GSU Master Teacher Program: On Critical Thinking


This file briefly discusses (1) what is critical thinking, (2) general principles for teaching students to achieve the critical thinking level, (3) achieving critical thinking through the interactive lecture, (4) effective cooperative group characteristics, (5) a literature review of the effectiveness of cooperative groups, (6) the forming and norming of cooperative groups, and (7) group activities that encourage critical thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

In his book How We Think, John Dewey defined critical thinking as "reflective thought"-to suspend judgment, maintain a healthy skepticism, and exercise an open mind. These three activities called for the active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief in light of the ground that supports it. Dewey's definition suggests that critical thinking has both an intellectual and an emotional component. Thus we view critical thinking as the intellectual and emotional ability to go beyond the known without "falling to pieces". Students must be taught to examine, poke, question, and reflect on what they have learned. Skepticism, questioning, and reflection are essential. Examine a problem, find a solution, think about why you were or were not successful, and learn from your successes and failures. In summary, critical thinking involves students in doing things (probing, questioning, etc.) and thinking about the things they are doing (reflecting, evaluating teacher feedback, etc.).

Recently Business school curriculums have begun to emphasize critical thinking. The Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC) has been among the leaders in the revolution. The importance of critical thinking permeates all sections of the AECC's Position Statement #1. "Objectives of Education for Accountants," including the appendix on "learning how to learn."

  • Students must be active learners in the learning process, not passive recipients of information. They should identify and solve unstructured problems that require use of multiple information sources. Learning by doing should be emphasized. Working in groups should be encouraged. Creative use of technology is essential.

  • Accounting classes should not only focus on accounting knowledge. Teaching methods that expand and reinforce basic communication, intellectual, and interpersonal skills should be used.
  • General Principles in Achieving Critical Thinking

    To think critically, students must learn general problem solving skills and develop a usable knowledge base. What specific general problem solving skills constitute critical thinking? The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a commonly-used assessment instrument, defines five key skills: drawing inferences, recognizing assumptions, drawing conclusions, interpreting data, and evaluating arguments. Developing these problem solving skills promote a "can do" positive attitude. We recommend two approaches to teach problem solving skills. First, embed the above problem solving and critical thinking modules across the curriculum. Second, if a stand-alone course is offered, we recommend including transferable problem solving models such as the Kepner-Tregoe method, Max Black's methods of informal logic and Dan Cougar's creativity processes.

    Teaching students so they develop a useable knowledge base requires four strategies. We must teach students how to

  • learn meaningfully; they must attain fluency in the subject. Students must be at least bilingual in that they can explain business concepts in at least two of the three business languages; words, pictures, or mathematics. Meaningfulness is the ability to accurately explain complex concepts in one's own words or symbols.
  • economize and generalize knowledge. Integrating frameworks economize knowledge. An effective framework succinctly represents knowledge much as one picture represents 10,000 words. However, teaching them to memorize our frameworks won't work. Faculty must teach their students how to build their own economizing structures. We have already recommended teaching students how to build concept maps or compare and contrast tables.
  • generalize knowledge. Many undergraduate students are still concrete learners. They must be taught to go beyond the concrete, tangible, and visual. They must be taught to think abstractly.
  • find underlying first principles in what they have learned. Helping students to discover the underlying structure or first principles, not merely memorizing it, helps students to generalize their knowledge.
  • Achieving Critical Thinking through the Interactive Lecture

    The interactive lecture, or the lecture - discussion format, follows a simple format. The instructor begins with a 15 to 25 minute (or more if necessary) mini-lecture and then asks students to form cooperative learning groups and complete an in-class assignment based on the mini-lecture . Then the instructor delivers another mini-lecture. The instructor repeats the learning exercise/mini-lecture sandwich throughout the semester. Additionally, faculty can use cooperative learning groups for outside-of-class projects.

    Faculty often pay a price for using in-class learning groups. These include reduced topic coverage, greater student discomfort, and reduced lecturing. Reducing topic coverage often causes faculty to feel guilty of "short-changing" their students. However, the reward of seeing students improve their critical thinking often outweighs the faculty's' guilt feelings. Faculty may also believe that students who have been passive and competitive learners will not like the cooperative environment. Finally, faculty often don't like reducing their lecturing; after all, many are effective lecturers. They also fear that using learning groups is like a director "turning the play over to the actors." These are reasonable concerns.

    Balancing Content and Process: Choosing what to teach (or eliminate) is difficult. Elimination of topics should always be done in a collegial manner. Consult with those faculty whose courses might be affected. Also ask students, business professionals, and discipline-specific accrediting agencies as well. Constructing a Pareto chart from feedback from all stakeholders will quickly indicate candidates for elimination. The goal should be at least a 20% reduction in subject content.

    Students can be held responsible for topics not discussed in class if faculty provide them with topic cognitive objectives and an effective text or supplementary materials are available.

    Balancing Lecture and Process: Lecture less and have students interact more. Smith's study indicates that increased student participation and peer interaction are correlated positively with improved critical thinking scores on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and Chickering Critical Thinking Behaviors Test. A panel of the American Medical Association suggested that the hours spent in medical school lecturing should be reduced by one-third to one-half. A comparison of cost effectiveness of four academic strategies concluded that working with classmates is the most effective way for increasing college student achievement.

    The most brilliant lecture will not foster critical thinking if there is no time for students to explain ideas, raise issues, question premises, and reflect upon what they are doing. Our recommendation is to try cooperative learning in a very limited way, perhaps one episode per week. Ultimately, set aside at least 20% of class time for peer interaction activities.

    Effective Cooperative Group Characteristics

    When the following five characteristics are present, cooperative learning will outperform competitive learning:

  • There is positive interdependence among group members.
  • There is personal responsibility and individual accountability for all group members.
  • Members reflect upon and critique their group processes.
  • Groups learn to manage conflict effectively.
  • Groups use operating rules or norms to achieve effective face-to-face interaction. Effective operating rules include the nominal group method and the thinking aloud paired problem solving method.
  • Are Cooperative Groups Effective?

    Educational researchers have conducted over 375 studies comparing cooperative and competitive learning. The overwhelming evidence is that cooperative learning groups produce (1) higher student achievement, (2) increased critical thinking competencies, (3) greater liking for the subject, (4) lower student attrition, and (5) higher self esteem. In short, cooperative learning groups are effective.

    Cooperative learning achieves the rote and meaningful-integrated learning levels. Focusing on studies of college students, Johnson, Johnson, and Smith reported that the average student in cooperative learning performed at about three-fifths a standard deviation above their competitive learning student counterparts ("For me to win, you must lose."). For many undergraduate courses, this translates into a five to seven point increase in average student performance.

    Large classes can also benefit from cooperative learning. Students in cooperative learning groups in class sizes of 120 at Georgia State University outperformed students in the traditional lecture approach by over seven points. In a survey of 800 college students enrolled in large classes, Wulff, Nyquist, and Abbott reported that the second most frequently cited factor contributing to success in large classes was "other students." Too often, faculty underutilize these key and readily available resource.

    Cooperative learning achieves the higher-order reasoning skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. On average, students in cooperative learning performed at over nine-tenths a standard deviation above their competitive learning student counterparts. McKeatchie found three factors that accounted for student gains in critical thinking competencies; (1) discussion among students, (2) explicit emphasis on problem solving methods, and (3) verbalization of methods and strategies to encourage development of metacognition.

    Cooperative learning promotes positive attitudes towards the subject and perhaps attracts "majors". A major conclusion of the Harvard Assessment Seminars was that cooperative learning groups resulted in a large increase in student satisfaction with the class. A three year longitudinal study in psychology found that seven students taught by the discussion method majored in psychology whereas no students taught by the lecture method majored in psychology.

    Cooperative learning experiences reduce student attribution. The five year retention rate for African-American students majoring in math or science at Berkeley who were taught using cooperative learning groups was 65% versus 45% who were not involved in the learning groups. The percentage of African-American students who graduated in math was 44% versus 10% in the control group not participating in the learning groups. Finally, Executive MBA students at Georgia State University cite the learning or study groups as the most critical element to successfully completing the masters degree.

    Cooperative learning promotes higher levels of self esteem. Focusing on studies of college students, Johnson, Johnson, and Smith reported that the average student in cooperative learning achieved about three-fifths a standard deviation above on self-esteem measures than their competitive learning student counterparts.

    The evidence is clear and compelling. Cooperative learning can be effective. But merely placing students in groups and telling them to work does not promote higher achievement or increased critical thinking competencies. There is much more to learning using cooperative groups than throwing students together and seeing what develops.

    Effective Groups

    Faculty must help student teams form effective teams and provide them with effective operating structures. In forming groups, faculty must make three decisions. They must determine how to form heterogeneous groups, what the group size should be, and whether to maintain group membership the entire semester.

    Forming Groups: The goal is to obtain heterogeneous groups. Faculty may use the value line method (see Powerpoint slides), major or culture, or a random mechanism such as playing cards.

    Group Size: Groups of four or five are effective for both theoretical and pragmatic reasons. Groups of size four or five provide substantial podium, or speaking, time for each member during the group's deliberations. Also groups of size four or five are easy to form using the playing cards (with jokers for groups of size 5). The playing card suits (diamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades) simplifies assigning roles to team members. Also if groups of two are desired, subdividing the teams by the black and red suits simplifies dyad formation. Forming groups of five provides a safety net for times when a team member misses class.

    Permanent vs. Temporary Groups: Semester-long groups are effective because:

  • groups need time to learn how to work effectively as a team, and
  • team balance is difficult to achieve. So once obtained, "don't fix it unless it is broken."
  • On the other hand, rotating team members is effective because

  • students learn how to work with a variety of students, and
  • some students may become stereotyped as "dissenters" or "loners." Forming new groups provides them with a fresh start.
  • The seating arrangement within most large classes makes it difficult to rotate team membership. We recommend permanent team membership for classes over 40 students.

    Group Operating Structures: Unstructured groups (those with no formal operating rules) are less effective than structured groups. We recommend the TAPPS and Nominal Group structuring methods.

    Activities for Achieving M-I Learning and Critical Thinking

    Now that groups have been formed, faculty can assign the following group activities. Under the guidance of the teacher, group members can

    1. check each others' homework.
    2. develop prototype exam questions (award bonus credit to useable questions).
    3. form reading pairs to comprehend text or outside readings.
    4. answer faculty-developed questions in class.
    5. jointly review each other's class notes and add "commentary."
    6. jointly construct notes after hearing a mini-lecture.
    7. formulate individual integrative essay questions, develop model responses, and then answer each other's essay questions.
    8. build compare and contrast tables or concepts maps.
    9. teach concepts to each other
    10. seek to uncover the general principle(s) based upon discovery teaching.


    Additional Readings

    John Dewey, How We Think, (Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1982, Originally published in 1910).

    John Dewey, How We Think, (Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1982, Originally published in 1910).

    Accounting Education Change Commission, AECC Urges Priority for Teaching in Higher Education, Issues Statement No. 1, (Torance, CA: August 1990).

    Goodwin Watson and Edward Glaser, Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanavitch).

    C. Kepner and B. Tregoe, The New Rational Manager (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton Research Press, 1981).

    Max Black, Critical Thinking, (New York: Prentice Hall, 1952).

    J. Daniel Cougar, Creative Problem Solving and Opportunity Finding, (Danvers, MA., Boyd and Fraser, 1995).

    D. G. Smith, "Classroom College Interactions and Critical Thinking", Journal of Educational Psychology, 1977, 69(2), pp. 180-190.

    C. M. Fields, "Medical Schools Urged to Stress Critical Thinking" Chronicle of Higher Education, 1984, 29(5), pp., 15.

    H. G. Levin, G. Glass, and G. Meister, Cost Effectiveness of Educational Interventions, (Stanford, CA: Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, 1984).

    D. Johnson, R. Johnson, and K. Smith, Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity, (Washington, D.C." The George Washington University, 1991)

    D. H. Wulff, J. D. Nyquist, and R. D. Abbott, "Students' Perception of Large Classes", In Teaching Large Classes Well, edited by M. E. Weimer, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

    W. McKeachie "Teaching Thinking", Update, 1988, 2(1), p.1.

    R. Light, The Harvard Assessment Seminars, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1990)

    H. Guetzkow, E. Kelly, and W. Mckeachie, "An Experimental Comparison of Recitation, Discussion, and Tutorial Methods", Journal of Educational Psychology, 1954, 45, pp. 193-209.

    P. U. Triesman, "A Study of the Mathematics Performance of Black Students at the University of California, Berkeley", Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1985.


    This material can be copied and used for educational, non-profit purposes only. Copyright: Harvey J. Brightman, Georgia State University

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