Explore potential strategies.
Students are not comfortable being critical or challenging.Sometimes students don't view themselves as having sufficient expertise or authority in a given context to challenge others' ideas. There are many reasons this may be the case, including students' cultural background or their individual personality. For example, students from some cultural backgrounds may consider it inappropriate to challenge an authority until they have developed expertise of their own; until then, being deferential to experts – for their greater knowledge and experience – is more appropriate. Likewise, students who are by nature non-confrontational may feel uncomfortable arguing against an authority or each other. For a variety of reasons, then, you may have students who avoid critical thinking and instead remain silent during discussions or show discomfort in the face of argumentative discussions.
A participation rubric specifies the features you are looking for in students’ class participation and, for each feature, describes different levels of performance. For example, in a participation rubric you could specify the highest level as "student actively participates in discussion of class readings, explaining the strengths and weaknesses in authors' arguments with reference to concepts covered in class" and a lower lever as "student participates in class and can summarize class readings but rarely questions authors’ arguments or perspective." Regardless of how you specify the different levels, the key idea is to do so in a way that helps students understand your expectations and typical ways students depart from those expectations. A participation rubric also allows you to efficiently give students feedback on their class participation, by making reference to the descriptions therein.
Reassure students that it is ok to challenge authority in appropriate ways and that you value their constructive criticism (especially of readings, work being discussed by the class, etc.). Then, when students appropriately voice a critique, take a moment to point out how their comment exemplifies the critical thinking you are looking for. Remember that, for students who are not comfortable engaging in critique, your positive feedback can be especially helpful in supporting them to step outside their comfort zone. Moreover, it may be helpful to remind students that there can be value in this kind of intellectual discomfort – i.e., discomfort is often what pushes us to grow and develop.
When there is a task that students find difficult, providing structure is often a way to make it easier. Here, giving students a more structured discussion format can help them feel comfortable engaging in critique during class. For example, you can assign students specific roles (e.g., devil's advocate), have students taken on a perspective other than their own, or set the class up for a debate. Beyond class discussions, you can structure your assignments such that the critiquing part is clearly specified, emphasizing to students that they are supposed to critique and how. For example, as part of a reading assignment, you can ask students to write up three criticisms and bring them to class, or for an oral presentation assignment, you can require to include both arguments "for" and "against" the position they are presenting.
Even when students know that you expect them to engage in critique and can recognize appropriate criticism when they see it, they may not have the skills or confidence to express their own critiques without (fear of) overstepping boundaries. You can give students sample language to help get them started ("I'm going to disagree with that idea; I'm just thinking out loud here, but …; This aspect of the text/product/solution didn't work for me because…"). You can also remind students of a few rules of thumb to help them avoid common pitfalls (e.g., criticize the idea rather than the person who offered it; speak in first person rather than second person to express your reaction or perspective).
Just as a picture can be worth 1000 words, a classroom situation (e.g., class discussion) in which you model appropriate criticism can give students a rich, contextualized sense of what they should be doing. If students are having trouble arguing against a particular authority, you can step in and offer a well placed critique. Then you can point out how your comment highlighted a weakness and yet was still polite and respectful.
Some students may continue to feel uncomfortable critiquing others or challenging experts' positions in a face-to-face situation or on the spur of the moment. In such cases, it may be worthwhile exploring additional ways for students to engage their critical thinking skills. For example, the same task may be more manageable when students have more time and space to formulate their ideas or build up their confidence. Minute papers (in which students take a minute – or two – during class to write their ideas privately), discussion boards, and office hours are three very different venues you can include to supplement regular, in-class discussion. Other options include giving students the option of coming to you during office hours to help them vet a critique they will give during class, or giving students advanced warning on the kind of positions you will ask them to critique.
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