Teaching Thinking Online

By Sharon Pierce,2014-04-05 22:09
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Teaching Thinking Online

    Teaching Thinking Online: Strategies for Promoting Disciplinary

    Reasoning, Intellectual Growth, and Critical Consciousness

    By William Peirce

    Prince George’s Community College

    University of Maryland University College

    This is a print version of my presentation at the Sixth International Conference on Asynchronous Learning Networks November 4 at Adelphi, MD. A longer version with more examples and resources, titled “Teaching Thinking Online: Better or Worse than Face to Face?” is available at

* * * * * * *

Can analytical and critical thinking be taught well online?

    Can the reasoning and problem solving required to be a disciplinary practitioner be taught well asynchronously?

    Can students be transformed to higher intellectual levels in a completely online course?

My answer to these questions is a definite "Yes, very well."

    In an online course teachers can employ many of the same active learning strategies they use in their classrooms to encourage good thinking, engage students in the course content, and promote their intellectual development. In my 20 minutes I’d like very briefly to present some strategies that work well in online classes.

I. Online Strategies for Teaching Thinking

    Many classroom strategies for teaching students to think about course content can be used just as effectively online. Some are good for public posting in conference threads or bulletin board forums; some are more effective as private homework responses from students. Here’s a list of recommended strategies, which I’ll discuss separately.

    1. Design self-testing quizzes and tutorials on basic chapter content.

    2. Apply the concepts of the textbook chapters to cases or issues every week.

    3. Pose well-designed questions for asynchronous discussion.

    4. Ask students to reflect on their responses to the course content and on their learning

    processes in private journals.

    5. Create cognitive dissonance: provoke discomfort, unsettle confirmed notions, uncover

    misconceptions, inspire curiosity, pose problems.

    6. Conduct opinion polls/surveys as pre-reading activities before assigned readings and to

    arouse interest in issues or topics.

    7. Present activities that require considering opposing views.

    8. Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides.

1. Design self-testing quizzes and tutorials on basic chapter content.

    In a web course the usual sources of course content are a textbook and teacher-written text, so it’s important for students to test their understanding of their reading. Most web course delivery systems include forms to write self-testing quizzes and tutorials to help students test their understanding of the basic content of the textbook chapter or lectures. Some textbook publishers provide self-testing quizzes and tutorials at their websites.

    How does a factual recall quiz improve thinking? It doesn't, but an instructor can make passing a quiz on an assigned reading the gateway to discussing it in the conference. Make it a rule that students can't respond to a conference topic until they have passed the quiz on the textbook chapter or assigned article. Discussions are richer when students are prepared.

    Tutorials and quizzes can also be used to teach concepts. The easiest way to provide self-testing quizzes to students is to ask questions on one file and write sample answers on another. The students read the questions, write their answers, then compare their answers with the models of good and poor answers provided online by the instructor (with commentary). I use this approach in my argument and persuasion classes to model good and bad explanations of logical fallacies.

2. Apply the concepts of the textbook chapters to cases or issues every week.

    Asking students to apply course concepts in informal writing tasks as homework assignments is probably the most obvious and frequently used approach. These tasks can be posted on a conference or bulletin board, stored in the student’s assignment portfolio, or emailed to the

    instructor. Responses can be written by groups or individuals, depending on what the instructor has in mind.

    Asking 25 students to respond individually to one scenario or topic in a conference will result in thoughtful responses from the first three responders and "I think so too" from the remaining 22. To avoid boring repetition, an instructor can pose variations of a generic scenario to a smaller population of 3-4 students. For example, in my business writing class, I assign scenario no. 1 to names beginning A-C, scenario no. 2 to D-G, etc. In small groups where students prepare a single written response to teacher-posed problems, their thinking is clarified as they consider several perspectives and negotiate the language to articulate their response.

    Grading each student’s work every week is probably more work than many instructors have time for. One way to lighten the workload is to store the students’ work in a folder in the course website or on the instructor’s computer and read it once every four weeks, grading the total

    collection of a student’s assignments holistically (one grade for the total collection) according to

    criteria such as timeliness, thoroughness, and responsiveness to the instructions. A second way to shorten the time is to grade only a representative sample of weekly assignments (after informing students of the grading procedure).

    Writing about cases is only one example of the kinds of thinking tasks to give students. Teachers at universities with writing across the curriculum programs might be familiar with writing-to-

    learn tasks that can be assigned as weekly homework, exchanged among students, or collected in a course portfolio. The Clearinghouse for Resources on Academic Writing at Colorado State ( lists resources including web links, bibliographies, articles, and programs at other colleges and universities.

    The following list of potential writing-to-learn tasks comes from several fine books on teaching disciplinary thinking in face-to-face classes: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's

    Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-

    Bass, 1996; Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies

    for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993; and Tracey E. Sutherland and Charles C. Bonwell (eds.) Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty,

    Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Formal writing assignments

    In formal writing assignments, students fully develop their ideas, use topic sentences, and pay attention to sentence structure and grammar. These tasks can range from one-paragraph microthemes to semester-long research papers. Have students support a thesis about an instructor-posed problem or ask them to construct their own thesis.

Informal exploratory writing

    Exploratory writing is unedited, rapid, informal writing that resembles inner speech. Informal writing tasks on course-based topics are an especially good device for promoting course-based thinking. Tasks can range from simple ones that ask for ten minutes of spontaneous speculation, application of chapter concepts to simple or complex cases, complex problem solving, summaries or responses to assigned readings, analytical evaluations of assigned readings, and introspective connections of the course concepts to personal life and experience. Students can place private, personal applications in their assignment folders; less personal topics can be posted in a public conference. For example, I ask my critical thinking students to respond to a question about whether the government should ban liquor ads on television; then a week later I ask them how their response demonstrated the characteristics of a good thinker as described on one of the pages of the course guide. This potentially embarrassing self-disclosure is posted in their assignment folder that only I read. An example of a public personal response is one where I ask my business writing students to explain in a public conference whether their assignments in college courses have prepared them well for workplace writing. Some say yes, some say no, but the question and varied responses provoke an analysis of context and audience and the generalizability of writing experiences. Asking for personal responses and applications is especially useful if developing students' attitudes and values is important to the course.

Tasks for small-group problem solving and inquiry-based discussions

    When small groups prepare written responses to problems, students' thinking is clarified as they consider, negotiate, and evaluate several perspectives. Open-ended questions with no single right answer work especially well. Some examples of short, one-two week small-group projects are

     Compare the usefulness/reliability of course-related web sites (instructor provides the


     Prepare both sides of a debatable issue

     Predict what will happen if . . .

     Recommend two alternatives to solving problem X

     List 10 significant questions NOT addressed by the assigned reading and select the top

    three, explaining their importance

     Apply the principles that apply to case X in the textbook to this new situation (case Y);

    how are the two cases similar and different?

    Some problems can prompt students to explore the full complexity of an issue. Examples:

     How would you establish the reliability of procedure X?

     On what grounds could you oppose the theory that . . .?

     If we didn't believe that this theory explains X behavior, how else could you explain it?

     A problem in our society is X; what are some good ways to investigate its causes?

     How do we establish certainty/truth/validity/probability in this investigation?

Questions for Socratic dialogue

    Useful for systematic, follow-up probing to lead students to an increasingly complex discussion. See item 3, below, for sample questions.

Practice exam questions

     Practice and feedback on representative essay questions.

    Another well-known source of ideas for classroom activities that apply course concepts and a source of strategies for informally assessing students’ work on them is Thomas D. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd. edition, published by Jossey-Bass.

3. Pose well-designed questions for asynchronous discussion.

    These discussions can take place in threaded conferences, study groups, chat sessions, or e-mail discussion lists. There are several approaches to asking good questions. Here is the ubiquitous Bloom higher order thinking taxonomy and some typical questions in those categories.

     KnowledgeIdentification and recall of information

     Who, what, when, where, how______________?


     ComprehensionOrganization and selection of facts and ideas

     Retell___________________in your own words.

     What is the main idea of___________________?

     ApplicationUse of facts, rules, principles

     How is________an example of______________?

     How is________related to__________________?

     Why is_________________________significant?

     AnalysisSeparation of a whole into component parts

     What are the parts or features of______________?

     Classify_________according to______________?


     How does_______compare/contrast with_______?

     What evidence can you present for____________?

     SynthesisCombination of ideas to form a new whole

     What would you predict/infer from___________?

     What ideas can you add to__________________?

     How would you create/design a new__________?

     What might happen if you combined_____ with ____?

     What solutions would you suggest for_________?

     EvaluationDevelopment of opinions, judgments, or decisions

     Do you agree____________________________?

     What do you think about___________________?

     What is the most important_________________?

     Prioritize_______according to_______________.

     How would you decide about________________?

     What criteria would you use to assess_________?

     Source: Maryland State Department of Education flyer

Richard Paul suggests an equally helpful list of questions (below, 1993b). His questions are

    useful in probing and extending student thinking in Socratic fashion (see also Paul, 1993c).



     How did you come to think this?

     Can you remember the circumstances in which you formed this belief?


     Why do you believe this?

     Do you have evidence for this?

     What are some of the reasons why people believe this?

     In believing this, aren't you assuming that such and such is true?

     Is that a sound assumption do you think?

     Conflict with Other Thoughts

     Some people might object to your position by saying . . . How would you answer them?

     What do you think of this contrasting view?

     How would you answer the objection that . . . ?

     Implications and Consequences

     What are the practical consequences of believing this?

     What would we have to do to put it into action?

     What follows from the view that . . . ?

     Wouldn't we also have to believe that . . . in order to be consistent?

     Are you implying that . . . ?

    4. Ask students to reflect on their responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals.

    Writing self-reflective responses improves students' metacognitive abilities. Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Metacognitive abilities help students transfer knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired in one context to other contexts. To increase their metacognitive abilities, students need to possess three kinds of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and conditional. Declarative knowledge is the factual information that students know; it can be declaredspoken

    or written. Procedural knowledge is their knowledge of how to do something, of how to perform the steps in a process. Conditional knowledge is knowledge about when to use a procedure, skill, or strategy (and when not to use it); why a procedure works and under what conditions; and why one procedure is better than another.

    Metacognitive knowledge requires awareness of all three kinds of knowledge, and it is best developed by having students reflect on their thinking processes. Cognitive scientists believe that improving students’ metacognitive abilities is crucial to improving their thinking. And educators believe that reflecting on one’s learning processes is crucial to becoming a better learner.

    Students can move towards both goals by writing self-reflective responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals. Most web course delivery systems have private assignment areas accessible only the student and the professor; they serve as useful depositories for such tasks. I grade course journals holistically at the end of the semester on the criteria of thoroughness and responsiveness to my questions.

    Self-reflective responses can also accompany formal writing assignments. In an online analytical reading and writing course I teach for University of Maryland University College, each student's graded formal writing assignment is accompanied by informal writing tasks in

    which students to reflect on their thinking and learning processes. For example, the longest assignment is a researched persuasive argument; three different informal writing tasks ask students to reflect on their learning and write self-assessments:

    ; Write a self-assessment of how well you employed the course guide's recommended

    strategies for writing in a personal voice.

    ; Write a self-assessment of how well you followed the textbook's advice about responding

    to a rough draft review by a classmate.

    ; To improve your performance on similar future research tasks, write a reflective, self-

    assessment of your research process for this assignment, responding to the specific items

    on the checklist in the course guide.

    5. Create cognitive dissonance: provoke discomfort, unsettle confirmed notions, uncover misconceptions, inspire curiosity, pose problems.

    The point here is not to befuddle students but to dispel complacency by creating cognitive dissonance. Accompanying a disorienting intellectual situation is a wish to resolve it. Students who experience a gap in their knowledge will seek to fill it. Students who see that an incorrect or misapplied procedure won’t solve a problem will want to learn a procedure that will. To

    create cognitive dissonance, the instructor can design a task that uses using students’ prior

    learning but also requires factual information or procedures that the students do not know. Students become aware of a gap between the task's goal and what they need to know or to do to meet it (Beyer, 1987). Creating in students the need to know is a basic strategy underlying inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

    Socratic questioning is a variation on this theme. The basic structure of Socratic questioning begins with inquiry, leads to perplexity, and ends with enlightenment (Morse, 1998).

    Other ways of creating cognitive dissonance are to first present a theory, concept, or principle and the examples that confirm it; then follow by presenting discrepant examples that do not match the theory. Ask for an explanation of why the example does not fit. Because the students’ engagement was initially inspired by cognitive dissonance, their investigation and resolution of anomalies is more likely to lead to deep learning.

    Students enter college with many misconceptions. Their high school experience has provided a mistaken schema of what learning is (acquiring and memorizing teacher-told facts) and of what research is (acquiring and reporting information on a topic) (Nist, 1993). They sometimes enter disciplinary studies with misconceptions of the research methods of that field (for example, believing that the scientific method is the enemy of faith or that the purpose of critical thinking is to attack opponents). It sometimes takes a disorienting experience to change their inaccurate schemata.

    6. Conduct opinion polls/surveys as pre-reading activities before assigned readings and to arouse interest in issues or topics.

    Students, like everyone else, seem to have opinions on any issue whether they are well-informed or not. A way to generate interest in assigned readings is to take a survey before they are assigned of students’ opinions on the issue or pre-test their knowledge of the facts presented in

    the reading. For example, one of my assignments in an argument and persuasion class is to analyze and evaluate opposing views; students choose from a list of paired arguments in the textbook. Before their choice, students respond to a poll listing all the options and asking them which of the two paired theses they agree with. For example, on the two environmental arguments, they are asked whether they agree with A or B, which restate the main claims of the two articles:

     ____A. The real environmental issue is not saving a few forests but adopting a philosophy of living in nature that contradicts the rationale of industrial capitalism.

     ____B. Radical environmentalists strangle innovation that could improve our economy.

    A pre-reading variation of the poll-taking strategy is to ask students which data/facts are true and which inaccurate, listing data/facts from the assigned readings mixed with wrong data/facts invented by the instructor.

    This strategy is useful for interesting students in issues and assigned readings but doesn't improve their thinking unless they are asked to analyze and evaluate the evidence and reasons provided in the readings.

7. Present activities that require considering opposing views.

    In asynchronous discussions or as formal or informal assignments, instructors can ask students to consider opposing views, methods, data, principles, concepts, definitions, interpretations, and conclusions. Dialectical thinking (sometimes called dialogical thinking) is one of the best ways to engage students’ minds, challenge their previously held beliefs, promote openmindedness,

    defer the rush to judgment, and move them to higher intellectual stages. Discussing opposing points of view requires knowledge, reasoned judgment, and intellectual criteria to adopt a position and explain why it’s better than the alternative (Paul, 1993b). Richard Paul (1994)

    writes that considering opposing views is crucial to developing critical thinking "in the strong sense." Critical thinking in the strong sense goes beyond merely applying technical thinking skills and becomes a way that "frees one from dominance by the views, the frames of reference, the worldviews" that one is exploring (p. 182).

Academic Controversy by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith (1997)

    outlines a five-step procedure for structured four-student group projects that engage students in exploring opposing views on an issue. Two pairs of students in each group are assigned the pro or con position, each pair begins by exploring the assigned position.

     Step 1. Each pair researches its assigned position and plans how to develop an argument

    presenting the evidence and reasons that support its assigned position.

     Step 2. Each pair presents its well-developed argument to the other pair. Each side listens attentively, taking notes and seeking to understand the other's position.

     Step 3. Students engage in free discussion, persuasively supporting their position and refuting

    the opposing position by criticizing its weaknesses.

     Step 4. Each pair reverse its positions and sincerely presents the best case possible for the

    opposite side, using notes from their step 3 discussion and additional information. Both sides

    try to understand both positions equally well.

     Step 5. Students abandon advocacy of their assigned position to formulate a position all four

    students can support. This requires a synthesis of both perspectives into a new position that

    incorporates the best evidence and reasoning of both sides. The students finish by writing a

    single group report supporting their new consensus position.

    The five-step group procedure encourages a group to look honestly at both sides of a controversy, but individual students often have trouble overcoming their prejudices and misconceptions. When thinking about controversial issues, students can delude themselves by cultural and ego-serving barriers that block a clear and honest consideration. Peter Elbow (1973, 1986) recommends a method that individual students use when they want to deal in a ruthlessly honest way with a difficult emotional and intellectual issue. Elbow calls his method playing the believing game and the doubting game; it asks the student to consider both sides of an issue with full sympathy for both sides, to take a dialectical approach to opposing views. To play the believing game, students must imagine that they genuinely believe everything they read in a text and fully sympathize with the values that support it. They need to identify with people like the text's author whose experience has taught them that this point of view is right, honorable, and logically consistent.

    The doubting game is a search for the errors and limitations of the thinking and values that support a position. Discovering logical fallacies, identifying invalid or weak evidence, and uncovering shallow or self-serving values in an argument can result from playing the doubting gamewhether it is the students' own position they are pretending to doubt or opposing views to which they genuinely object. By discovering the limitations of the other side, students can have more confidence in the validity of their views. By discovering by ruthless examination the weaknesses of their own position, they can find better evidence, better reasoning, and more significant values to support it.

    In actual practice, the believing and doubting games take written form in three ways: margin annotations, notes, and nonstop freewriting. Here are the instructions:

     Margin Annotations and Notes: Reading as a Believer

    Write page annotations and notes, reading the text as a believer, agreeing with everything

    you read. Understand the line of reasoning, seek out the evidence, appreciate the values

    that support the position. Underline them, identify them in the margins, transfer the

    annotations to your notebook.

     Margin Annotations and Notes: Reading as a Doubter

    Then read as a doubter, challenging the reasoning and evidence. Look for weaknesses

    and gaps; reject the values that support the position; come up with problems that the

    author does not deal with well; think of examples from your experience or reading that

    counter what the author is saying. Note these objections in the margins; transfer them to

    your notebook.

     Nonstop Freewriting in the Roles of Believer and Doubter

    As a final step, do two nonstop freewritings of 10-30 minutes each: once as a believer,

    then for the same length of time as a doubter. Play the roles well; identify with people

    who hold those beliefs and doubts. Respond to the text and your notes. Use the fast, free-

    associating, noncensoring process of nonstop, controlled, focused freewriting to promote

    an emotional and intellectual connection with both sides of the issue.

    8. Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides.

Whether groups employ the Academic Controversy approach (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1997),

    or individuals play the believing-doubting game (Elbow, 1973, 1986), students can be asked to propose a solution acceptable to both sides of an issue. I first learned of the mediatory argument in one of the textbooks I use: The Aims of Argument, 3rd ed. (2000) by Timothy W. Crusius and

    Carolyn E. Channell; published by Mayfield. As far as I know, it is the only college argument textbook that teaches how to write an argument to mediate or negotiate. All the other textbooks I’ve examined teach how to write and analyze a position paper or persuasive argument, and until I discovered Aims of Argument, they were the only kinds of argument I taught. The purpose of

    the argument to negotiate, according to Crusius and Channell, is to seek consensus within an audience polarized by differences in a context where there is a need to cooperate and preserve relations.

    Like other forms of argument, the mediatory argument requires reasons and evidence and a clear understanding of opposing views. But unlike the argument to support a position or to persuade, the mediatory argument seeks to persuade opposing sides to resolve the matter in a way that satisfies both sides. This approach can extend students’ thinking beyond their simply supporting

    one side of a dichotomy. Johnson et al. (2000) report that students using their approach in cooperative contexts are better at understanding perspectives other than their own initial position on an issue.

II. Online Strategies for Promoting Interactivity

    All the active-learning strategies for teaching thinking described in section I can be used with individual students learning alone. However, students interacting with other students has some benefits that should not be passed up. A sense of being in a safe community helps some students take intellectual risks, helps people-oriented learners acquire the course content, exposes students

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