September 21, 2011

Critical Thinking and Writing in Science and Math

It was just announced this week that Passaic County Community College has won a $4.1 million federal grant to improve college students' success in science and math and get high school students engaged in those fields. The funds come from the U.S. Education Department's Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. (More than half of PCCC's students are Hispanic.) The Education Department has sought to boost training in what are known as the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in order to help American students compete in an increasingly high-tech, global marketplace.

In our writing initiative, we have now redesigned six courses in science and math as writing-intensive. Those courses are: College Math, Statistics, Environmental Science, Biology I, Biology II and Microbiology. Part of our approach to WI course redesign is to include the explicit use of critical thinking (CT) assignments and techniques in the writing activities. Scientific critical thinking is different than the CT found in a literature class. Though certain standards, such as open mindedness, relevancy and accuracy, certainly go across disciplines, a familiarity with the nature of science, the experimental method and the knowledge base of a particular science changes most teachers approach to CT.

 Critical thinking skills that are often noted as essential in STEM areas include:

  • Distinguishing correlation from cause and effect
  • Distinguishing analysis from description
  • Understanding reductionism and knowing when to use it.
  • Recognizing important variables in complex phenomena
  • Isolating and testing variables
  • Knowing the value of prediction (versus retrodiction) 
  • Distinguishing scientific evidence, reasoning and rationalizing
  • Exercising sound reasoning in understanding
  • Making complex choices
  • Understanding the interconnections among systems
  • Framing, analyzing and solving problems

We can look at retrodiction as an example of a skill that is probably unfamiliar to many people. Retrodiction is the act of making a "prediction" about the past. That's an idea that is hard for students to grasp at first. You would speculate about uncertain events in the more distant past so that you can "predict" a known event in the less distant past. If greenhouse gases had been capped at a certain level in 1950, what effect would it have on the current readings? If a murder victim's body had been refrigerated for a month before it was discovered, how would it affect an autopsy findings? It is used in archaeology, climatology, evolutionary biology, financial analysis, forensic science, and cosmology.

Hands-on, project-based math and science curriculum activities are often the nest places for students to think critically about the use of math and science in solving problems. In the taxonomy of higher level thinking skills, this deepens their knowledge of the basics.

This approach is used in many K-12 curriculum too. WGBH offers teachers a number of classroom resources at

The problem based learning approach (PBL) can be seen in "PBL in Action" activities such as The Wing Strength Design Project and Geometry in the Real World: Students as Architects offered by sites such as and

Further Reading
Developing Reflective Judgment (Jossey-Bass Education Series)

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