A significant aspect of Surry Community College’s critical thinking initiative involves creating quality critical thinking assignments. We require faculty to design assignments that allow students to demonstrate critical thinking skills within the respective discipline. The resulting student work may be collected for a college-wide assessment of students’ thinking abilities as part of our general education outcomes assessment process.
Critical thinking is fostered through outside assignments and projects as well as through daily classroom activities that allow students to practice critical thinking. Surry’s approach to implementing critical thinking in all courses and programs thus involves (1) a focus on creating high-quality assignments that formally measure students’ critical thinking abilities and (2) a focus on developing effective classroom activities for practicing critical thinking within the discipline on a daily basis.
What Makes a Good Critical Thinking Assignment?
Faculty should design critical thinking assignments with four criteria in mind:
- Critical thinking assignments should address fundamental and powerful concepts and should be substantive and meaningful.
- Critical thinking assignments should identify and require students to use cognitive skills associated with critical thinking.
- Critical thinking assignments should identify and hold students' thinking to clear intellectual standards.
- Critical thinking assignments should ask questions requiring reasoned judgment within conflicting systems or complex questions requiring evidence and reasoning within one system.
These four criteria must be met for a critical thinking assignment to be considered "standard" at Surry Community College.
Critical Thinking Assignments Should Demand Deep, Critical Thought
Critical thinking assignments should be significant in scope and should require deep critical thinking. Sometimes, assignments billed as "critical thinking" require only that students think in a pre-established pattern or that students answer questions or solve problems by repeating information found elsewhere. In such assignments, the thinking is too shallow or limited to be considered truly critical.
In order to assess the quality of students' thinking, we must engage students in activities that require them to make the correct cognitive moves in a sequence that works. In other words, students must logically and accurately think through and solve a new situation or problem, using the correct set of concepts and skills. It is important that the situation or problem is new to the student-this prevents students from memorizing the solution to the problem and mimicking the solution without thinking through it or even understanding it.
A good critical thinking assignment focuses on fundamental course concepts and requires students to use cognitive skills associated with thinking critically. (Those cognitive skills, drawn from the elements of thought, intellectual standards, and intellectual traits, provide the framework for the college's critical thinking rubric.)
A Few Words about Technical Assignments
Many technical assignments require students to use the concepts and skills they have learned to design, create, or build something. For example, students may be asked to create a database and design queries that produce the correct information. Or they may be asked to wire a house, build an engine, or repair an air conditioning unit.
Certainly if students are using their knowledge and skills to solve a new and unique problem, they are thinking. However, we can't fully assess the quality of thinking simply by determining whether or not the computer program, or the engine, or the air conditioning unit works. High quality critical thinking assignments of this nature not only require students to design, build, or create something that works, they have other layers that encourage students to think critically and with greater depth and breadth.
Of course we can-and should-assess students' work based on whether their creation (a database, for example) works or not. However, critical thinking assignments should be enhanced by adding layers to the assignment to be assessed after the students have the database working, for example. In other words, once the database and queries are complete, we could assess the depth and breadth of students' thinking as it relates to their work, not whether or not they could create the database.
How can we add this "thinking-about-your-thinking layer" to assignments? A few suggestions follow.
- Ask students to explain and analyze their thinking as they design their program, build their engine, create their mechanical drawing, etc. Have them identify and analyze the information they use, the inferences they draw, the assumptions they make, the key questions they ask, etc. If they write out the logic behind their creation, we will be able to assess their thinking in addition to the product of that thinking (the program, the engine, the drawing).
- Ask students to keep a list of mistakes they make as they design their program, build their engine, create their mechanical drawing, etc. Have students explain why they made the mistakes, how they found each one, and how they corrected them. If they write about these mistakes, why they made them, and how they discovered them, we will be able to assess their thinking.
- Ask students to determine the problem or create the scenario rather than using a problem or scenario thought up by the instructor, or outlined in a textbook. In other words, ask students to create the problem as well as devise possible solutions to it. Having students create their own database and queries, for example, would require them to really think through the entire process. They would have to determine the kinds of data they need, find that data, and create the categories required rather than using the framework given to them by the instructor (or the textbook), where the problem is already defined, the categories chosen, the necessary data outlined.
- Ask students to think through some additional questions that would help us assess the quality of their thinking. They could respond to the individual questions or combine them into an essay. Some questions to consider:
- How could you modify the program (engine, etc.) to make it...
- Describe some other possible applications of the program or technique.
- Compare and contrast this technique to other techniques.
These kinds of questions would require students to increase the depth and breadth of their thinking.
For any of these options, students can submit their work in writing or as a class presentation.
We want to design assignments that will allow both students and faculty to assess the quality of students' thinking. Both the students and the faculty can use this assessment to improve the quality of thought. This is what critical thinking is all about.
A Shared Vocabulary is Important
Surry Community College aims to build consistency across the curriculum by exposing students to the same critical thinking vocabulary in every course. This common language is important because it shows students that they are being asked to use and improve the same thinking skills in every class. Faculty should not assume that students understand why certain assignments or activities are billed as “critical thinking,” or that students easily connect the dots from class to class. It is the faculty’s job to make these connections transparent, so that students can begin to transfer these critical skills.
Faculty should therefore integrate the language of the Paul and Elder model in every assignment that requires critical thinking. This should not be done in a forced manner, as an artificial overlay or afterthought. Critical thinking concepts included on assignments should be relevant to and essential for the assigned tasks.
For example, on the assignment handout, faculty should explicitly identify the cognitive skills necessary for completing the assignment, allowing students to see the particular mental moves required for the task. Faculty can also incorporate the relevant and significant intellectual standards in their grading criteria. Again, this should not be a meaningless add-on. The intellectual standards give faculty and students a precise, consistent way of describing and assessing good thinking in any discipline.
Using this shared vocabulary will improve and expand students’ critical thinking abilities. By graduation, students will have heard the language of critical thinking—repeatedly. They will have practiced these cognitive skills in various disciplines and contexts—on a regular basis. They will have applied the intellectual standards to their thinking and that of others—consistently. They will be aware of, able to employ, and ready to assess the intellectual moves required for thinking critically. Furthermore, graduates will understand that these intellectual skills can be used effectively in all aspects of their lives: These skills aren’t “just for school”; this is learning for life.
In order to be successful critical thinkers for life, students must be able to transfer these skills to other venues: to future coursework, to their careers, and to their personal lives. A common language used regularly college-wide, and specifically in course assignments, is necessary to facilitate this transfer.
Basic Components of a Good Assignment
Critical thinking assignments should be written, distributed in class, and thoroughly articulated, including these basic components
- clear and precise explanation of the task, including the purpose of the assignment
- list of the cognitive skills required to complete the assignment
- precise description of the grading criteria (including relevant intellectual standards)
Faculty Evaluation Portfolios
Faculty should include critical thinking assignments in their evaluation portfolios along with a sampling of graded student artifacts. Division chairs and deans will assess these assignments. In the coming years, faculty should continue to include in their portfolios new or recently modified assignments that require deep critical thinking and that reflect the language of the model.
Archive of Good CT Assignments and projects developed by SCC faculty
English and Communications
Humanities and Social Sciences