“We want the development of modal insan, students who can think critically and creatively, who are able to solve problems and have the ability to adapt themselves to an ever-changing global environment.” - Blueprint for Education Development, Malaysia (2006 – 2010)
ONCE UPON A TIME ….
A long time ago (early 2007) in a galaxy far away (Malaysia), there was a little boy (33 years old) who happened to be me. This little boy was suddenly entrusted to transform a dying course at the University entitled ‘Critical Thinking’. Here I was leading a Learning and Teaching Unit (in the Quality Assurance department) facilitating change and improvements to our e-learning approach, and managing a University wide ‘Thinking Skills Infusion Programme’ (TSIP). Although, I had trained many lecturers, senior lecturers and professors in using technology to facilitate learning, I had ironically never had any real experience in managing an actual course at the University.
Now, one of the leaders from our academic world figured rightly out that perhaps I needed some real experience to understand what it is like to be a lecturer, before having the right to lecture to lecturers on how to teach and facilitate effective learning (which makes perfect sense!). Also, since I had been managing the TSIP programme for over six (6) months, the “Critical Thinking’ course would be the perfect challenge and opportunity to test all my untested theories and suggestions on effective learning.
In a nutshell, I was asked to lead and transform the ‘Critical Thinking’ course, which is a requirement for all undergraduate students.
THE UNITAR WAY!
Although, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR) is currently becoming a more conventional University, it used to adopt a blended learning model, which usually included courseware, online forums, online tutorials (OLT), and Face-to-Face (F2F) tutorials. Every course is led by a course leader supported by tutors who facilitate their own sections. The course leader is responsible for guiding the tutors, and preparing the course plan, course materials, assignments, quizzes and exams. In addition, the course leader is responsible for correcting the final exams (40% - 50% of the course assessment evaluation), and giving the students’ final grade for all sections. The tutor’s role is to communicate with the course leader, facilitate the course for their section(s), and grade the coursework (50% - 60%).
COURSE REENGINEERING NEEDED?
Based on my initial unscientific findings, students found the course difficult to understand and the overall students’ satisfaction rates were lower than in other courses for the undergraduate level. In addition, both students and tutors complained that the lecture notes were not sufficient.
Although, the past course leaders seemed to have a done a good job facilitating their own sections, they failed based on my understanding to communicate and facilitate consistent quality to all the sections. Overall, students and tutors seemed frustrated with ‘Critical Thinking’, and some even questioned the relevance of this course. They argued that this course focused too much on theory and memorization, and failed to actually help students develop fundamental thinking, reasoning and language abilities that are needed for academic success.
Although, UNITAR had developed a reasonably good page tuning critical thinking courseware, the existing curriculum of the critical thinking course seemed to be mostly (80-90%) based on John Chaffe’s famous book “Thinking Critically” (6th Edition, 2000). Even the course objectives and topic outline seemed to be paraphrased out of the book. As UNITAR’s self-developed courseware was structured very differently from the course outline, it was hardly reflected or used by either the educators, or the students.
So, I began to read John Chaffe’s famous book “Thinking Critically” to get better feel of what the students were learning. Strangely, I kept on falling asleep while reading this book, and although the content is relevant and useful, the writing style and design of that book (I suppose the later versions are more engaging!) did not appeal or inspire my thinking mind. So, if I am falling asleep reading this book, what about the students?
In addition to this book, the course also recommended students to read another book entitled ‘Critical Thinking: A Student's Introduction’ (G. Bassham & Co., 2007). So, I explored the book, and found it more activity-oriented, engaging, and inspiring. However, I still felt that something was missing to spark the ‘Critical Thinking’ course to life.
So, I explored our ‘Critical Thinking’ courseware again, and was actually positively surprised with the quality of the content. However, since it was structured very differently from the course outline and it did not have a search function, naturally students found it quite frustrating to use.
Based on these surface level reflections, I felt (based on my limited knowledge) that I needed to revamp the whole course to really make any difference. However, I also decided to take advantage and extract the learning juices from the three original main course resources just mentioned. Based on my understanding, the problem with this course was not so much the content, but the process on how it was facilitated. Based on my findings, too little focus was given to engaging the student’s learning mind to question, analyze, synthesize, reason, problem solve, and make better decisions, which I believe is the essence of this course. Finally, and importantly for most of our students, English is their second language, and the student population consists of a colourful inter-religious/cultural/racial blend (Indian, Chinese, Malay, etc.), which especially the two recommended critical thinking books are not really tailored to.
Although, I was no master in ‘Critical Thinking’ (still the case!), I believed that I had enough reasons to take the risk to reengineer the course to make it more relevant and effective.
COURSE PLANNING & PREPARATION
Although, I was planning to reengineer the course, I felt that the original course objectives would remain the same, with just a minor twist. The role of the lecturer coaching ‘Critical Thinking’ is to:
- Teach the fundamental thinking, reasoning and language abilities that a student needs for academic success.
- Engage students in the active thinking process.
- Integrate the development of thinking abilities with the four skills: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.
As students seemed to fear the word “Critical’ more than thinking (tough one, too!), I suggested to change the name of the course to just ‘Thinking Skills’, but that was firmly rejected. Then I had this crazy idea to simply develop the course outline (modules and topics) and learning objectives, and let the students discover, explore, organize, adapt and construct the course content based on existing materials available on the web (User-generated content). This idea was totally rejected. Finally, I suggested to include a ‘Creative Thinking’ topic, which I felt was missing from the course, but that was also rejected. Creative thinking is different! So, instead I decided to infuse creative thinking into every single module of the ‘Critical Thinking’ course.
In the end, just before the semester started we managed to agree upon the course outline, which was:
- Introduction to Critical Thinking
- Thinking Tools
- Arguments = Part I + Part II + Part III
- Decision Making
- Problem Solving
Due to limited time, I constructed the content for each module during the 15-week semester, usually a week or two ahead of schedule. As our University was increasingly becoming more conventional, we were required to conduct a 2-hour F2F tutorial every week with our students. Although, we could use OLT, I decided not to, due to the nature of the course (real-time activity-based), number of students (300+), students status (mostly full-time), lack of broadband Internet access (for some), and that the group of tutors facilitating this course were reasonably experienced (more than me, actually!) and were fully capable of managing their own section(s) without my interference. As a course leader, I was also assigned to manage three (3) sections (90+ students).
However, to improve the possibility of consistent quality, I did prepare lesson plans (and student activity sheets) for the tutors, which gave them some idea on how I would conduct my tutorials. The lesson plans also included answers (if any), tips, and resource links to some of the puzzles, questions, and videos (YouTube) discussed in the presentation slides. In short, I provided them with some ideas on how I would facilitate the tutorials, but empowered them the freedom to think and do it their own way, as long as they covered the syllabus.
The main focus of the revamped course would be on students’ practicing, reflecting and improving their thinking skills, and less emphasize would be given to exploring critical thinking theories, concepts and the endless definitions associated with it. What is critical thinking anyway?
With this in mind, the course content was constructed focused on engaging the students to reflect and improve their ability to question, analyze, synthesize, reason, problem solve, and make constructive decisions.
To deal with the students fear and motivation to think critically, I decided to put Aristotle, Plato and Socrates on the bench, and introduce my new dream thinking support team led by Master Yoda, Mr. Bean and Inspector Gadget. They play a critical role in relaxing the learners’ mind to laugh, think, discuss and reflect their own thinking. If Mr. Bean can think critically, why can’t I?
Finally, to engage students to think, the content or presentation slides included a lot of thought provoking questions, puzzles, cartoons, pictures, quotes, and group activities to continuously spark the desire to explore the content further.
In short, I extracted and mashed up past learning references, added my flavour, and brought in assistance from another galaxy (e.g. Master Yoda) and Earth (e.g. Mr. Bean) to reengineer the content.
I made it a point from day one that students will have to think-out-loud in this class, and no one will be able to escape this. Of course to loosen up the overall fear, I would first gently force the most nervous or scared looking student in the class to answer an open-ended question with their own opinion. By giving this person encouragement and support to whatever the answer may be, the other students in the class might feel safer to participate. It actually works, even in Malaysia were students are often scared to talk and share their ideas in class.
Every F2F tutorial is broken down into four (4) sessions:
- Warm Up (5 – 15 minutes) – To awaken the students’ minds and bring the class to life, I would begin each class with a few brain stimulating activities, which could be a/an puzzle, question, picture, issue, or a quote.
- Lecture & Discussion (30– 40 minutes) – This session is very much like an interactive lecture, whereby I would explain, reflect and discuss together with the students the ‘Thinking Menu’ of the day.
- Group Activities (45 - 55 minutes) – In this session students are broken up into small groups (4- 6 participants) to collaborate on some relevant thinking activities. Each group have to choose their leader, and are given specific time frames to complete particular tasks (or using specific thinking tools), and then they need to summarize their answers or findings in writing, and finally one (or more) of the group representatives have to present and discuss the group’s output with the class.
- Sum Up (5-10 minutes) – Summarize the module and synthesize/evaluate/reflect the group activity findings.
Students are also required to share and rotate task duties, which will ensure that all students at least once or twice will have the pleasure to present the output to the class during the semester. By having such group activities in each class, students also get to practice their teamwork, time management, communication, listening, writing, and presentation skills while collectively thinking about important issues.
To make the group activities relevant to their learning, I tried to select interesting and meaningful discussion topics. For example, during the first F2F class group activity, students were asked to reflect what it means to be an excellent student and lecturer. They were asked to discuss, identify and rank the “Top 10” characteristics/traits/behaviours of an excellent lecturer and student. By the end of the class we together had actually negotiated what to expect from one another throughout the semester. I told them that I will try my level best to be an excellent lecturer according to their terms (caring, punctual, open minded, effective teaching, etc.), and that I hoped that they could be an excellent student accordingly (hard working, self-disciplined, active participation, honest, etc.).
By the end of the semester we had managed to discuss and reflect collectively a lot of interesting and relevant topics including global warming, great thinkers and inventions, whether entrepreneurship is genetic or can be learned, the essence of beauty, whether all-star wrestling is real or not, and much more. During the learning process students had also managed to explore several useful thinking tools including mind mapping, six thinking hats, CoRT, and SWOT Analysis.
Students were required to participate in two (2) online forums scheduled during the semester. Each forum carried 2.5 percent (total = 5%) of the course assessment evaluation. Assessment scheme for each forum was:
- 1.0 % - For your reflective response to the forum issue.
- 1.0 % - for reflecting, adding value or challenging at least one of your classmates’ responses.
- 0.5 % - for submitting your 1st response within the first week of the forum.
The assessment scheme was set to encourage early participation and threaded discussions (not just a list of short essay answers!).
In the first online forum, students were asked to argue who they thought was the greatest thinker of the 20th century, and in the second forum students were asked to discuss an invention (and the thinking process behind it) that had an influential impact on mankind.
Both forums turned out to be informative and dynamic. Especially, the first forum, where approximately 300 students joined one mega discussion, was a huge challenge beyond the capability of our in-house developed learning management system (LMS), and my browser. After having several mega headaches trying to manage and reflect hundreds of posts, I made sure in the second forum to chunk the discussion into groups based on the course sections, which were facilitated and marked by each individual tutor.
The good thing we can take from the online forums is that most students know about Wikipedia. The not so good thing was that many of the students simply copy/pasted from it without giving much thought, or any reference or credit to the source. Interestingly, a few students managed to copy/paste Aristotle, Plato and Socrates from Wikipedia (No comment!). There was even one case of a student copying another students’ excellent reflective answer from the forum itself, and then pasting it as his own answer with a minor change to the introduction and conclusion. Luckily, the student being plagiarised informed me about it, and I did the necessary to teach the plagiarizer a lesson he probably won’t forget.
Overall, it was a thrill to engage and discuss about great thinkers and inventions (and the struggles they went through) with the students, and many of them took these forums quite seriously, and some of their reflections and arguments were quite impressive. I was also impressed with some of the students’ reflective arguments for why they should get a better grade.
Students had to take three small quizzes, each carrying five (5) percent of the course assessment evaluation. One (1) quiz was conducted during a F2F class and two (2) quizzes were conducted online. I gave the students the opportunity to do each online quiz (multiple-choice) from any place within a one week period.
In the first online quiz, I used randomization of questions (from a question pool) and shuffling of questions/answers, and I had deliberately created a tough one to awaken and challenge the students to think early on in the course. Interestingly, only 3 out of 272 who took the first online quiz got 100%.
The second online quiz was based on the module 4 (Fallacies). This time around I did not use randomization of questions, but I did continue with shuffling of questions/answers. 60 out of 285 managed to get 100%, which was an astonishing result (and perhaps a much easier quiz!). Interestingly, I had constructed a ‘Two Wrongs Make a Right’ fallacy in module 4 which says,
“I don’t feel guilty about cheating on Zaid’s online quiz. Half the class cheats on his quiz.”
Strangely enough, in one section a whopping 20 out of 42 got 100% correct. The results were impressive, but something was not right. Then I discovered that 17 out of these 20 with full marks had completed the quiz in less than 3 minutes. Other students who did the quiz took on the average more than 10 minutes to complete. Also, one of the students had come to my office during the quiz period with a friend (in a giggling mood!), claiming that someone else had logged in as her, and done her quiz (and gotten only 90%!). She asked me to reset her quiz. So, to give her a second chance, I reset her quiz. She took less than 2 minutes to get 100%.
I told the students in the next class that some of them had cheated on the online quiz, and asked those who had done it to come forward and admit their wrongdoing. I also told them about the quiz completion time discovery, and that I had a list of all those that are likely to be guilty, and that this was also a test of integrity and character. After the class, the guilty came forward one by one to apologize for their wrongdoing. Although, they did something wrong, they showed great character to come forward and admit their mistake. To my astonishment, one student made it clear to me that they did not cheat, but instead argued that they had collaborated together to succeed. Now, that got me to think that perhaps we could also conduct online group quizzes in the future, which could be useful to facilitate collaborative learning in a quiz competitive mode. I suppose we all learned a few lessons from this incident.
Finally, if you are planning to conduct online quizzes, keep in mind that you will never know who is actually doing the online quiz, unless you have a witness (proctored exam), or it is done in a computer lab with surveillance, so that you can verify who is actually doing it. But then again if students really want to cheat, they will find a way. Besides minimizing the possibility of cheating, it is perhaps more useful to encourage and practice good values and behaviours during the learning process. In short, we need to practice good values and behaviours ourselves first, before we can expect such things from our students. Look who’s talking!
GROUP PROJECT & PRESENTATION
In addition to three (3) quizzes, two (2) online forums, and group activities in each F2F session, students were required to work on a group project, which would be presented to the class some time during the last four (4) weeks of the course. They were required to research a problem or issue of their choice, and then write a recommendation report with constructive suggestions on how to deal with it. Interestingly, I made it compulsory that everyone in the group had to present some portion of their project during the group project presentation. While all shared the same grade for the group project (15%), each student was evaluated individually for the presentation session (10%).
Although, there were many interesting projects and engaging presentations, I suppose the video showed by one of the groups of a person dying from AIDS (last moments!), is something that until today still lingers in my head. Overall, it was good to see that most of the students were confident enough to present and not chicken out. Although, many of the presenters perhaps faced the slides and notes more than the audience, we have to give them credit, because they were also presenting and articulating their findings in English, which is their second language. I suppose with more practice and encouragement, they can master the ability to present confidently with less supporting aids.
The final exams (50% of the total course evaluation) are conducted F2F at the students’ respective study centres. The ‘Critical Thinking’ course exam included a mixture of short essay and discussion type of questions. The final exam was divided into two sections:
- Section A (20%) – They were given five (5) questions (answer all) to check their understanding on the core concepts learned in this course. They were required to (depending upon the question) identify, describe, differentiate, and give examples.
- Section B (30%) - They were asked to identify the purpose (or main-point), analyze, evaluate and/or give their opinions/reasons/suggestions on an article, advertisement and a quote.
Having punished the students mentally to think-out-loud throughout the course, I suppose I made the final exam reasonably easy to pass (including juicy examination tips!), testing all the six (6) levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.
To be honest, I have never been a fan of final exams. If I had the choice I would instead add at least 30% of these marks for class participation (Currently only 5%). If I was to take any of those final exams I took during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I would surely fail this time around (Even if I got ‘A’ previously!). So, what are final exams measuring anyway? Then again, we cannot blame it on the final exam mode, but instead we should question those asking the questions.
Were students satisfied? It was encouraging to know that I averaged approximately 90% (you need at least 85% to me nominated for best lecturer award!) in the teaching/course evaluation survey over three (3) sections. However, it was more encouraging to learn that the total average for this course was around 85% (including the tutors’ results).
However, did learning take place? It is difficult to verify this one, but I know for sure that 92.9% of all the students taking this course (316) managed to pass it. I do have some positive and constructive comments to share here from a few students and tutors.
- “(Student)…Thank you for your guidance and not forgetting your lively classes. It's been a month since the exam and I must say all the fallacies learnt remain and is being applied in everyday reading materials and at workplace with…”
- ”(Student)…Last but not least I would like to thank you for being "the teacher that inspires". I truly enjoyed myself in your class and would really look forward to being your student again (No.no.. I don't want to repeat Critical Thinking ..maybe for other subject)…”
- "(Student)…Thank you very much for your quick reply. You are certainly a very good, efficient and helpful lecturer. From my experience, you are the second lecturer who have answered my questions during the holiday but for this semester the only one. They should be more lecturers like you…”
- ”(Student)… honestly I have learned a lot from this course, not only in thinking, but more than what I could describe here. Really enjoyed your class and the way you teach has definitely changed the way I looked at learning myself...”
- “(Tutor)…Your Forum 2 question is very interesting and the rules and regulations suggested are good. That will make the students send in their answers earlier…It’s nice having you as the course leader. You are so efficient and informative.”
- “(Tutor)…I must let you know that I am very happy with your approach to the critical thinking course. It has such a fresh and imaginative look. The slides are so attractive and I like the F2F Lesson Plan. It keeps us aware on how you (as a course leader) look at things. Please keep that up…”
Now this is pleasing to my ego! As for Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation 3 and 4, it is difficult to provide any concrete evidence, except for comments such as the ones above. But let’s hope that students can apply some the thinking skills learned during the course and gain some positive results in their studies, work and life. Actually, I should track these 316 students down and find out!
AREAS TO IMPROVE?
One year has passed since I revamped the ‘Critical Thinking’ course. I only managed to facilitate this course for one semester, and then the top management argued that I could be more effective to the University doing other things than actually teaching students. Luckily, the course is still being taught and that they are still using my little contribution to ‘Critical Thinking’ at the undergraduate level.
However, having become one year wiser (or dumber!) and discovered through reading what is needed to survive in places like Microsoft or Google, I believe this ‘Critical Thinking’ course needs to be constructively destroyed and reengineered.
Here are a few things that I would do, if I had the chance to revamp it again:
- Challenging Puzzles/Exercises – I would add new puzzles and thinking exercises to challenge the students’ analytical, imaginative and problem solving skills to the level they can expect from a Microsoft or Google interview. Give them a taste of it, which might actually accelerate their motivation to learn.
- Leaner Modules - Streamline the modules to consist of fewer topics and concepts, and instead spend more time on each element, enabling students to have more time to learn, practice and reflect before moving on. Especially, the 'Arguments' module would be totally revamped (simplify and focus), which was too much based on the book (Critical Thinking: A Student's Introduction’), due to my lack of knowledge in this area.
- Online Tools - Would use more tools such as online surveys/polls (to gather students' opinions and collectively reflect) and perhaps LAMS (Learning Activity Management System), which could be useful for sequencing and managing thinking activities such as Six Thinking hats. Also, I would request students to use wikis to work on their group projects, enabling me to follow the progress of the project. In addition, it would be interesting to explore 3D virtual worlds like Second Life and examine how it can nurture and motivate students to think-out-loud in such environments. In short, I would use more online learning tools to facilitate thinking beyond the physical classroom.
- More Videos – Although, I did use a few YouTube videos to stimulate thinking during the first round, I would probably embed more short videos this time around to engage the mind and bring the class to life.
- New Dream Thinking Team – Although, I would probably keep Master Yoda and Mr. Bean in my team, I would try to include local cartoons, such as LAT (if possible).
To improve my coaching or facilitation skills I would explore, study and reflect videos of well-known educators in formal and informal education around the world, which can today be easily accessed for free through YouTube channels (Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, etc.) or other video sharing sites (e.g. VIDEOLECTURES.net). In short, the only thing stopping us from becoming a good educator is our reluctance to learn, explore and challenge ourselves continuously (and a good Internet connection!).
In short, the ‘Critical Thinking’ course would be revamped again to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Oh man, you are still reading! Alright, I will have to say a few more things before I take off to my next learning adventure. First, if you ask me, I would not get so obsessed in trying to differentiate critical, creative, innovative or inventive thinking (learning and thinking prefers no human constructed borders!) during class, but instead focus increasingly on finding new ways to nurture and infuse more thinking into the students’ learning process for all courses, so that when they graduate it has become a habit for life.
Also, I would strongly recommend that we continue to have at least one or two courses that explore thinking and thinking tools intensively, enabling us to flex our imaginative, creative and analytical thinking muscles (e.g. using six thinking hats, SWOT, Disney Creativity Strategy, and ‘Five Ws and H’). In addition, we could always use our analytical imagination to create new thinking tools.
If you ask me, I would argue that the essence of all thinking boils down to asking QUESTIONS. And we all can do that, and therefore we all have the ability to think. Which fallacy did I just commit?
If we can encourage students to ask more questions, going beyond the compartments of their disciplines, and increasingly nurture the courage in them to explore new ideas, we are probably on the right track.
I remember way back in 1992, I had just finished my high school certificate (similar to A-Levels) at Ullern Gymnas (Oslo, Norway), and had just managed to scrape through. I was so sick of formal education that I made a promise to myself to never study again.
Here I am in 2008, sharing my experiences on facilitating “Critical Thinking’ to undergraduate students at UNITAR, in Malaysia. You just never know :)