Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spring Week 6: Building Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is the purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. Critical thinking is hard and a complicated process, often referred to as “higher-order skill” and we humans are not naturally good at it.  Unlike running which is natural for us, critical thinking is like ballet, a highly contrived activity. Thus with only many years of dedicated training and practice we would be able to do well as “critical thinkers”.

First several individual skills should be acquired including both the Lower Order Thinking Skills (remember, understand and apply) and the Higher Order Thinking Skills (analyze, evaluate and create). But that’s not all. To be considered “good critical thinker” one should be able to master putting all those individual skills together in perfect balance, something which takes years and years of practice.   

That being said, in order to cultivate our critical thinking skills as teachers and in turn start training our students as critical thinkers for them to become the future successful lawyers, scientists, politicians and educators, we need to understand how critical thinking works. In other words we need to resort to the contributions made by Cognitive Science.

“Thinking” from a Cognitive Science point of view

Recent scientific research suggests that human thinking and decision-making is very complex and integrates two parallel-functioning systems.
In System 1 thinking, one relies heavily on a number of heuristics (cognitive maneuvers), key situational characteristics, readily associated ideas, and vivid memories to arrive quickly and confidently at a judgment. System 1 thinking is particularly helpful in familiar situations when time is short and immediate action is required.  
While System 2 is the more reflective thinking system. It is useful for making judgments when you find yourself in unfamiliar situations and have more time to figure things out. It allows us to process abstract concepts, to deliberate, to plan ahead, to consider options carefully, to review and revise our work in the light of relevant guidelines or standards or rules of procedure.

Both System 1 and System 2 work together to help us make sound decisions and refrain from making foolish or even dangerous errors in judgment. But even a good thinker makes errors due to the influences and misapplications of these cognitive heuristics. Thus by understanding the components of these two systems and how each of them influence us we would be able to overcome or get passed the heuristics and biases resulting from these components which otherwise will impair our ability to think critically.

The five heuristics that more frequently operate in our System 1 reasoning are known as availability, affect, association, simulation, and similarity.

The Availability heuristic, is the coming to mind of a story or vivid memory of something that happened to you or to someone close to you, inclines a person make inaccurate estimates of the likelihood of that thing’s happening again.

The Affect heuristic operates when you have an immediate positive or a negative reaction to some idea, proposal, person, object, whatever. Sometimes called a “gut reaction” this affective response sets up an initial orientation in us, positive or negative, toward the object. It takes a lot of System 2 reasoning to overcome a powerful affective response to an idea, but it can be done.

The Association heuristic is operating when one word or idea reminds us of something else. For example, some people associate the word “cancer” with “death.” Some associate “sunshine” with “happiness.” These kinds of associational reasoning responses can be helpful at times, as for example if associating cancer with death leads you not to smoke and to go in for regular checkups. At other times the same association may influence a person to make an unwise decision, as for example if associating “cancer” with “death” were to lead you to be so fearful and pessimistic that you do not seek diagnosis and treatment of a worrisome cancer symptom until it was really too late to do anything.

The Simulation heuristic is working when you are imagining how various scenarios will unfold. People often imagine how a conversation will go, or how they will be treated by someone else when they meet the person, or what their friends or boss or lover will say and do when they have to address some difficult issue. These simulations, like movies in our heads, help us prepare and do a better job when the difficult moment arrives. But they can also lead us to have mistaken expectations. People may not respond as we imagined, things may go much differently. Our preparations may fail us because the ease of our simulation misled us into thinking that things would have to go as we had imagined them. And they did not.

The Similarity heuristic operates when we notice some way in which we are like someone else and infer that what happened to that person is therefore more likely to happen to us. The similarity heuristic functions much like an analogical argument or metaphorical model. The similarity we focus on might be fundamental and relevant, which would make the inference more warranted. For example, the boss fired your coworker for missing sales targets and you draw the reasonable conclusion that if you miss your sales targets you’ll be fired too. Or the similarity that comes to mind might be superficial or not connected with the outcome, which would make the inference unwarranted. For example you see a TV commercial showing trim-figured young people enjoying fattening fast foods and infer that because you’re young too you can indulge your cravings for fast foods without gaining a lot of excess unsightly poundage.

Heuristics and biases more associated with System 2 thinking include: satisficing, risk/loss aversion, anchoring with adjustment, and the illusion of control.

Satisficing occurs as we consider our alternatives. When we come to one which is good enough to fulfill our objectives we often regard ourselves as having completed our deliberations. We have satisficed. And why not? The choice is, after all, good enough. It may not be perfect, it may not be optimal, it may not even be the best among the options available. But it is good enough. Time to decide and move forward.

We are by nature a species that is averse to risk and loss. Often we make decisions on the basis of what we are too worried about losing, rather than on the basis of what we might gain. The odds may not be stacked against us, but the consequences of losing at times are so great that we would prefer to forego the possibilities of gain in order not to lose what we have.

The heuristic known as Anchoring with Adjustment is operative when we find ourselves making evaluative judgments. The natural thing for us to do is to locate or anchor our evaluation at some point along whatever scale we are using. The unfortunate thing about this heuristic is that we sometimes drop anchor in the wrong place; we have a hard time giving people a second chance at making a good first impression.

The heuristic known as Illusion of Control is evident in many situations. Many of us over-estimate our abilities to control what will happen. We make plans for how we are going to do this or that, say this or that, manipulate the situation this way or that way, share or not share this information or that possibility, all the time thinking that some how our petty plans will enable us to control what happens.

Related to the Illusion of Control heuristic is the tendency to misconstrue our personal influence or responsibility for past events. This is called Hindsight Bias. We may over-estimate the influence our actions have had on events when things go right, or we may underestimate our responsibility or culpability when things go wrong. We have all heard people bragging about how they did this and how they did that and, as a result, such and such wonderful things happened.

Practical approaches for teaching critical thinking

Now we understand the components underlying Critical Thinking, and understand how each component if left uncontrolled might refrain us from making sound decisions. With these lessons from Cognitive Science in mind we discussed about practical approaches that can be adopted in the classroom to teach critical thinking. Some of these approaches include:

-Utilizing higher-order questioning approach to fire up students' Critical Thinking skills (Table 1).

-Leading students to the correct answer and making them come up with the answer themselves rather than the teacher giving away the answer right away.

- Guided reading: While asking students to critically evaluate a reading material, give them a set of questions for them to think about while they are reading.

-Asking students to evaluate the conclusions derived from data.

-Emphasizing the importance of Critical Thinking with real life examples. Make them aware of examples in history where lack of Critical Thinking skills has resulted in the collapse of an empire, caused the death of thousands of people etc.

-Emphasizing group work: In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher.

-Adopting a problem based learning approach, which studies show to increase the critical thinking skills in students.

-Providing examples of good critically evaluated statements and asking students why they think it is good.

 1) Peter A. Facione (2013) Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts.
 2) Tim van Gelder (2005) Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Spring Week 5: Universal Design for Learning

The concept of Universal Design Instruction (UDI) is actually a modified version of a value system implemented by architects and designers to consider human diversity in the design of products and spaces. It was developed as a way to address the changing student body in postsecondary education. This includes an increasing proportion of students who are older (over the age of 25), who are ethnic/racial minorities, and who are only in school part time and have other obligations like work and family. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and similar legislature, have heightened awareness about access to college where equal opportunities and classroom accommodations are assured. This model, UDI, shifts the focus from retrofitting accommodations to instruction to proactively planning for instruction that anticipates diversity in learners. It is a value system that embraces heterogeneity in learners and espouses high academic standards. The overall goal of UDI is to promote full participation and universal access for persons with disabilities in higher education.

The UDI paradigm as defined by nine principles: 1) equitable use, 2) flexibility in use, 3) simple and intuitive, 4) perceptible information, 5) tolerance for error, 6) low physical effort, 7) size and space, 8) community learning and 9) instructional climate. The first principle means that instruction is designed to be useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities. The instructor should provide the same means of use for all students; identical whenever possible, equivalent when not. The second principle means that instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities. The instructor should provide a choice of method in use. The third principle means that instruction is designed in a straightforward and predictable manner, regardless of students’ experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. The instructor should eliminate any unnecessary complexity in the curriculum.  The fourth principle means that instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student, regardless of ambient conditions or the students’ sensory abilities. The fifth principle means that instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills. The sixth principle means that instruction is designed to minimize nonessential physical effort in order to allow maximum attention to learning (but does not apply when physical effort is integral to requirements of a course). The seventh principle means that instruction is designed with consideration for appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulations, and use regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs. The eighth principle means that the instructional environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between student and faculty. The ninth principle means that instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive and high expectations are espoused for all students. The last two principles are an addition to the original UD principle for early education as an extension for postsecondary education. Here are some examples of the principles applied.

Other barriers to effective teaching in postsecondary education include the effect of the reward system for faculty that stresses research and scholarship that minimizes the importance of teaching and ways to improve it. In addition, there is no mandate for students with disabilities for a free, appropriate postsecondary education. Colleges are not required to alter technical standards and students must maintain their eligibility by meeting criteria for academic performance. While, this paradigm still requires validation to prove its efficacy, this paper shows that both students with learning disabilities as well as faculty who are recognized to be outstanding teachers recognize the most important factors that determine academic success and they all fall within one or more of the UDI principles (McGuire 2006). 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Spring Week 4: Assessments

Effective assessment methods are a crucial part of the learning process and can provide valuable feedback to both the student and instructor.  Assessment of student learning provides feedback to the instructor on if learning objectives are being met, and allows them to assess their teaching methods and adapt their strategies to better achieve learning objectives.  For students, assessments contribute to a system that allows for students to be ranked against each other (grades), and can be motivating factor to learn.

We discussed benefits and limitations of two types of assessments:
       The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.
       The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Formative Assessment:
- Allows for modification of teaching if students aren’t meeting learning objectives
- The focus is on the learning
- “low stakes” for the students
- Immediate feedback to the students and instructors
- Fosters a connection between students and instructors
- Easier for some students to perform on these types of assessments
Con’s:- Grading can be more challenging and time consuming
- Could affect course content covered, maybe substitute depth for breadth.
- Less motivating for some students

Summative Assessment:
- Allows for comparison to a standard
- Applicable to real world situations where you have to perform
- Can develop skills for high stress situations (“high stakes”)
- Can provide a platform for students to make connections
- Unambiguous grading
- Anxiety
- Focus is on performance instead of knowledge
- Not time to modify teaching if students don’t get concepts
- Concern about if it’s a valid measure of learning objective

The limited research on the effectiveness of formative assessment is reviewed in this article. 

We discussed this research article that evaluates the effectiveness of modified essay questions in assessing students problem-solving skills.  The authors argue that higher ordered cognitive skills were better assessed with multiple choice questions rather than modified essay questions. We discussed how the findings could be a result of question writers limited experience writing this type of question. We also discusses the value of examining our own test questions, and categorizing them according to the thinking skills that are tested using  Blooms taxonomy.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Spring Week 3: The Role of Confusion in Learning

Confusion can be beneficial for learning?

The majority of students applaud professors for being able to explain complex concepts with step-by-step clarity, believing that their understanding is bolstered by their ability to follow a logical progression.  As such, institutes such as the Khan Academy strive to create clear, concise, and easy-to-understand videos to teach everything from science to history.  However, emerging research has been challenging this paradigm.  To probe the effectiveness of confusion, D'Mello et al. looked at the role of confusion and its effectiveness in improving learning.

The authors begin by acknowledging that confusion may be detrimental in certain types of simple learning (e.g. memorization), but they assert that confusion is unavoidable in complex learning (e.g. problem solving).  Thus, the authors probe the mechanistic role of confusion in comprehension over two sets of experiments involving Autotutor, a video displaying a "tutor agent" and a "peer agent" who sometimes agree and sometimes disagree about a specific topic.

To minimize confusion, a control was performed where the tutor agent and peer agent presented everything clearly and logically.  Confusion was induced when either or both agents presented incorrect information.  Learning was queried throughout the process.  As the participants observed the dialogue, they were given opportunities to provide real-time "forced responses" to indicate their ongoing thoughts.  Moreover, their facial expressions were recorded and after the experiment, the student was given an opportunity to describe their dominant emotion at specific timepoints during the experiment.

Their preliminary findings showed that although students answered more forced-response questions correctly in the non-confusing control, students who were more confused performed better on a post-test.  This prompted a second study to analyze the extent of the students' learning by adding a final "near and far transfer" test as a function of confusion.  Again, they found that students who were confused would perform better.

Of course, one could argue that students who were confused performed poorly initially and thus have more room for improvement, and the increase in scores is simply an artifact of the study.  But regardless of the validity of the study, it is certain that confusion occurs, and the authors propose a "confusion pathway," detailing how confusion could be beneficial with proper guidance and perseverance, and how it could be detrimental if students lose interest.

Probing beyond the scope of the paper, the role of confusion could be linked to notions of self-worth.  The US education system teaches students to link their ideas, grades, and academic performance to their identity; students are evaluated on academic performance.  Therefore, we are inadvertently trained to view confusion as a personal failure.  However, by empowering students to fail without impacting their self-worth, students may improve their learning of complex tasks.  The role of the ego is further explored in a related Veritasium video.