Developing Scientific Thinking Skills
(in an introductory psychology course and a social psychology course)
In the past few years, the Psychology Department at North Central College has given considerable attention to developing critical thinking skills in its students, particularly the ability to evaluate claims and the evidence used to support them presented in the media and elsewhere. For example, we sought to develop the abilities to distinguish between claims that can and cannot be evaluated empirically, determine whether a claim is justified given the nature and sufficiency of the evidence, evaluate whether a specific methodology is appropriate for testing a particular hypothesis, and recognize the presence of error, bias, and distortion in the presentation of evidence and claims.
To that end, the Department recently created a Scientific Thinking Assessment (with accompanying rubrics for scoring the essay questions) for its graduating majors aligned with a set of critical thinking outcomes. We were not surprised to find that our initial group of majors completing the assessment did not perform well. Up to that point, the introductory psychology course received most of our attention regarding the development of these skills, and even that attention had been informal and haphazard.
Thus, Heather Coon and I (Jon Mueller) designed a plan to implement a more coherent and systematic curriculum for teaching these critical thinking skills. The plan was introduced in three sections of introductory psychology in the fall of 2007. Specifically, we identified a clear sequence of skills that build upon each other, developed a series of mini-lessons for presenting and modeling the skills, designed specific opportunities for systematic practice of the skills, and developed regular checks for understanding and feedback throughout the process.
The thinking skills were introduced in the first two weeks of a ten-week course. During that time and throughout the course, students were given frequent opportunities in class and outside of class to practice the skills. Outside of class, students completed a series of brief assignments primarily based on short and accessible research articles. See the 18 assignments in my (Jon Mueller's) PSY 100 course here. Many assignments asked students to read a brief research article and apply certain skills to it. For example, students were asked to identify whether the research was descriptive, predictive, or explanatory in nature. Other assignments (e.g., Assignment 12) asked similar questions about articles in the media. Could students determine if the authors were making a causal or a correlational claim? Was the research reported in the article congruent with the question being asked or the claim being made? Did the research support the claim? Finally, students were also asked to find public press articles on their own (e.g., Assignment 9) and identify the question being asked and evaluate how well evidence supported the claim.
Building upon student development of the critical skills in the introductory course, Heather and I followed a similar process to extend acquisition of the skills to a 200-level course (Social Psychology), one section in the fall and one section in the winter of 2008. A model was developed that could be applied to other 200- and 300-level courses. Just as in our introductory psychology courses, along with other in-class activities, we assigned research articles and brief questions to be answered about them. See the 12 assignments I (Jon Mueller) used in my Social Psychology course here. In all of these courses, we usually took the first few minutes of a class to discuss students' answers to the questions for that day's assignment. That provided feedback and promoted more practice and reflection on these skills.
Although I assigned and collected 18 assignments in my intro course and 12 in my social psychology course, grading of them was very manageable. First, the assignments were quite brief. Second, the assignments were simply graded on whether or not a "good faith effort" was put into the assignment. If so, a + was awarded. If not, a - was given. Students earned points based upon how many +'s they earned over the course of the term. For example, in my intro course, the syllabus stated, "For these assignments, I will simply be looking to see if you put a "good faith effort" into answering the questions. If you did I will put a (+) on your paper; if not, I will give it a (-). If you receive at least 90% plusses on the brief assignments you will receive the full 60 points. If you receive 80-90% plusses, you will earn 48 points. If you receive 70-80% plusses you will earn 36 points. If you receive 60-70% plusses you will earn 24 points. If you receive fewer than 60% plusses on the brief assignments you will earn 0 points. The brief assignments will be due by the beginning of that class period. Assignments must be typed." As a result of this scheme, I am able to grade a stack of 30-35 of these assignments in 5-10 minutes.
We now hope to refine our assignments and lessons and extend this model to our other courses so that we are coherently and systematically developing these critical skills throughout our curriculum. Hopefully, we will see improved performance from our majors on our Scientific Thinking Assessment.
Comments or questions are welcome. Please send them to me, Jon Mueller, at firstname.lastname@example.org.