Using writing assignments of various kinds to stimulate critical thinking.
Writing stimulates learning in at least two ways. First, writing demands that one refine one’s thinking about the subject at hand in order to render it intelligibly on the page. Writing is "a highly fluid process of problem solving requiring constant monitoring of progress toward task goals" (Bruning and Horn, 2002, p.25). This process unfolds over time and across different phases: first as prewriting and precomposing, then revising and editing, and finally evaluating one’s overall product (Olson, 1992). Each of these stages requires a variety of thinking skills to identify and evaluate one’s knowledge and manipulate it linguistically. Instructor feedback throughout this process helps build students’ writing and thinking skills, and is essential for students to develop their ability to use writing as a vehicle for promoting critical thinking.
Second, the act of writing not only clarifies the writer’s view of the subject matter, it also changes the writer’s relationship to that material, how it does or does not connect to specific parts of one’s own life or what aspects of it one is willing to internalize or reject. Cook-Sather (2003) used the metaphor of "translation" to describe this transformative process, and described how her students interweave their own experiences with the course material in their writing. Further, Rickabaugh (1993) found that students who wrote about the ways in which course material connected to their own lives outperformed students who did not.
A classic writing assignment in almost any discipline is a research-based term paper. The acquisition of an academic yet clear written voice is a difficult task for many students (e.g., Ashley, 2001). To scaffold this experience in their critical thinking inquiry class, Justice, et al (2007) used Hubbuch’s Writing Research Papers Across the Curriculum as the foundation upon which students built their academic writing skills. Some teachers have found that students can help each other acquire good writing habits by reviewing each other’s papers and even collaboratively editing them. Finally, to make the writing of a formal paper feel more immediate and useful to a student, some teachers require students to incorporate their research into the form of a proposal to some specific person or group in the real world.
At a less-formal level, many teachers have found that using writing as an informal springboard for critical discussion can be quite effective, even in large classrooms. Hobson and Schafermeyer (1994) describe specific assignments that facilitate critical thinking and that can be applied to large size classes including in-class short response questions, mid-period short response questions, group responses, self/peer assessments, and a "question box." Outside the classroom, some teachers leverage the comfort students today have with the Internet to stimulate thought and dialogue about course material via e-mail, blogs, and course management systems like Blackboard (e.g., Greenlaw and DeLoach, 2003; Hull 2003).
Finally, at a personal level, many teachers require their students to reflect privately in writing throughout a course. Mayo (2003) required students to write an observational diary in which students had to reflect in writing about how theories and principles discussed in class are related to everyday observations in their own lives. Similarly, Rickabaugh (1993) discussed the use of weekly written assignments prompting students to integrate course content and real-world applications. Both activities require students to reflect on what that they have learned, compare and contrast it to their own experiences, and synthesize these reflections into a written product. Many teachers find this an important way to connect personally with their students outside the classroom.
Research has shown that integrating writing assignments that focus on students thinking critically has been associated with higher grades (Mayo, 2003), in depth exploration of ideas (Simpson & Courtney, 2007), and higher levels of critical thinking (Liu, 2006; Tierney et al., 1989). Importantly, classes which depend upon writing to stimulate critical thinking need not demand grueling effort from the first week of class. In fact, some teachers strategically sequence assignments across the semester to help students build their critical thinking skills over time.
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