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Course assignments do not adequately support students' critical thinking.
Students may not engage in effective critical thinking in your course simply because they have not had sufficient, relevant practice of the skills you are looking for. For example, if your first assignment or assessment asks students to demonstrate critical thinking in a particular way for a particular context, but your students have had little or no experience doing so, it’s not surprising that they would perform poorly. This is because the knowledge and skills that people can use are directly related to (and rarely go much beyond) what they get to practice. Even when students have had some critical thinking experience (in your course or elsewhere), the key question is whether they have been adequately prepared to do the kind of critical thinking you are expecting from them on a given assignment. Instructors may not think of learning and performance this way because, for them, all the knowledge and skills associated with a given topic are so interconnected that knowing one piece is tantamount to knowing it all. However, this is not the case for students who are still novices in the domain and lack experts’ interconnected knowledge structures.
The most important feature of an effective course is how well its key components – learning objectives, instructional activities, and assessments – are aligned with each other. For example, instructional activities and learning objectives are well aligned when students have the chance to learn and practice what you want them to be able to do by the end of the course; learning objectives and assessments are well aligned when the course assessments actually measure what you want students to have learned to do.
To check the alignment between a given assignment or assessment and the preceding instructional activities in your course, the first step is to analyze what knowledge and skills students likely developed as they went through the preceding instructional activities (e.g., what skills did students practice while doing homework or contributing to class discussions) and then check to see if those skills would be sufficient to perform well on the target assignment or assessment. It often helps to ask: Did students need to integrate multiple pieces of knowledge to perform well on the target assignment? Did students need to apply their knowledge and skills to a rather novel context? In many cases, there are mismatches or gaps between the knowledge required for different assignments. This is particularly true when you consider that students likely only develop the specific knowledge and skills that they actually use during practice, rather than the broader set of information they might have passively heard during a lecture or read from the textbook.
After identifying the mismatch or gap, the next step is to decide what action to take based on how many knowledge components (and their importance) that students might not have developed. Sometimes the degree of mismatch is rather small, so there is no urgent need to take action. Other times, the degree of mismatch is rather large with one assignment requiring key pieces of knowledge or skills that were not taught or practiced at all.
Once you have identified gaps or mismatches – i.e., the component skills of critical thinking that students need to learn – give them assignments that target those skills. In other words, if students are having difficulty with a particular aspect of critical thinking, make sure your assignment focuses on that aspect and gives them enough structure to practice it productively. Giving students generic practice will not be as efficient as targeted practice and may not even lead students to develop the skills you hope for. For example, simply asking history students to read more primary source documents for practice will not push them to move beyond their current approach (i.e., reading the documents as if they were written yesterday), and it may lead them to waste time or practice bad habits. Instead, it would be more effective to focus students' practice by giving them a short list of historical factors they should consider and prompt questions they should answer when reading primary source documents.
Just as construction workers use supports or scaffolding to help in building physical structures, so does "instructional scaffolding" help students build solid knowledge structures. Instructional scaffolding refers to the process by which instructors provide students with cognitive supports early in their learning, and then gradually remove the support as students develop greater mastery and sophistication. Here are two forms of scaffolding that can help students develop stronger critical thinking skills. In the first, instructors give students practice working on particular aspects of critical thinking in isolation before asking them to "do it all at once" in a given assignment. For example, early on in a reading-heavy course, you can ask students to identify the author's argument and evidence and separately ask them to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses, and then later in the course, you can ask students to identify and evaluate arguments at the same time. Similarly, early on in a design course, you can ask students to explain the key features of their designs separately from asking them to iterate and improve, whereas later on in the course, these processes may all be merged together. Breaking down assignments into pieces highlights the importance of particular stages (especially ones that students may undervalue or omit), and it gives you a chance to offer feedback on the different components separately. But remember that, after students have had practice with particular skills in isolation, they still need practice synthesizing and applying them in combination. The goal of this form of scaffolding is to help students progress toward (not to avoid) more complexity and integration.
In the second form of instructional scaffolding, students are generally tackling "whole" critical thinking tasks, but early on they are doing so with much more support in the form of instructor-provided structure and prompts. In other words, you might consistently ask students to engage in critical reading tasks but early on in the semester you would give them explicit guidance and specific question prompts to answer whereas later on in the semester you might only remind them to pose and answer appropriate questions while they do the reading. Similarly, early on in a design course, you might give an assignment with several well specified milestones related to conceptualizing, analyzing, and refining a design, whereas later on in the course, you might give a design project with only a list of requirements for submission. The point of this form of scaffolding is that assignments progress from those with considerable instructor-provided structure to ones that require greater or even complete student autonomy.
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