September 14, 2011

Writing and Critical Thinking

There seem to be as many definitions of critical thinking as there are courses that include it. We have a writing intensive section of our critical thinking class, CT 101, here at PCCC. I have taught one of those sections since last spring.

There is at least general agreement in what I read about using critical thinking (CT) that these components are part of what using critical thinking in an academic setting includes:
  • Mindful, conscious, reflective thinking about the task before making decisions about what to believe or do.
  • Being able to assess the authenticity, accuracy, and the value of information (evidence) and arguments.
  • Self-directed inquiry, analysis and critique.
The reason why critical thinking fits so well into a writing initiative is fairly obvious when you look at those elements. They already look very much like what we are teaching in traditional writing classes when we teach the essay or research writing. By that, I mean writing/critical thinking elements such as:
  1. Using a process to evaluate a thesis (proposition, hypotheses, judgment) and then supply well-supported evidence. 
  2. Determine if the evidence found is valid
  3. In that process (of decision-making, research, problem-solving) generate options, looking at opposing viewpoints and make discriminating judgments.
  4. Arrive at a conclusion(s) that is the most reasonable based on the evidence.

In our own Initiative faculty development, we have now trained more than 50 full-time and part-time instructors in teaching WI courses which includes writing pedagogy, critical thinking and information literacy. It is sometimes surprising to instructors how well those three areas work together,

Perhaps the biggest myth we have to dispel is that "every course already has critical thinking."  Though certainly every course has the potential for CT and students are always "thinking", unless the teacher and the students are aware that they are using CT techniques and are asked to reflect on that process, there is little resulting improvement in those skills.

One aspect of this that we have found in our analysis of the Initiative is that our students are better at finding evidence than they are at discriminating appropriate evidence and being able to accurately interpret it. This is no new finding. The use if the Internet has made all of us better at finding information, but has no positive effect (possibly a negative effect) on evaluating and interpreting what we find. Those two latter skills need to be consciously taught. They are not learned by simply being asked to find information or "do research."

There are many sites online that deal with critical thinking and also CT and writing. Our CT101 course site and sites like are good starting places. There are other colleges working on these initiative. We have crossed paths at several conferences with the folks at Georgia State who are doing a CT and writing program.

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