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May 26, 2005

Teaching students how to think

All students think, but many do not think well.

How can faculty harness students’ problem-solving skills and direct students toward meaningful critical thinking?

That was the subject of presentations made by two Pitt faculty members, one an economist who teaches a writing course for senior majors, the other an English instructor who teaches a variety of writing and literature courses, at a May 13 seminar titled “Teaching for Critical Thinking.”

The seminar is one of a series sponsored by the Summer Instructional Development Institute, part of the Center for Instruction Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

Now in vogue in educational circles and growing rapidly across disciplines, critical thinking is defined by educators as a self-directed, intellectually disciplined process involving conceptualization, observation, analysis, synthesis, reasoning, application, reflection and communication, according to background material distributed at the CIDDE seminar.

It owes its origins to noted American educator John Dewey (1859-1952), whose book “How We Think” first defined critical thinking as “reflective thought” that includes suspending judgment, maintaining a healthy skepticism and exercising an open mind.

Critical thinking theory has expanded to include drawing inferences, recognizing assumptions, drawing conclusions, interpreting data and evaluating argument, skills applicable to all fields of study, the seminar background material said.

As students learn to think critically, they become more proficient at interwoven modes of thinking: historical, philosophical, scientific, mathematical, and they attain fluency in the subject matter.

Critical thinking skills prepare students to:

• Gather and assess relevant information;

• Shape and evaluate ideas and experiences;

• Raise vital questions and problems;

• Come to well-reasoned conclusions;

• Formulate clear solutions, and

• Communicate effectively with others in reaching solutions to complex problems.

While those characteristics are more or less abstract, Frank Giarratani, director of the Center for Industry Studies in the Department of Economics, and Geeta Kothari, lecturer in the English department, offered practical applications of critical thinking drawn from their respective teaching experiences.


How an economist teaches critical thinking through writing

“The goals I have are rather simple,” Frank Giarratani said of his seminar for senior economics majors, a writing course with a typical class size of 15-17 students.

“Since it’s a writing course I want to develop writing and analysis skills — how something is working and why it’s working in a particular way — and further I want those skills to be lasting skills. On an even more fundamental level, I want students to appreciate the differences between, and the relationship between, description and explanation.”

Part of understanding that relationship is the recognition that accurate, careful, insightful description can help expose problems that might otherwise remain unexposed, and that same idea’s corollary: that the explanation itself might be completely off track if it’s based on poor description, Giarratani pointed out.

While the substance of the course focuses on a typical economics topic — the steel industry and its market fluctuations over a 40-year period — students are graded on their ability to demonstrate a command of the topic through written analysis on the readings and by representing data in graphs and tables.

The building blocks for the course, which has no exams, are nine writing exercises that move from the general to the specific, Giarratani said.

Students are asked early in the course to write an abstract in two parts based on assigned readings.

“The first is the descriptive abstract and the other an informational abstract and they have very different purposes,” Giarratani said.

In the former, the student is required to describe briefly the content of the reading. In the latter abstract, the student must explain how the author reached the findings based on the reading’s presented analysis.

“I want them to explain, in their own words, how the author got from that analysis to those findings, which is one of the first steps to getting them to think about and to understand what theory is, that bridge between analysis and findings,” he said.

Later writing exercises require students to incorporate narrative with graphical and tabular presentation.

These assignments build at least two skills, Giarratani maintained. “First, writing abstracts is a skill itself — something they can carry with them for the long haul — that is, the ability to read someone else’s work and say what it is and what’s important about it,” he said.

“Another skill, that is done very poorly by many people, is representing certain important data in table or graph form. First, take the data and put it into a tabular form, then describe it and then explain what you’re observing in those numbers: certain trends, certain breaks in continuity. Again, description and explanation.”

Giarratani distributes response sheets, tailored to each of the nine assignments, that show students in advance the criteria he will use to evaluate them.

For example, the informational abstract response sheet is used to grade students on a scale from 1-4 on each of the following criteria: the use of required format; the statement of the reading’s purpose or objective; the statement of the reading’s scope; the explanation of the methodology; the essential points to be drawn from the author’s analysis, and those customary necessities of all good writing, such as logical presentation, unified, coherent thought, use of language in sentence structure, clarity and precision.

In contrast, the response sheet governing the narrative coupled with a graph or table assignment grades students on: accuracy in describing the purpose of the graph; success at directing the reader’s attention to the major components of the graph, as well as to the significant properties of the information presented, such as trends, differences, variance or other measures; the student’s assurance of the economic analysis; the effectiveness of the overall argument and, again, use of proper sentence structure, clarity, precision, etc.

“I want them to do that systematically: Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish in this table or graph, here’s what I see in these numbers — lines of the graph are behaving in a cyclical way, or they’re going up or they’re going down — here’s how I explain that. This also is a tool that stays with them,” Giarratani said.

Later assignments include writing a report on the behavior of the steel industry in the context of a particular regional economy of the students’ choice, describing how that economy has changed and explaining the nature of the changes, and a concluding exercise of interviewing a top official from a local steel firm and then writing about what the student learned.

“It’s a wildly different experience for the students,” Giarratani said. “It’s a personal development device. It requires preparation. They have to screw up the courage. They have to have confidence that they know enough from their reading and writing to confront someone whose income depends on this industry with questions. ‘What’s your firm about? What do they do? How has your firm adapted to this dramatic change in the steel industry over the last 30 or 40 years?’”

Giarratani said, “It’s important to note, I’m not grading on writing criteria. I know little or nothing about writing criteria per se, other than the organizational stuff, like the logical presentation of thought, but that’s only a small part of the grade.”

Instead the grading criteria are based on the extent to which students can demonstrate in their own words a mastery of the field that Giarratani has “a comparative knowledge advantage in,” he said. “The criteria really are what I do, what I study, what I know, and how effective students are in demonstrating that they know the material. I would urge you [faculty] to do the same thing, to use as your criteria whatever your comparative advantage is, in your field,” he said.


How reading & writing can be used to access critical thinking

“The underlying belief in my teaching students how to read literature and how to write is that writing can be used to access thinking,” said Geeta Kothari.

“Writing is a process. There is pre-writing, that is, brainstorming, or list-making to get some ideas on the page. And then there are drafts and revisions. I try to formalize that process with a list of questions about a reading,” she said.

Kothari described slightly different approaches between two of the courses she teaches, “Women in Literature” and “Intermediate Fiction.”

The former course is a general education course, typically enrolling about 35 non-majors at all undergraduate grade levels, part lecture but mostly discussion in format, with a reading list of 10 books and five required papers.

The latter course is required for fiction writing majors, heavy on papers, in-class writing assignments and particularly difficult texts, with a reputation of being designed to scare off less serious students, Kothari said. The course draws about 22 students, who typically, though not always, are more mature writers.

In the Women in Literature class, Kothari begins by assessing the writing levels of the students through an in-class writing assignment on an readily accessible text, such as the short story “Theft” by Katherine Anne Porter.

“It’s a quick read, the structure is linear, it has a clear moment of realization at the end and a title that functions on multiple levels, both literally and figuratively,” Kothari said.

So the questions are simple and deliberately guided: What happens in the story? What does the main character realize at the end? What does that have to do with the story’s title?

The students read the story at home, but write in class. “The reason for that is I want to designate a short amount of time for this,” Kothari said. “I didn’t want them sitting at home stressing for two or three hours.

“Another reason I developed this strategy is because I hated that moment when you come into class and ask, ‘What is the point of view of such and such a character in the story? — and are greeted with dead silence, as students try to figure out who wants to be first, because they’re too scared to speak up. It’s a game of ‘chicken,’” she said. The in-class assignment forces everyone to answer the questions.

Kothari grades the assignments to let students know where they stand, but doesn’t count the initial grades.

Later in-class writing assignments are counted minimally toward the final grade, but the grading emphasis is on a student’s class participation, the five papers and the final exam.

Kothari chooses an effective essay from among those written in the first in-class assignment to give students a concrete example of what makes a good paper. “I also commented very lightly on each paper, and wrote a general set of guidelines — what one of my colleagues calls a ‘dear class’ response — on grammar or organization, or ‘You need to back up that statement with a text reference,’ — that is, the general reactions of what I got out of their papers.

Since “Women in Literature” is not designated as a W course, there is not much class discussion on writing per se; instead, Kothari stresses to students that writing is a tool whose purpose is to better enable the class to discuss the literature.

“That said, I did make them understand that they need to hand in well organized, well thought out papers,” she said.

Students were required to write papers on any five of the 10 books assigned for the term. “But I made them hand in the paper on the day we began discussion of the book in class,” Kothari said. “This is critical.” She’s learned that students tend to rely on class discussions for paper ideas. “I’m more interested in getting them to think and read on their own.”

A side benefit of this strategy is that students who had chosen a particular book to write on had read it more closely and done more thinking about it, which contributed to a higher level of discussion, she pointed out.

In the “Intermediate Fiction” course Kothari assigns much more difficult texts, such as “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje, a non-linear novel told from multiple perspectives.

“It is unlike anything most students have ever read,” she said. “It’s confusing and off-putting, and often forces them to read beyond their expectations of fiction. They don’t have to like the book. I tell them, ‘You can hate the book as much as you want, but you have to able to articulate that position.’”

Her goal is to teach how important close, thoughtful reading is to good writing, she said. “Most of them do understand that it’s important, but don’t know how to activate that, to make it work for them, and the questions I give them to write on are designed to get through a difficult, challenging text and to develop the kind of questions they might ask on their own.”

Authors of difficult texts often provide inter-textual clues about how to read their works, Kothari said. So several of her assignment questions reference page numbers to direct students to these clues.

“It’s an open book assignment,” she said. “I don’t exactly tell them what the clues are, but where to find them, and then when they do, to cite other examples.”

Very few of these questions should focus on content, she added. “We can talk about the nitty-gritty of the book in our class discussion. I try to get them to look beyond content to structure and to think, why is it presented this way?”

At that point, some students have a revelation, others are helped somewhat and some still don’t get it at all, she acknowledged. “And that’s fine, because at that point they understand why they’re not getting it. One thing this forces them to do is to own up to their responsibility as a reader and writer — if they haven’t read the book at all, or haven’t read it closely enough — and to think about what that means for their future efforts.

“These questions also take students back to the text, again and again and again, until they understand that’s it’s normal to go back, it’s good when you go back, instead of plowing through quickly, getting to the end and saying, ‘What did I just read?’ I can say it a hundred times, but they won’t believe me until they actually do it,” Kothari said.

“I try to construct open-ended questions while striking a balance between giving them what I know and letting them find things on their own,” she said. “In the end I don’t tell them what to say. I try to teach them to ask the right questions, which is often more important than the answers at this stage of their development, because if they’re asking the right questions, eventually they’ll find the answers.”

—Peter Hart

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