was primarily a function of individual effort and accomplishment relative to the course activities. Jurisprudence relies heavily on Socratic dialogue between the instructor and students as well as among the students themselves. This methodology involves a small group of students working together to deepen their understanding of a particular issue with the instructor functioning as facilitator. [1] It is not collaborative learning as much as it is interdependent learning.

Eighteen students participated in the class. At its conclusion, seven students received a grade of "C"; six students received a "B"; one student received an "A", and four students received an "Incomplete". Twenty percent of the grade was based on discussion board participation; twenty percent each on the mid-term and final examinations; and forty percent of the grade was based on weekly essays. Expected student outcomes for Jurisprudence included acquisition of content knowledge, and development of critical thinking skills. Definitions of these skills vary, as do strategies for their development (Borg and Borg, 2001; Ekelund and Hebert, 1998; Haas and Keeley, 1998; and Leming, 1998). A Jurisprudential approach to critical thinking is manifested by the ability to question the thinking and assumptions of others through an approach to reasoning characterized by: issue identification, development of reflective positions, supported by an examination of facts and detailed reasons linking those positions to an underlying ethical or legal principle (Leming, 1998). The methodology utilized for developing these skills was student-to-student interaction. This interaction would be measured by examination of student discussion board comments; while acquisition of critical thinking skills would be assessed through evaluation of required weekly essays.

Utilizing the Jurisprudence class as a case study, two issues will be discussed within the context of pedagogy and distance education: the implementation of student-to-student interaction, and the impact of student interaction on the development of critical thinking skills. A third issue, surfacing in this study, relative to the "digital divide" and minority access to distance education will also be examined.

Discussion Board Utilization

As with traditional classes, student participation varied. Four students never participated in the required discussion board component resulting in an automatic grade reduction of twenty percent. At the other extreme, three students had participation rates between sixty-five and ninety percent. The remaining eleven students participated at least once, but overall no more than fifty percent of the time. The type of discussion topics posted by the instructor appeared to be irrelevant as a factor in student participation. During the course of the semester, the frequency of student postings declined. However, the decline in frequency was accompanied by an increase in quality. Student postings became more demonstrative of critical analysis and reflective thinking, both of the assigned readings and comments by other students. Eventually, these changes in the student postings were reflected in improved quality among the student essays.

Methodology: Synchronous versus Asynchronous Communication

Student interaction within a distance-learning environment typically occurs either synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous communication occurs in "real-time" through the utilization of virtual chat rooms. Asynchronous communication occurs through the use of e-mail and threaded discussions. Foreman (2003) asserts that that the speed and immediacy of synchronous communication make it the most appropriate methodology when the goal is student interaction focused on problem solving.. He found that while asynchronous tools were powerful, " ... their temporal delays significantly limit[ed] interactivity and efficient collaborative learning" (id). Asynchronous communication, however, is the more common approach. It is utilized by 90% of all institutions offering distance education courses, as compared to 43% offering distance education courses incorporating synchronous communications (Tabs, 2003). Asynchronous communication effectuates the primary attraction of distance education, which is the ability of the student to complete the course requirements in a place and time convenient for them. This constant access to materials also provides convenience and flexibility to instructors as well as students (Bollinger, 2003). Requiring student availability for synchronous communications at specified times would be as limiting as the traditional classroom. Therefore, asynchronous discussions were selected by the instructor, as the mode for student interaction in Jurisprudence.

Student interaction in Jurisprudence was generated from topics posted to the class discussion board by the instructor. Students were required to participate in online discussions at least twice each week. These were facilitated through email and threaded discussion. A different topic was posted weekly. The nature of the topics varied. Approximately one-third of the discussion topics were short, simple sentence questions. Others were either string questions or short scenarios followed by a question. For this type of course, the temporal delay inherent in asynchronous communication presented an advantage. Freed from the necessity to produce an instant reply, students may have been more likely to analyze the prior posted comments and to reflect on their proposed response before posting it to the discussion board. As the course progressed three students expressed a desire for occasional synchronous communications. This could have been attributable to difficulty with the type of independent work required in distance education, since distance education is oriented towards the self-directed learner (Cuellar, 2002). Or, it may have reflected a need for a more visible peer support system than is generally available in distance courses. Some instructors have sought approaches that can replicate the personal interaction occurring within the traditional classroom. Krauthhamer (2003) had each student create a personal home page with their picture, to introduce themselves to their classmates, while Beck (2002) found that the sharing of personal stories online provided a sense of group connectedness, which in turn stimulated critical thinking.

Evaluating Student Participation

An initial issue presenting itself for consideration was how to evaluate the student postings. Should students receive points for posting to the discussion board regardless of the relevance or content of their comments? If students posted more than twice should they get extra credit for the additional postings? If students post more than twice a week, but do not receive extra credit, which two postings are considered for evaluation: the first two, the best two, etc? This is the same situation confronting instructors in a traditional classroom anytime a portion of the grade is based on class participation. Is it sufficient for the student to simply open their mouth and make a comment, or is something more substantive required? It was decided that student postings had to be marginally responsive or related to be counted. To facilitate evaluation all comments were placed in categories "A" through "E". With the exception of Category "E" these categories were distinguished by the type of comment and were not necessarily a reflection on the value of the comment. Substantive comments which were responsive to the instructor's initial posting were assigned to Category "A". Student comments taking the form of questions intended to further the discussion were assigned to Category "B". Category "C" encompassed those comments specifically requesting clarification or further elaboration of prior student comments. Substantive comments that were related to the subject of the instructor's initial posting, but not necessarily directly responsive, were placed in Category "D". The final classification was Category "E". This category was for those comments that were neither substantive, responsive, nor even marginally related to the initial posting. Assuming that the comments fell into one of the first four categories, students received extra credit for additional weekly postings. This extra credit would be taken into account for a borderline grade (i.e.--an average of 89% with extra credit postings would result in an "A" grade instead of a "B", but extra credit would not raise an average of 80% to an "A"). [2]

Instructor Participation and Student Discussion Board Postings

In developing distance education courses utilizing student interaction as a methodology for enhancing critical thinking skills, instructor involvement in discussions can serve to model analytical approaches that students will begin to emulate. A variety of instructor participation approaches were undertaken to find the approach that not only maximized student participation but which also produced the type of reflective dialogue most likely to contribute to the growth of these skills. Some weeks the instructor would intervene and make corrective comments when student remarks suggested that perhaps they did not understand the question. Sometimes the instructor would interject additional questions, within an on-going discussion. Other times, the instructor took a "hands off" approach, and once the initial discussion topic was posted, did not make any further comments. Seventy-four percent of the instructor's comments occurred during the first half of the course. As the semester progressed it became less necessary for the instructor to interject comments. This could be attributed to improvement in the student postings. For example, the percentage of Category "E" postings dropped by 50% during the second half of the semester, while the percentage of Category "D" postings doubled. This signaled student movement from non-responsive, non-substantive, unrelated postings to postings that while still non-responsive, were at least substantive and related to the initial topic. Two significant changes in student postings were observed during the weeks in which the instructor did not intervene: Category "C" postings doubled, indicating that the students were more likely to let their peers know when they seemed to be off-track; and Category "A" postings increased by 14%.

Discussion Board and Essay Improvement

As the quality of the online student communications increased, so did the quality of the written essays. Eleven of the fourteen students participating with the discussion board demonstrated various levels of improvement in their written essays mirroring the changes in the quality of their online participation. To prevent the written essays from being influenced by a review of another student's thoughts on the topic, the essay was due prior to posting of that week's discussion topic. In addition, while the discussion topic related to the assigned reading, it was different from the essay question. For example, the essay topic for the first week was "[W]ould you place Rauls and Nozick in the 'corrective justice' category or the 'distributive justice' category? Explain your response." The essays were due by 10:00 am on Monday. The discussion topic for the week was posted shortly after 10:00 Monday morning. It stated: "Aristotle identified two types of justice: 'corrective justice'--which basically involves rectifying the situation between two people, where one has harmed the other (i.e.--two people involved in a car accident); and 'distributive justice'--which involves the appropriate division of goods among a group of people (i.e.--dividing a pie among ten people). Are both of these types of justice equally important, or is one more important than the other?"

Following review of the first essay, it appeared that twelve students were mechanically proficient writers (Group 1). Their writing was grammatically correct, and reasonably coherent. However, it tended to be opinionated and argumentative, lacking evidence of analytical reflection of the assigned reading. Three students wrote initial essays that were not only mechanically competent, but also demonstrated critical thought on the topic and analytic reflection on the assigned reading (Group 2). The initial essays of the remaining three students tended to be confused, possessing only a marginal relationship to the topic (Group 3). At the beginning of the semester, the discussion board comments of the Group 1 students fell into Categories "A" or "D". They were substantive and responsive, or at a minimum indicated that the students had read the material. In those instances, the instructor would pose follow-up questions designed to elicit more analysis on the topic. Three of the Group 1 students never participated in the discussion board. Eight of the nine students who did participate began to have more variety in their discussion board comments. In addition to simply responding to the initial posting, their comments began to include questions facilitating further discussion (Category "B"). As the nature of their discussion board comments changed over the semester, the essays of six of those eight students in Group 1 moved from mere mechanical competence, to some reflection of critical thinking and analysis.

Two of the three students in Group 2 participated in the discussion board. Their initial discussion board postings were primarily Category "A" or Category "B" comments. It was this group of students who were more likely to begin to utilize Category "C" type comments, posting comments requesting clarification of prior student comments. As they began to utilize Category "C" comments, they began to self-edit their own essays with the subsequent essays demonstrating higher levels of analysis. Group 3 had the highest discussion board participation at 100%, although their initial comments primarily fell into Category "E". As the semester progressed, their comments shifted towards Category "D", with an occasional Category "A" comment. As their comments moved from non-substantive and unrelated to somewhat substantive and related (even if still non-responsive), there was also concurrent improvement in their essays, which began to demonstrate that they had read and engaged in some reflection on the assigned material.

Availability of Computer and Internet Access at Home

As an urban commuter institution, UDC has a largely non-traditional student population. The average student is twenty-six years old, and attends school part-time due to work and family constraints. All the students in the course worked full-time, with the exception of two students with work-related disabilities. One student was White, non-Hispanic, and the remaining students were Black. Some of the students' jobs had standard nine to five shifts, but others had jobs where the shifts could change with little or no notice. Seventy-two percent of the students had at least one child under the age of eighteen, with 30% of those students, having more than one child under the age of eighteen. Forty-six percent of the students with at least one minor child were single custodial parents.

Distance education offers an opportunity to provide educational opportunities to students who would ordinarily be unable to access them (Beall, 2003). Yet, the need of non-traditional college students to avail themselves of the options presented by distance education is often hampered by the lack of computer or Internet access at home. The "digital divide", as it has come to be known, is a phenomenon of both race/ethnicity and socio-economic class. Approximately one-third of Black and Hispanic households have a computer at home, as compared to slightly more than one-half of all White non-Hispanic households, and two-thirds of Asian households, and are even less likely to have Internet access at home (Newburger, 2001). There is also a direct relationship between family income and home computer/internet access, as well as householder educational level. As income and as education increase, so does the percentage of households with computers and Internet access in the home (id.).

Students were advised at registration that Jurisprudence was an online course. Among the eighteen students in Jurisprudence, four did not have a computer at home. Another two students had computers, but did not have Internet access. In other words, despite knowing that they were enrolling in an online course, one-third of the class did not have a way to access the course site at home. [3] When questioned, students indicated that they planned to use their computer at work. Unfortunately, during the course of the semester four of those six students experienced either illness (severe enough to necessitate time off from work) or difficulties at work (including supervisor refusal) limiting their ability to make use of their work computer.

A preliminary survey administered at the beginning of the course questioned students about the extent of their familiarity with different computer processes, such as sending email with attachments and accessing the Internet. Students were also questioned regarding the amount of time spent on the computer at different locations: home, work, or university computer laboratories. This question was intended to be an indirect, and non-threatening way of determining the extent of their access to computers. Students were not directly asked if they had a computer at home. Each option however, in addition to the number of hours spent, also included the choice "no computer available". Not a single student indicated the unavailability of a home computer, although one student (erroneously) indicated that there were no computers available in the university computer laboratories. One student failed to respond to the question dealing with the number of hours spent on the computer at home. [4]

The lack of computer and Internet access is a critical impediment in a course in which twenty percent of the student's entire grade is based upon mandatory participation in online discussions. More importantly, when online discussions are the pedagogical approach utilized for the development of critical thinking skills, lack of computer or Internet access at home is a serious disadvantage in efforts to develop the required course skills. On a larger scale, a student's inability to participate reduces the totality of the student interaction.


In addition to the technological challenges facing institutions are the pedagogical challenges for faculty in transitioning courses from the physical to the virtual classroom. Attempting to develop and teach an online course requiring that the student acquire not only content knowledge, but also critical thinking skills was such a challenge. It also revealed useful information for further endeavors. There appeared to be a synergy between the improvement in the asynchronous communications on the discussion board, and the students' ability to independently read and critically analyze, as evidenced by their written essays. This is not to suggest that everyone's essays ultimately achieved the same level of performance, but 79% of those who participated on the discussion board did achieve some improvement in their essays. Issues of equity and resource allocation are also challenges that must be confronted if all students, with the desire, are to be enabled to take advantage of these new opportunities.


[1] The Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy (2003) notes that the Socratic method is intended to encourage critical and independent thinking among participants while furthering the search for truth.

[2] The grading scale for the course was: A = 90-100; B = 80-89; C = 70-79; D = 60-69; and F = 59 or below.

[3] The lack of a home computer or Internet access was not initially perceived to be a problem by the Instructor, because the University Library contained student use computers with Internet capabilities. However, when students work all day, and then have evening classes, a library that closes at 9:00 pm Monday through Friday, at 6:00 pm on Saturday and is not open at all on Sunday is not very accessible.

[4] As a result of the experiences in the Jurisprudence course, the following semester, the preliminary course survey in another class added a question that directly asked students whether or not they had a computer and Internet access at home. Twenty-nine percent of the students responding indicated that they did not have a computer at home. Twenty percent of the students with a computer at home indicated that they did not have Internet access. If this had been an online course, 40% of the total students enrolled would have been unable to participate in the course at home.


Beall, Melissa L. (January 2003). "The online teaching guide: A handbook of attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom". Communications Education. Vol. 52: No. 1. pg. 70-71.

Beck, Evelyn. (Fall 2002). "The Mysterious Territory of Distance Learning". Thought and Action: The NEA Higher Education Journal. Volume XVIII: No. 1 & 2. pg. 77-89.

Bollinger, Doris U. (Spring 2003). "Strategies for Successful E-Teaching". Academic Exchange Quarterly. Vol. 7: No. 1. pg. 61-66.

Borg, J. Rody, and Borg, Mary O. (Winter, 2001). "Teaching Critical Thinking in Interdisciplinary Economics Courses". College Teaching. Vol. 49: No. 11. pg. 20-31.

Cuellar, Norma. (July-Sept. 2002). "The Transition from Classroom to Online Teaching". Nursing Forum. Vol. 37: No. 3. pg. 5-13.

Ekelund Jr., Robert B. and Hebert, Robert F. (Summer, 1998). "Critical thinking: some problems with the matrix method". The Journal of Economic Education. Vol. 29: No. 3. pg. 274-276.

Foreman, Joel. (2003). "Distance Learning and Synchronous Interaction". The Technology Source. July/August.

Haas, Paul R. and Keeley, Stuart M. (Spring 1998). "Coping with faculty resistance to teaching critical thinking". College Teaching. Vol. 46: No. 2. pg. 63-72.

Krauthhamer, Helen. (Spring 2003). English Composition I.

Leming, James S. (March-April 1998). "Some critical thoughts about the teaching of critical thinking". The Social Studies. Vol. 89: No 2. pg. 61-66.

Newburger, Eric. (September 2001). Home Computers and Interact Use in the United States: August 2000. DC: United States Census Bureau.

Oliver, Ron. (1999). "Exploring Strategies for Online Teaching and Learning". Distance Education. Vol. 20: No. 2. pg. 240-254.

Tabs, E.D. (2003). Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2000-2001. DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2003-017.

The Society for the furtherance of Critical Philosophy. "Socratic Method". The Socratic Dialogue. August 20, 2003.

Angelyn Spaulding Flowers, University of the District of Columbia

Flowers, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. Her teaching-research agenda includes: computer modeling of social systems, criminal justice policy, and teaching strategies for non-traditional students.
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Author:Flowers, Angelyn Spaulding
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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