The Use of Assessment Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

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The Use of Assessment Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Science

The Use of Assessment Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Science.

Dr Megan H. Hargreaves*

Queensland University of

Dr Al T. Grenfell,

Queensland University of Technology,

* Presenting Author

Abstract: Critical thinking skills are considered to be invaluable generic skills in science education, particularly at University level. Unfortunately, they are frequently not taught explicitly, the assumption being that students will learn from the implicit values buried deep within our teaching philosophies. In recent years some universities have been attempting to bring the teaching of such generic skills to the forefront, and so improve student learning of these most basic and important skills. This study was part of a larger project undertaken by the Science Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, designed to develop assessment methods that would encourage and develop particular critical thinking skills in university science students. Appropriate skills were identified and categorised into hierarchical skill levels, according to the SOLO taxonomy. The taxonomy was applied to various specific disciplines and to levels of teaching within those disciplines. The small project described in this paper consisted of a research inquiry method used to teach and assess critical thinking skills with third (final) year Microbiology students, studying Environmental Microbiology. Students worked in groups to identify an environmental problem, research the background, carry out investigations and present a report in the form of a scientific paper suitable for publication, plus a seminar. Feedback was provided at all stages of the project by assigned tutors. The project has been underway for three years, and the results are very promising. Students abilities to develop hypotheses, critically assess data, solve problems, draw conclusions and investigate alternatives were demonstrated at high SOLO levels.

Keywords: Critical thinking, Microbiology, Research-based learning, SOLO taxonomy, AssessmentIntroduction

Despite recognition by Universities over the past few years of the importance of generic skills, and the need to include such skills in lists of graduate outcomes, there is still a pervading culture amongst academics, which maintains that learning of skills such as oral and written communication, problem solving, information literacy and critical thinking, should be restricted to an implicit, rather than explicit curriculum. There seems to be a widely held belief that students will learn by example (Paul, Elder & Bartell, 1997), will be able to discern via overt teaching of content the philosophy and principles that underpin our belief systems, and the generic skills that are essential to build, maintain and communicate that content. As student-staff contact hours decrease, the chances of students being able to perform this learning feat intuitively become increasingly remote. It is rapidly becoming imperative that the vital generic skills be transformed into an explicit component of the curriculum. This is particularly important in Science disciplines, which are traditionally content-driven. Academics tend to bemoan the fact that they no longer have time to cover all the facts in their courses, and are loath to waste precious teaching time on such side-issues as generic skills. While many dedicated people are working tirelessly to transform this attitude, it is also possible to strategically address the very genuine concerns of teaching academics, particularly with respect to a perceived lowering of academic standards. The use of assessment as a learning motivator is one way of teaching generic skills without jeopardizing the learning of discipline skills.

The project reported in this paper was part of the Assessment for Critical Thinking in Science project, based on a number of aspects of teaching and learning research, which will be briefly described in the following section. They are: Assessment for learning; Critical thinking in Science; the SOLO taxonomy; and Research-based Inquiry learning. Following this background, the study itself will be described in detail, followed by the study results and evaluation.


1.Assessment for Learning

Assessment practice, more than any other practice in higher education, communicates to students the type of learning required of them (Biggs, 1992). Numerous researchers have found that assessment practices impact strongly upon what students learn, and the approach adopted toward study. Students alter their approach to learning in line with the perceived requirements of the learning context (Ramsden, 1992; Trigwell & Prosser, 1991). Indeed, Elton and Laurillard (1979) write of something approaching a law of learning behaviour for students; namely that the quickest way to change student learning is to change the assessment system (p100). Biggs (1995) describes this concept as backwash wherein assessment drives not only the curriculum, but also teaching methods and students approaches to learning. Entwistle and Entwistle (1991) found that, while lecturers may claim high quality learning outcomes such as conceptual understanding, critical analysis and independent interpretation, which require students to adopt a deep approach to learning, the assessment practices adopted often seem to encourage much more limited goals, namely the accurate reproduction of course content. One aspect of deep learning approaches is the development of generic skills such as problem solving, thinking critically and making judgements. These are identified as two of the eight clusters of abilities identified by Nightingale et al (1995), which they considered essential for University students to develop, regardless of the discipline area of study (i.e. generic skills). They pointed out that there was a need to assess a broader range of learning outcomes, which has arisen due to the change in conceptions of the goals of a university education. The logical implication of these studies is that assessment may, with careful design and considerable thought, be used to encourage/motivate students to develop appropriate generic skills, in addition to knowledge and understanding (OLeary & Hargreaves, 1997). The assessment design should include not only what the students need to do, but also how they are expected to do it. Academics may put considerable thought into the topic of an assignment, but then choose an essay format. Since few professions use essays as a means of communicating, why not present the results in a format that will develop generic skills such as use of appropriate professional oral and written communication techniques? Why not encourage group interactions in the preparation of the result and have the students peer review each others work? Why not set assignments that require critical decision making, selection of valid viewpoints, proposal and justification of a hypothesis? The Assessment for Critical Thinking in Science project was based on the understanding that assessment tasks could be used for so much more than simply the testing of knowledge. Students could learn by undertaking such tasks as researching the assignment, performing synthesis and analysis of the gathered data, critical selection of the included material and last but certainly not least, adhering to the formatting requirements of the final presentation. 2.Critical Thinking in ScienceIn its simplest, dictionary definition (Websters New World Dictionary) critical thinking is described as characterized by careful analysis and judgment and critical, in its strictest sense, implies an attempt at objective judgment so as to determine both merits and faults. In an attempt to develop a more stringent and comprehensive definition, Scriven and Paul (date unknown) defined critical thinking as:The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.Historically, critical thinking can be traced back as far as Socrates, and has developed through the centuries, via the writings and teachings of such renowned scholars as Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Descartes and Sir Thomas More. Scientists such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton developed and used critical processes of thought that challenged the accepted views of the world and demanded a rigorous framework based on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning. The contribution of twentieth century educational philosophers such as Dewey, Wittgenstein and Piaget has been to highlight the importance of education in fostering critical thinking abilities, in order to challenge prejudice, over-generalization, misconceptions, self-deception, rigidity and narrowness. While it would be easy to assume that, given the historical and well-recognized importance of critical thinking skills, and the present recognition by Universities of their consequence, academics would not only be aware of the tenets, but also be actively seeking ways to teach such skills. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case. In a large study designed to identify emphasis by academics on critical thinking in instruction, Paul, Elder and Bartell (1997) found that, while an overwhelming majority (89%) claimed critical thinking was a primary learning objective, only a small minority (19%) could clearly explain what critical thinking actually was, and only 9% were clearly teaching for critical thinking in a typical class session. A similarly small cohort were able to provide a clear conception of the critical thinking skil


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