Comments on Selected Week 4 Resources: ‘Natural Critical Learning Environment’

The following is a quick review of the following authors from the list of resources, including brief excerpts from each: Ken Bain, Debbie Morrison, Greg Walker, Hua Bai, Nega Debela & Berlin Fang, Erst Carmichael and Helen Farrell.

Greg Walker

Greg Walker

As expected, the packages are labeled “online” but the contents are pretty much standard onground material. The most difficult turn to make in online teaching is the one that separates the F2F mindset from the virtual. The medium is the message, but the message in the online medium is still the F2F instructional framework. But there’s one exception, and that’s Greg Walker, who attempts to match the message with the medium. He says, “Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking,” and the difference, he says, is that “learners have more time to process questions and develop responses.”

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight

Carol B. MacKnight wasn’t included in the list, but she mentions this disconnect between online and F2F orientations: “The question is whether faculty can change their teaching strategies to use online communication tools effectively to help every member in the class go beyond being exposed to content to the point of critically interacting with it” (Teaching Critical Thinking Through Online Discussions, Educause Quarterly, 2000). This article is thirteen years old, and many today may not have a clue what MacKnight means by “bulletin board” in the following statement: “The bulletin board offers the possibility for coaching discussions to take students ideas to the next level to deeper, more intellectual, and reflective learning.” They’re the forerunners of today’s web-based discussion forums, and in the days before the web, they were accessed via modems run on telephone lines.

I like MacKnight’s plain wording in the following list: “Going online, students must have a clear understanding of the goal of the activity and have the necessary social skills to:

• ask the right questions,
• listen to each other,
• take turns and share work,
• help each other learn,
• respect each other’s ideas,
• build on each other’s ideas,
• construct their own understanding, and
• think in new ways.”

Still, the information in the readings is excellent and underscores strategies for incorporating critical thinking into discussions, F2F and online. I’m surprised that the context for critical thinking is limited to discussion outcomes and ignores project outcomes since discussions aren’t usually ends in themselves but tools or means to generate deeper thinking that’s reflected in papers or reports. Bain, however, does allude to this procedural function of discussions: “Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a series of intellectual developments through the course.”

The point is that we may not see the impact of critical thinking activities in the discussions themselves until the culminating project is completed. This final artifact, paper or presentation, is the summative outcome, and it should be factored into the equation (as an independent variable) for successful discussions.

Finally, I’m a writing teacher, and the philosophical background that I share with my colleagues is the classical field of rhetoric. In rhetoric, the study of logical fallacies is fundamental. These fallacies are a classification of the ways in which we, as human beings, fall short in critical thinking. In discussion forums, exercises in applying these fallacies to political arguments, TV commercials, or students’ own analyses could go a long way toward cultivating critical thinking.


Ken Bain

Ken Bain

Excerpts from Ken Bain’s “What Makes Great Teachers Great?” (Chronicle, 4/9/04):

[Main point:] Create a natural critical learning environment. “Natural” because what matters most is for students to tackle questions and tasks that they naturally find of interest, make decisions, defend their choices, sometimes come up short, receive feedback on their efforts, and try again. “Critical” because by thinking critically, students learn to reason from evidence and to examine the quality of their reasoning, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions.

Five essential elements that make up a good [natural] learning environment:

  1. An intriguing question or problem.
  2. Guidance in helping students understand the significance of the question…. The best teachers tend to embed the discipline’s issues in broader concerns, often taking an interdisciplinary approach…. Good teachers remind students how the current question relates to some larger issue that already interests them.
  3. Engages students in some higher-order intellectual activity: encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.
  4. Raise[s] important inquiries but challenge[s] students to develop their own explanations and defend them.
  5. Leaves students wondering: “What’s the next question?” and “What can we ask now?”

In all these examples [of optimal learning environments], students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summary evaluation. [emphasis added]

Teachers succeed in grabbing students’ attention by beginning a lecture with a provocative question or problem that raises issues in ways that students had never thought about before, or by using stimulating case studies or goal-based scenarios.

The best professors do in class what they think will best help their students to learn outside of class, between one meeting and the next.

Because the best teachers plan their courses backward, deciding what students should be able to do by the end of the semester, they map a series of intellectual developments through the course….

The professors we studied assume that learning facts can occur only when students are simultaneously engaged in reasoning about those facts.

The very best teachers offered a balance of the systematic and the messy.


Debbie A. Morrison

Debbie A. Morrison

Excerpts from Debbie Morrison’s “Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom” (Online Learning Insights, 5/24/12):

Community of Inquiry (CoI) model: instructor presence, social presence, cognitive presence

From the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence[:] discussion forums, small group activities, forum structured for a debate, reflection activities.

[Successful] cognitive building activities…. provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions.


Excerpts from Greg Walker’s “Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions” (International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, June 2005):

Strategies for using critical thinking in asynchronous discussions: writing activities, using subject matter experts, role playing , questioning (convergent, divergent, evaluative, Socratic).

Effective questioning strategies guide asynchronous discussions and promote critical interaction. Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking. Learners have more time to process questions and develop responses, and the learner’s cognitive level of response often matches the cognitive level of the questions asked. Higher level cognitive and affective questions encourage learners to interpret, analyze, evaluate, infer, explain and self regulate. According to Wilson (2002) there are four types of questions that encourage learners to use higher levels of cognitive, or affective, processes for critical thinking. They are convergent, divergent, and evaluative questions. Blanchette (2001) found that evaluative questions were asked most often in asynchronous discussions. Divergent and evaluative questions generated the most interaction, and evaluative questions provided the greatest motivation for discussion. [Blanchette, J. (2001). Questions in the online learning environment. Journal of Distance Education, 16, 2. Retrieved June 11, 2005.]


Hua Bai

Hua Bai

Excerpts from Hua Bai’s “Facilitating Students’ Critical Thinking in Online Discussion: An Instructor’s Experience” (Journal of Interactive Online Learning, summer 2009):

This study intended to examine whether introducing this inquiry model [see below] to students as a guide of online postings can facilitate students’ critical thinking.

Garison, Anderson and Archer (2000, 2001) … practical inquiry model …. According to this model, critical inquiry is presented in a sequence of four phases, which are triggering event, exploration, integration and resolution. In the phase of triggering event, students communicate a dilemma or a problem from an experience. In exploration phase, students brainstorm, search for clarification and exchange information. Students’ inquiry in integration phase is characterized by integrating knowledge and information into a concept and creating meaning from the ideas generated in the phase of exploration. In the phase of resolution, students test and implement solution to the problem or issue through real world application. [Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 20 (2-3), 87-105.]

[Results:] In this study, no evidence of resolution was found in the two threads, which may be due to the question that initiated the discussion. The question asked students to talk about their arguments and grounds. It was not designed to engage students in applying and testing the ideas or solutions, which in turn, did not promote students’ thinking in resolution phase. This suggested that to help students’ cognitive activity progress to resolution stage, thought-provoking question needs to be generated to guide and facilitate the discourse toward higher order thinking that involves practical application and problem solving. As King (1995) said, “the level of thinking that occurs is influenced by the level of questions asked. We can use particular questions to induce in students whatever specific thinking processes we wish” (p. 13). [King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 13-17.]

[Interesting quotes:]

Most important, text-based communication and asynchronous environment encourage reflective learning, in-depth thinking and meaningful processing of information.

McLoughlin and Luca (2000) found that most of the postings consisted of “comparing and sharing information”, with “little evidence of construction of new knowledge, critical analysis of peer ideas or instances of negotiation” [McLoughlin, C., & Luca, J. (2000). Cognitive engagement and higher order thinking through computer conferencing: We know why but do we know how? Teaching and Learning Forum 2000, Retrieved March 20, 2008.]

Angeli, Valanides and Bonk (2003) examined undergraduate student teachers’ communication in case-based instruction using asynchronous web-based conferencing tool. The results showed that students’ interactions primarily focused on sharing personal experiences and offering personal opinions without reasoning. Little evidence of in-depth discussion and critical thinking was found.[Angeli, C., Valanides, N., & Bonk, C. J. (2003). Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 34, 31-43.]

Swan, Schenker, Arnold and Kuo (2007) also found that students responded more often to others and discussed in greater depth after they were informed of evaluation criteria of online behaviors. [Swan, K., Schenker, J., Arnold, S., & Kuo, C. (2007). Shaping online discussion: Assessment matters. E-mentor, 1(18). Retrieved March 6, 2008.]

Ertmer et al. (2007) investigated the use of peer feedback in increasing the quality of students’ online discussion. They suggested that requiring students to provide feedback to one another may help to maintain the quality level of postings that has been reached. [Ertmer, P. A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, et al. (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2). Retrieved December 16, 2007.]

Debela & Fang

Nega Debela

Nega Debela

Excerpts from Nega Debela and Berlin Fang, “Using Discussions to Promote Critical Thinking in an Online Environment” (Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 2008):

Roberson (2006) states that “the medieval sacredness of information clashes with the modern deluge of information.” This results in what Roberson calls the “Insanity of the modern university course” in which we “press harder and harder to teach more and more information, while students achieve less and less.” [Roberson, B. (2006, August). Subverting the academic model……so learning can finally take place. Workshop conducted at Marshall University, Huntington, WV.]

Berlin Fang

Berlin Fang

Critical thinking skills can be grounded in all real world situations such as political analysis judgment about television reporting (Brookfield, 1987). [Brookfield, Stephen. (1987) Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey Bass]

However, “being critical” is only a small portion of what constitutes critical thinking. More importantly, it is a process to develop a rational position or attitude, to achieve a goal, or to solve a problem. Critical thinking helps us to become better problem solvers and more rational decision makers.

This study has very practical value for other teachers of the course because it explores what is critical thinking that is hailed to be of critical significance for educators, how it can be operationalized, and how it can be cultivated using tools that are already available to us.

[Conclusion:] Students in this qualitative research have liked the format currently being used to teach and enhance critical thinking. The respondents differ in their opinions about the level of the instructor involvement in the discussion. However, there seem to be a general consensus that faculty should be involved as long as they help students to develop skills in their higher-order thinking skills. This shows that faculty members can indeed play the role of helpers in the development of their cognitive skills.

Carmichael & Farrell

Excerpts from Erst Carmichael and Helen Farrell’s “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Online Resources in Developing Student Critical Thinking: Review of Literature and Case Study of a Critical Thinking Online Site” (Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 2012):

Guided discovery supports users’ construction of knowledge and their ability to apply this new knowledge to other contexts, and is therefore the architecture most suited to the development of critical thinking. Ideally, Keats and Schmidt (2007) argue, the social interactivity of technology – especially in relation to sharing and discussion of ideas – has the potential to connect HE students to the international community to create a wider socio-political learning environment. This wider environment should provide additional opportunities to develop critical thinking. This categorisation is considered to be appropriate for the case study to be examined in this paper.

This paper reports on a case study of an online Blackboard site at the University of Western Sydney, where analysis of patterns of usage of the online site and qualitative analysis of student feedback provide evidence to support its effectiveness for encouraging students’ critical thinking.

[Conclusion:] This case study demonstrates that many students find online learning about critical thinking to be helpful, stimulating and engaging. It verifies that some students enjoy learning in their own space and time and that this site contained suitable content,
sample texts, practice examples and timely feedback…. Findings in this case study indicate that stand-alone resources can achieve perceived benefits for students…. There is also potential to expand the current site into a freely accessible website, with opportunity for greater national and international interaction together with interesting research opportunities.

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One Response to Comments on Selected Week 4 Resources: ‘Natural Critical Learning Environment’

  1. Pingback: Reflections on My Current Instructional Approaches in Completely Online Courses, 10/23/13 | Jim's CV

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