If you’re like the majority of college instructors, you teach critical thinking skills in your course. However, you might also be looking for some additional ideas and activities that help students build those skills.
In Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing, authors John Mauk, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk help students learn how to recognize and understand the techniques and strategies performed by skilled academic writers, and then execute and develop these techniques in their own work. The three activities below, taken from this book, can serve as writing prompts that get students thinking—and writing—critically and creatively. After students complete the writing activity, you could also use these questions as the starting point for classroom discussions, which could further encourage students to employ their critical thinking skills as they articulate their ideas and respond to their classmates’ work.
Evaluating and using various sources
Think about the present condition or state of a particular practice like Facebooking or a public trend like voting among college students. Do some online research on your topic and find out what others are saying about it. Try to find the thoughts of both average people and scholars in the most relevant discipline (communications or culture studies). In an essay, describe the trend [by using the following steps]: apply a supportive source, draw from a vital source, and synthesize. Develop a thesis about your topic that takes various viewpoints into account. Keep going back to your sources, letting them inform each new idea you develop. Search for insights in your sources and apply them, in the form of summary, quotation, or paraphrase, as you develop your points. (Cite sources according to the documentation style your instructor specifies.) (Mauk et al., 68-69)
Living in a society means adopting, and probably wrestling with, some basic concepts, such as freedom, responsibility, patriotism, justice, nature, childhood, adulthood, and terrorism, and more specific concepts, such as religious freedom, free market capitalism, corporate responsibility, and social justice. Consider one of these concepts and discuss how it influences your thinking or daily life. (74)
Architecture on college campuses makes claims. The structures and geography indirectly assert ideas about learning, education, enlightenment, freedom, and so on. The paved roads winding their way through a commuter campus might say, “Thanks for coming. See you next time.” The immense stone columns on a library might say something about the immensity of an intellectual tradition. Or the flashing lights of a student union might assert something about an institution’s timeliness or trendiness. In a small group, consider a piece of architecture (a statue or building) on your campus. Closely inspect the details and find a pattern that suggests an argument. Do the details add up to some point about education, freedom, learning, hardship? Also consider the context. What is the relationship between the subject and the surroundings? Do they complement one another or oppose one another? Try to express that argument in writing. (106-107)
What activities and strategies do you use to help students develop their writing and critical thinking skills? Share them in the comments.
Reference: Mauk, John, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk. 2014. Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
© 2014 Cengage Learning.
Some Guidelines for
Critical Thinking and Writing:
Critical thinking is a lot more than merely following a format for construing a paper, "challenging assumptions," and observing "different perspectives," to name a couple of biggies. It is still all a matter of what and how - the important, elusive dimensions rooted in values and abilities. You could for instance follow the pattern below and still praise some proto-Nazi perspective.
The following six parts may be viewed as a rough outline for a research paper. They also constitute the six dimensions that must find expression in any substantial, critical development of analysis and opinion. Not just for research papers - these six dimensions of critical thinking and writing should also be applied when writing a shorter review or contemplative essay.
Shorter texts also need structure, progression, and focus, all of which the six dimensions will assist in establishing. I encourage you to apply these dimensions to any writing assignment in my classes, from the very first one early on in the semester to the final assignment; whether a grand research paper, a review, or an essay.
Your work with the material (a novel, a scholarly text, a philosophical treatise, a poem, a film, a saga, or an idea - or two or more of the above) is at the very heart of class, and will, when pursued conscientiously, transform itself from lesser to greater confidence and ability.
It is therefore important that from the outset, with every writing assignment, you consider the implemention of each of these dimensions of critical thinking. Then, with every assignment, you will familiarize yourself with their dynamic, strengthen your communicative abilities, and make your contribution to critical thinking and writing.
IIdentify the basics of the topic
This is the introduction to your paper. Present the importance of the issue, outline context and potential ramifications. End your intro with a paragraph providing an overview of the following paper.
II Analyze the material
Analysis may be employed in different ways using different methods. Define your concepts and discuss your method. Analysis is about examination and synthesis: investigating components, identifying their qualities, strengths, and weaknesses, and connecting those in a coherent manner, demonstrating their relevance and importance for the whole. Always question content and relevance!
IIIAddress different perspectives
Consider different viewpoints on the material. Never assume a certain perspective to be self-evident and obvious. Different analytical perspectives may reveal different ideas and understandings of the same event or idea. This analytical dimension requires examination and critique of scholarly opinions on your material.
Identify and assess assumptions and ideological perspectives to be found in historical and social contexts. Interpretation is also conditioned by your own assumptions, cultural, and ideological bias. Analysis and interpretation is ultimately about disclosing and examining such contextually determined points of view.
V Identify own position
Your own opinion on the material in opposition to those of other sources, may be presented in a particular section, for instance after your objective analysis of the material and your discussion of different perspectives. You may also choose to inject your voice as a discussant throughout your paper. This is most effectively done in an objectifying manner without continuous use of the pronouns "I" and "my."
Consider the importance of your findings and their implications. Tie all strings together in an overview. Emphasize the qualities and importance of your investigation, and briefly outline directions for further study.
Good writing is to good thinking what a functional suitcase is to travel: it enables you to focus on your journey!
In other words, even if you are "on the right track," or have genuinely grasped the essence of something, but then, unfortunately, deliver it in a "muddled" way, unstructured, "all over the place" - then you cut yourself short.
In contrast, reading and understanding is a pleasure, when intriguing observations are displayed in flowing, grammatically correct language, with a varied vocabulary and sentence structure, and within a logical outline. Clear writing and composition always enhance the impression of thoughts.
Check out different approaches in the Great student papers list.
Kim Andersen, Honors College
Washington State University