A successful strategy to get college students thinking critically

Scott Johnson:

“We aren’t teaching students how to think critically!” So goes the exasperated lament you have probably heard and possibly uttered. The thing is, that’s a crazy hard thing to do. It may seem like a logic class should teach you to think in a more disciplined way, for example, but the sad fact is that those mental habits are very unlikely to transfer beyond the walls of the logic course. There are many different styles and contexts of critical thinking, and there is no magic subroutine that we could insert into our mental programming that covers them all.

But despair is not the only option. Effective coursework can build important and useful critical thinking skills. Doug Bonn at the University of British Columbia and Stanford’s N.G. Holmes and Carl Wieman focused on good scientific, quantitative thinking when teaching a group of first-year physics students. And like good critically thinking educators, they put their strategy to the test and published the results so they can be evaluated by others.

In this freshman calculus-based physics course, students worked through weekly experiments in lab sections as most physics students do. But the researchers tried a little something different a couple years ago when a fresh class of 130 students came in. In their early lab sections, the students were guided through comparisons between multiple experimental datasets and between experimental datasets and mathematical models.

By applying some statistics they were gradually learning, they grappled with why their comparisons came out the way they did. Rather than simply chalking up mismatches to “we’re just students, and our measurements probably aren’t perfect,” as students often do, they considered modifying their experiments. How could they reduce their error bars? Were the data telling them the mathematical model was incorrect?