Critical Thinking Discussions
Westchester Community College
Discussion forums are commonly used in online courses as a medium for students to develop critical thinking, communication, and information literacy skills. An effective way to meet these objectives is to use an explicit critical thinking framework, in which students are given specific instructions on how to structure their posts. This assignment is structured around the model of critical thinking developed by the Critical Thinking Community. Students are required to submit an initial post, two replies to their classmates’ initial posts, two responses to replies received from classmates, and a final post, by specific deadlines over a seven-day period. Postings must follow specific requirements (i.e., quoting statements, using critical thinking terms, etc.) for full credit to be earned.
Most institutions of higher education include the development of critical thinking, communication, and information literacy skills as core student learning outcomes. In online courses, discussion forums are often used as a medium in which students can develop these skills. A controversial, unanswered, or debatable question is presented, and students are instructed to present their reasoned conclusion. Then students are instructed in one way or another to discuss the issue with their classmates.
In my experience, the best way to ensure that discussion forums are effective in having students develop critical thinking, communication, and information literacy skills is to use an explicit critical thinking framework in which students are given specific instructions on how to structure their posts. Without this guidance, many students will approach the forums as chat rooms, using a non-academic writing style and commenting superficially on posts expressing views that accord with their own.
I use a critical thinking framework based upon the model of critical thinking developed by the Critical Thinking Community (http://www.criticalthinking.org). In this model, thinking is analyzed by identifying the elements of thought (i.e., the question, the thinker’s purpose, the thinker’s point of view, the information presented, the inferences drawn, the assumptions made, the concepts used, and the implications that arise from the conclusions). The thinking as presented is then evaluated in relation to universal intellectual standards, which include accuracy, clarity, precision, depth, breadth, logic, relevance, significance, and fairness (Paul & Elder, 2000).
In their initial post, students are instructed to find an online source to inform their thinking on the issue and to present a rationale supporting their conclusion to the question. When posting replies to their classmates’ initial posts, students are instructed to quote the specific statement to which they are responding, to identify the element of thought within the statement, and to ask a question focused on a specific intellectual standard. For example, a student can ask a question that targets the clarity of the thinker’s use of a particular concept. When posting final posts at the end of the assignment, students are instructed to reflect upon how their thinking developed in relation to the intellectual standards, by quoting and discussing specific statements made by their classmates.
An additional feature of these discussions is that they are student-driven. The role of the instructor is primarily to monitor the discussion. For the first discussion forum assignment in the course, I reply to every student’s initial post to model how the replies should be structured. For subsequent assignments, I only reply if the student received fewer than two replies. After the discussion forum closes, I post an announcement that includes feedback on the class’s overall performance in meeting the requirements, followed by a commentary on the discussion forum topic.
Paul, R. W., & Elder, L. (2000). Critical thinking: Basic theory and instructional structures handbook. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.