Critical Thinking: As a Course Goal and in Assignments

Designed as guide for faculty reading groups, this resource includes quotations from and questions about an article on a seldom-studied topic: the connection between course goals and assignments.

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Editor's note: The following article is part of a resource collection called It's Worth Discussing, in which we feature research articles that are especially suitable for personal reflection and group discussion with your colleagues.

Why this article is worth discussing: hardly any research explores the connection between course goals and assignments, but this study does. Faculty were interviewed about course goals and assignments, and then their assignments were analyzed. The case in point is critical thinking, a common requirement of written work in many fields. See whether your guesses about connections between course goals, assignments, and how the latter were graded are verified by these findings. 

The article

Kane, D., & Otto, K. (2018). Critical sociological thinking and higher-level thinking: A study of sociologists teaching goals and assignments. Teaching Sociology, 46(2), 112–122.

A synopsis

“Most teachers seem to know what critical thinking is until asked to define it, and not surprisingly, there is no conclusive set of strategies for teaching critical thinking in the college classroom” (as cited in Kane & Otto, 2018, p.112). That quotation from a group of authors this article cites clarifies the motivation behind this work. The authors believe there are two kinds of critical thinking. It may be discipline specific; their definition makes clear critical thinking can’t be done in sociology without knowledge of the discipline. But there’s a second kind of critical thinking, which they call higher-level thinking. It’s defined as “cognitive work that emphasizes logic, argumentation, and abstract thinking that is not discipline specific” (p. 113). The authors thought most faculty in their field conflate these two, and to see whether that’s the case, they interviewed 20 sociologists regarding how they think about, design, and assess writing assignments and then analyzed 26 assignments provided by the faculty they interviewed. They looked at writing assignments because that’s where critical thinking skills are most often developed.

Key quotations and discussion questions

1. Defining critical thinking

“We find two strands of thought in the sociology literature on critical thinking, which we call critical sociological thinking and higher-level thinking” (p. 113).

Grauerholz and Bouma-Holtrop (2003) define critical sociological thinking as

“the ability to evaluate, reason, and question ideas and information while demonstrating awareness of broader social and cultural contexts” (as cited in Kane & Otto, 2018, p. 113).

The authors define higher-level thinking skills as

“cognitive work that emphasizes logic, argumentation, and abstract thinking and is not discipline specific” (p. 113).

2. Opportunities to practice critical thinking

“The vast majority of interviewees (17 out of 19) gave some form of guidance to students about how to complete the assignment, but this rarely took the form of explicit practice developing higher-level skills” (pp. 115–116).

These authors quote Joanne Kurfiss, who in her widely referenced 1988 monograph on critical thinking writes,

“Students are often assigned tasks that require [critical thinking] skills, but the problem of acquiring the requisite skills is left to the ingenuity, good fortune, and native ability of the student” (as cited in Kane & Otto, 2018, p. 118).

3. The evaluation of critical thinking in student work

Critical thinking emerged

“in conversations about evaluation criteria and in the disappointment that multiple interviewees experienced when reading papers devoid of effective argumentation and other markers of higher-level thinking” (p.117).

4. The intellectual work asked for in the assignments given students

“The most common form of assignment [among the 26 this analysis reviewed] was one that asked students to do some kind of application of course concepts” (p. 117).

The authors divided the intellectual tasks the assignments asked for into five tiers. From the lowest tier to the highest, these tasks involved students’ summarizing content, applying concepts, applying theoretical frameworks, producing thesis-driven arguments, and tackling ill-structured problems (p. 118).

More higher-level intellectual tasks were assigned in upper- than in lower-division courses. Still, there were more lower- than higher-level assignments in the upper-division courses (p. 118):

“Our findings suggest that instructors expect students to demonstrate these skills even when the intellectual task assigned may not be conducive to higher-level thinking. For instance, we should not expect an independent, thesis-driven argument from an assignment that asks students to summarize” (p. 118).

For further discussion

Van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 53(1), 41–47.

“Think about tennis, which is a higher-order skill. To be able to play tennis, you must be able to do things like run, hit a forehand, hit a backhand, and watch your opponent. But mastering each of these things separately is not enough. You must be able to combine them into the coherent, fluid assemblies that make up a whole point. Likewise, critical thinking involves skillfully exercising various lower-level cognitive capacities in integrated wholes” (p. 42).

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