The Use Of Assessment Strategies To Develop Critical Thinking Skills In Science

June 12, 2014, Volume 1, Issue 5, No. 8

Driving Question:  What Does Critical Thinking Look and Sound Like in an Elementary Classroom?

The other day, I walked into one of our primary multi-aged classroom communities. I noticed many wonderful things. It was clear the students were engaged in what they were doing.

These young students were working on an inquiry unit related to force and motion. Students were engaged in reading paperback books, articles and e-books individually and/or with partners. Other students were using their iPads to view videos related to force and motion. Many of the students were recording notes on their iPads or on paper while watching the videos or reading. A few students were experimenting with different materials such as ramps, matchbox cars, marbles, etc. to experiment and learn about force and motion.

Later, students met in small groups and engaged in discussions related to what they learned or discovered through these activities. Their conversations led the students to synthesize their new learning, reflect on the learning experiences they had, and make connections to how this new information relates to the essential question of their current inquiry unit.

It is clear that these students were working on thinking critically.

For us, critical thinking happens when students analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs. They can then learn how to make judgments and decisions based on others' points of view, interpret information and draw conclusions.

Fostering Critical Thinking
Four main approaches have made the biggest impact on our children's critical thinking:

"One way we try to foster critical thinking skills in our classroom is by allowing our students to be creative and to inquire about topics that are of interest to them." Katie Hart, Professional Educator

We incorporate cross-curricular inquiry to foster deep learning. The students work through the phases of immersion, investigation, coalescence and demonstration of learning. Throughout these phases the students are able to wonder, build background knowledge, develop questions, search for new information, synthesize information, demonstrate an understanding and share their new learning with others. Throughout inquiry, the students tie everything together through an essential question which helps them probe for deeper meaning. These questions are open-ended, encourage collaboration and foster the development of critical thinking skills.

"We push students to dig deeper in their learning by asking guiding questions and providing a variety of resources for students to independently find answers. Throughout their learning, we encourage students to ask and answer their own questions through small group discussions, conferring, working on their Personalized Learning Plans and using graphic organizers." Elizabeth Hatab and Sarah Suesskind, Professional Educators

Questioning plays a critical role in cultivating critical thinking skills and deep learning. Questioning models for students how they should think. Our professional educators use open-ended questions to encourage discussion and active learning. We also incorporate questioning into our everyday discussions with students.

Problem Solving
"In the 4K/5K classrooms, we don't just give students answers to issues or problems they are having. Instead, we turn the problem onto them and ask how could they solve this problem. This allows the child opportunities to solve their problems independently." Teresa Lutzen, Professional Educator

Problem solving extends our inquiry work. It is important that our students think for themselves. In problem solving they apply the critical thinking strategies they have learned.

"Integrating meaningful learning experiences that promote critical thinking skills is essential in cultivating a classroom of 21st Century learners. One way we do this is by actively involving the students in their learning through collaborative work. This helps the students take ownership of the learning and think critically about issues." Patti Kaisler and Rebecca O-Grosky, Professional Educators.

Our student-centered learning environments are varied and flexible to accommodate the needs of learners and provide ongoing opportunities to build a collaborative community of students and staff. Our environments promote collaborative, individual, small and large group learning.
Students learn in collaborative flexible groups based on need. When students collaborate together they learn how to communicate with others effectively, work as a team, practice self-discipline, and improve social and interpersonal skills. Through collaboration, students are able to have a better understanding of what they are learning and improve critical thinking skills.

And Beyond
There are many other ways that we foster critical thinking among our learners, but these are the four that have made the biggest impact for us. Critical thinking is a key skill that our students need to have in order to become life-long learners and self-advocates for themselves.

Stacey Lange is an Academic Dean at Walker Elementary School and is part of the instructional services team for the West Allis–West Milwaukee School District. Her district, West Allis-West Milwaukee, is part of the Next Generation Learning Initiative, an effort that involves all teachers working to transform learning for all students. Her school is a P21 Exemplar.  @LangeStacey

Up Next: Project Zero Thinks on the Critical Side

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The guidelines suggested below propose how critical thinking skills can be assessed “scientifically” in psychology courses and programs. The authors begin by noting something about psychology faculty that is true of faculty in many other disciplines, which makes this article relevant to a much larger audience. “The reluctance of psychologists to assess the critical thinking (CT) of their students seems particularly ironic given that so many endorse CT as an outcome…” (p. 5) Their goal then is to offer “practical guidelines for collecting high-quality LOA (learning outcome assessment) data that can provide a scientific basis for improving CT instruction.” (p. 5) The guidelines are relevant to individual courses as well as collections of courses that comprise degree programs. Most are relevant to courses or programs in many disciplines; others are easily made so.

Understand critical thinking as a multidimensional construct – In their discussion of critical thinking in psychology, these authors propose that critical thinking includes skills, dispositions, and metacognition. Critical thinking skills in psychology include argument analysis and evaluation, methodological reason, statistical reasoning, causal reasoning, and skills for focusing and clarifying questions. Dispositions refer to “the willingness to engage in effortful thinking and the tendency to be open- and fair-minded in evaluating claims, yet remain skeptical of unsubstantiated claims.” (p. 6) Metacognition means being aware of one’s thinking and in control of it.

A recent article in The Teaching Professor highlighted the variation in definitions for critical thinking. These authors point out that critical thinking is either thought of generically or as being discipline-specific. They cite research that critical thinking is probably a combination of both. As a multidimensional construct, it contains some general reasoning skills and some skills that are specific to the discipline. The point is that if you want to assess learning outcomes associated with critical thinking, you cannot do that well without understanding how critical thinking is defined in your discipline.

Select important goals, objectives, and outcomes for assessment – What critical thinking skills and knowledge should students be able to demonstrate as a result of being in a course or program? Some faculty have learning goals so general that they are all but impossible to assess. They need further specification. If the assessment is to be scientific, then the goals, objectives, and outcomes must translated into specific hypotheses—ones that can be tested.

Align assessment with instructional focus – “Measures for assessing the impact of instruction must be sensitive to the changes instruction is intended to produce.” (p. 7) If the measures are sensitive, then classroom assessment can be used to look at the techniques being used, compare their effectiveness with other techniques, and conclude which are better.

Take an authentic task-oriented approach to assessment – Taking an authentic task-oriented approach means using a performance to assess how well students are completing a task. In psychology, tasks requiring critical thinking include evaluating the quality of information from the Internet, analyzing and evaluating research literature, using psychological theory to analyze and evaluate behavior, and writing research and case reports, among others. Many of those tasks can be used to evaluate critical thinking in a variety of fields.

Use the best and most appropriate measures – Because critical thinking has multiple dimensions, multiple measures should be used to assess it. The authors point out that standardized tests of critical thinking (the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Cornell Critical Thinking Test are the two examples referenced in this discussion) are “probably better measures of general CT skill.” (p. 9) In many cases, no standardized tests or measures assess the specific type of critical thinking or aspect of critical thinking being developed in a particular course. In situations like this, new instruments may need to be developed.

Conduct assessments that are sensitive to changes over time – “Simply testing seniors once in their capstone courses is not sufficient to infer changes over time because the levels of skill and knowledge of students entering the program are unknown.” (p. 9)

Assess frequently, embedding assessment and feedback into instruction – Students can be assessed too much, especially if the same instrument is being used. They become sensitized to those instruments. The authors recommend a formative approach that embeds assessment in instruction. In this case, the assessment provides the instructor useful feedback and helps students focus on their development of critical thinking. It offers them feedback that can be used to improve their critical thinking skills.

Interpret assessment results cautiously and apply the results appropriately –
The quality of the data collected must be considered before decisions to change a course or a program are made. Not considering the quality of the data and not carefully interpreting the results can result in changes that do not improve learning outcomes.

Reference: Bensley, D. A. and Murtagh, M. P. (2012). Guidelines for a scientific approach to critical thinking assessment. Teaching of Psychology, 39 (1), 5-16.

Reprinted from Assessing Critical Thinking Skills, The Teaching Professor, 26.3 (2012): 4.

Posted in Educational Assessment
Tagged with assessing critical thinking, critical thinking, critical thinking skills


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