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The Teaching Exchange: Fostering Critical Thinking

This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

The Teaching Exchange is a forum for teachers at Vanderbilt to share their pedagogical strategies, experiments, and discoveries. Every issue will highlight innovations in teaching across the campus. This ‘exchange’ offers strategies from several different instructors for fostering critical thinking among students.

George Becker, Associate Professor of Sociology
There are two general approaches that I find helpful in producing a classroom setting conductive to critical inquiry. These involve 1) the establishment of an environment in which both parties, student and teacher, function as partners in inquiry, and 2) the employment of a set of questioning strategies specifically geared to the acquisition of higher-order thinking and reasoning skills.

Central to making students feel they are partners in a community of learners is the creation of a climate of trust, so that students feel safe in offering their own ideas. I try to foster a sense of “we-feeling” by asking, for example, “How can we explain this development? What does it mean to us?” Using plural pronouns creates a dialogue that has less of an adversarial tone and underscores the idea of students and teachers as partners in inquiry. I have also found that learning student names as quickly as possible is essential for developing trust. At the beginning of each semester, I ask everyone to bring me a small snapshot (photocopied student IDs work well), and I can review the photos prior to each class. Student compliance is, of course, voluntary.

I give students a rationale for the value of an interactive classroom. I assure them that interaction is not designed to embarrass them, but rather to facilitate learning and make the subject matter more interesting. This lets students know they have some control over class proceedings and that their insights and contributions will be validated in our mutual quest for understanding.

One particularly effective strategy, adopted from my colleague Larry Griffin, is to provide students with the option to “pass” on a particular question. Interestingly, I find that while students welcome this option, they rarely invoke it. It does serve as a motivator as well as an opportunity to exercise reasonable decision making. Another key ingredient is the element of humor. Laughter causes the release of certain chemicals in the brain that help build long-term memory. I try to let humor evolve naturally from content-related dialogue and present it in a good-natured fashion.

The practice of questioning is also central to the development of critical thinking. There are two relatively simple strategies, dealing with aspects of the question-and-answer sequence, that I have found work well: 1) careful design of the questions, and 2) providing sufficient response time.

Preparing for a class, I construct several pivotal questions that address the key facts and concepts of the lesson. These are designed to help students apply their knowledge and understanding of the course content at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Questions seeking to engage students in analysis usually contain such words as interpret, discover, compare, and contrast. Questions designed to facilitate synthesis usually contain such words as imagine, formulate, generalize, of hypothesize. Questions directed toward evaluative thought generally contain terms such as judge, assess, revise, and criticize.

To maximize the value of questioning, the issue of response time is critical. From the teacher’s point of view, it is considered “wait” time, while for the student, it is “think” time, the time it takes to formulate a response. I make it a practice to build in two specific blocks of wait/think time for each questioning episode. Once I ask a pivotal question, I try to remain silent for three to five seconds to allow students to formulate their answers. When a student responds, I pause for a second time, again without comment of reaction. This prompts further thought and comment on the part of the student and provides an opportunity for others in the class to continue thinking of additional responses.

Leonard Folgarait, Professor and Chair of Fine Arts
The following is excerpted from a presentation on “Effective Learning Strategies” offered as part of the Junior Faculty Teaching Series, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Vanderbilt Alumni Fund. The focus session was co-facilitated by Prof. Folgarait as invited senior faculty.

Even a lecture can be an opportunity to encourage critical thinking among students, as long as the teacher takes the time to be very intentional in planning the content, organization, and presentation on such a way as to promote an interactive experience.

Regarding content, I keep two things in mind: students need objective information, such as historical dates, but they also need a larger, conceptual framework to tie the facts together and produce meaning. This easier in the humanities, but it is possible in any discipline. Our concern should be that the objective information tell us something about the human condition: Why are science and math, for example, important to us?

I try to organize along a theme for the course as a whole and for every lecture, so that each class is self-contained and cohesive, and so that the lectures relate to each other in terms of overall theme, remembering that these are generalizations and need specific, concrete examples.

I try to involve students and create an interactive environment before asking questions that elicit both simple and complex responses. For example, a question seeking a simple answer would be, “What political system was overthrown by the French Revolution of 1789?” A more complex response would be generated by asking, “How do we, today, experience the results of that revolution?” I try to do this often, so that students are given a voice and feel empowered enough to risk thinking critically during a dynamic lecture experience.


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