July 18, 2012

Assessing Critical Thinking in Writing

Our Writing Initiative rubric for evaluating critical thinking in student writing is very simple. It has three competencies that we feel should be made evident in the assignment, and that should be evidenced in the resulting papers. There are many aspects of critical thinking that might have been used as measures, but we chose three that we felt were common to almost all good writing assignments.

The three competencies are:
1) Find appropriate evidence and accurately interpret it
2) Identify pertinent arguments pro and con and rebut those arguments that counter to your thesis
3) Draw a thoroughly justified conclusion(s)

We ask instructors to have students indicate when they submit assignments to their portfolios which assignments best address critical thinking competencies. Part of that request is because we want students (and faculty!) to be very conscious of critical thinking elements in the assignment.

At the start of the Initiative in 2008, we realized early on that instructors too quickly said that "all my assignments use critical thinking" but were then unable to actually point out where that critical thinking occurred.

The assessment of this area in writing samples has shown improvement the past five years. Students are most capable in achieving competency in evidence gathering and interpretation and in drawing conclusions. This can partially be explained because these skills are addressed through research in not only WI classes but in other courses as well. The competencies we stress in our information literacy component also reinforce these two areas. The development of argument and drawing conclusions are a focus in Composition I & II essays, and are stressed in the College Writing Exam essays.

The weakness that is evident in our analysis is one that keeps many papers in the “competent” part of our rubric rather than receiving a rating of “accomplished.” We observed in earlier years and have addressed in subsequent Faculty Institutes, that many instructors create assignments that require a single argument rather than the more “accomplished” criteria of addressing multiple and counter arguments.

That also affects the third competency, since a writer addressing only one point of view will most naturally arrive at only one conclusion.

In some writing situations, such as in the sciences and on the College Writing Exam, multiple arguments are actually seen as “going off topic.” We have made very conscious efforts this past year in our training and when working with faculty on assignment creation to have them create assignments which allow and encourage multiple perspectives on an argument.

In our analysis of portfolio samples from the fifth year, we again found improvement in all three competencies but competency 2 (argument) both showed the greatest improvement and still remains the weakest area. 

Our conclusion is that this is an area that needs to be addressed by more courses using writing across the curriculum. The problem may be more in the assignments that are given, than in students' ability to accomplish the task.

All of our rubrics, including the critical thining rubric, are available online.

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