If you’re like the majority of college instructors, you teach critical thinking skills in your course. However, you might also be looking for some additional ideas and activities that help students build those skills.
In Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing, authors John Mauk, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk help students learn how to recognize and understand the techniques and strategies performed by skilled academic writers, and then execute and develop these techniques in their own work. The three activities below, taken from this book, can serve as writing prompts that get students thinking—and writing—critically and creatively. After students complete the writing activity, you could also use these questions as the starting point for classroom discussions, which could further encourage students to employ their critical thinking skills as they articulate their ideas and respond to their classmates’ work.
Evaluating and using various sources
Think about the present condition or state of a particular practice like Facebooking or a public trend like voting among college students. Do some online research on your topic and find out what others are saying about it. Try to find the thoughts of both average people and scholars in the most relevant discipline (communications or culture studies). In an essay, describe the trend [by using the following steps]: apply a supportive source, draw from a vital source, and synthesize. Develop a thesis about your topic that takes various viewpoints into account. Keep going back to your sources, letting them inform each new idea you develop. Search for insights in your sources and apply them, in the form of summary, quotation, or paraphrase, as you develop your points. (Cite sources according to the documentation style your instructor specifies.) (Mauk et al., 68-69)
Living in a society means adopting, and probably wrestling with, some basic concepts, such as freedom, responsibility, patriotism, justice, nature, childhood, adulthood, and terrorism, and more specific concepts, such as religious freedom, free market capitalism, corporate responsibility, and social justice. Consider one of these concepts and discuss how it influences your thinking or daily life. (74)
Architecture on college campuses makes claims. The structures and geography indirectly assert ideas about learning, education, enlightenment, freedom, and so on. The paved roads winding their way through a commuter campus might say, “Thanks for coming. See you next time.” The immense stone columns on a library might say something about the immensity of an intellectual tradition. Or the flashing lights of a student union might assert something about an institution’s timeliness or trendiness. In a small group, consider a piece of architecture (a statue or building) on your campus. Closely inspect the details and find a pattern that suggests an argument. Do the details add up to some point about education, freedom, learning, hardship? Also consider the context. What is the relationship between the subject and the surroundings? Do they complement one another or oppose one another? Try to express that argument in writing. (106-107)
What activities and strategies do you use to help students develop their writing and critical thinking skills? Share them in the comments.
Reference: Mauk, John, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk. 2014. Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
© 2014 Cengage Learning.
In the Education Tips series, education experts offer suggestions about how you can improve your English skills. This week, Babi Kruchin, a lecturer at the American Language Program at Columbia University in New York City, talks about writing and critical thinking.
For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.
Developing ideas in writing is the greatest problem that students face, says Babi Kruchin.
She serves as a lecturer in the American Language Program at Columbia University in New York City.
Students, she says, can learn language rules, vocabulary words, and even how to structure essays. Learning how to develop ideas in writing is what proves most difficult for them.
Why is critical thinking important?
When Kruchin talks about the development of ideas in writing, she is referring to critical thinking – the ability to think clearly and form a judgment.
Writing, she says, shows how a person thinks. Students who have not learned to think critically often have a hard time developing ideas in writing.
Schools and employers put a high value on critical thinking skills. The importance of critical thinking shows up on standardized tests, such as the SAT with its "Critical Reading" and "Writing and Language" sections.
Such tests measure how well students understand arguments, judge information, and make inferences. These skills are very important for success not only in school, but also in the workplace.
Diane F. Halpern is a professor of psychology emerita at Claremont McKenna College in California. She writes that critical thinking is an important skill to develop in life.
"Critical thinking is using the skills or strategies that are most likely to lead to a desired outcome. It is the sort of thinking we should be engaging in when deciding what and whom to believe, which of two job offers to accept, or whether vaccinations really do cause autism."
Halpern adds that critical thinking is a skill that is important in the modern job market.
"Those who care about the future for today’s children understand that the jobs of the future will require the ability to think critically. So let’s be sure that our students are ready for college, careers and citizenship by including deliberate instruction in critical thinking. It is probably the most difficult topic to teach and learn, but it is also the most important."
Critical thinking is hard to teach and hard to learn
Babi Kruchin of Columbia agrees that critical thinking is hard to teach and difficult to learn. She says that students can overcome grammar and vocabulary problems. Developing an original idea, then supporting it, is what students find difficult.
"Sometimes the writer might think 'Oh! I have the topic sentence, I have the supporting details.' But there is no depth of thought … How do you really analyze and interpret and explain all these ideas?
"You can take care of the grammar, you can take care of the vocabulary, you can take care of the format, but the depth of development – the critical thinking part of writing – is, I think, the greatest issue that any domestic or international student faces ...
"It's not articles, it's not conjunctions – because these are all teachable things, and these are all learnable things. And critical thinking is also teachable, and students are able to learn, but it's harder to teach and to learn."
So, if learning critical thinking is difficult, what can you do?
Kruchin suggests that students can start improving their writing and critical thinking skills by reading.
Students, however, should not read without a goal in mind. Students should be active readers by studying how other writers build their arguments. In other words, they should consider the critical thinking of each author they have read.
Kruchin says that students should consider the writing of an author by asking a few simple questions while reading:
"How is the content organized here? How is the writer connecting these ideas? Look at the quote that the writer used. What comes after this quote? Does the writer just leave it as is, or analyze it and adds his or her own idea?"
The goal of this exercise, Kruchin says, is for students to develop the ability to understand how others think. In addition, it helps students to discover the critical thinking resources that they have inside themselves.
"Because writing is thinking, it is a reflection of how somebody thinks. So it is the constant exercise of seeing how other authors think and then training the students to …
"I don't think we teach critical thinking. It is almost a way to get the students to see inside and see that yes, they do think critically – we all have opinions, we all have judgments. But how do we voice them in an academic form?
"It is an exercise in using the resources that are already exist within the students. I don't believe they are less intelligent; some may not be as well trained in this discourse."
What can you do?
The next time you are reading a book or an opinion piece in a newspaper, try to ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What is the argument that the writer is making?
- What evidence does the writer use?
- How does the writer present their ideas?
- How is the writer connecting their ideas?
- How does the writer evaluate information?
Asking these questions will give you a point to start understanding how other people think. It will also help you to think about how you can write better – and practice your critical thinking skills, too.
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
refer – v. to have a direct connection or relationship to (something)
critical thinking – n. actively turning a thought or information over in one's head and following its path to the end and decision; the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
objective – adj. based on facts rather than feelings or opinions
analysis – n. a careful study of something to learn about its parts, what they do, and how they are related to each other
evaluation – n. a judgment about the value or condition of (someone or something) in a careful and thoughtful way
inference – n. the act or process of reaching a conclusion about something from known facts or evidence
analyze – v. to learn the nature and relationship of the parts of (something) by a close and careful examination
resource – n. an ability to deal with and find solutions for problems