Critical thinking is an expected learning outcome of higher education along with mastery of a studied discipline. Yet several studies including one outlined in Academically Adrift, suggests that a significant percentage of students are graduating after four years of college with little intellectual growth; critical thinking gains barely budging from the ‘before’ to ‘after’ assessment. Whether the studies are valid or not is not the focus here, but how to teach higher order thinking skills in online learning environments is. I make a case for asynchronous discussions and their value in developing higher order thinking. I recently facilitated a webinar How to Promote Critical Thinking Skills in the Online Class targeted to educators teaching undergraduate or high school students virtually. I include slides from the presentation at the end of the post. Below I highlight the required learning conditions for effective online discussions, and include excerpts from peer-reviewed papers that describe how asynchronous online discussions can promote deep, rich learning.
Critical Thinking Defined
There are numerous definitions for critical thinking. In the slides there’s a lengthy, but comprehensive definition from The International Center for the Assessment of Higher Order Thinking (ICAT). I prefer the simplified version—critical thinkers know what they don’t know, and know how to learn what they don’t know. This description is also known as metacognition—“knowing about knowing”.
Some may speculate that it’s not feasible for higher order thinking skills to be developed in undergraduate students studying in online environments. But it is possible in small online learning environments, and there’s research to support it. On the other end of the spectrum of online learning are massive open online courses [MOOCs] where developing or honing critical thinking skills via discussion forums is improbable. From my MOOC experiences I’ve found discussion forums to lack focus, continuity and contribute little to the courses’ learning objectives. It appears that I’m not alone.
Most MOOC discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform. Often, they can’t easily be sorted by topic, keyword, or author. As a result, conversations have little chance of picking up steam, and community is more often stifled than encouraged… excerpt from Phil Hill’s post, MOOC Discussion Forums: A Barrier to Engagement?
Elements of Effective Online Discussions
In contrast to massive courses, effective discussion forums in small online classes are focused, structured and purposeful places for learning. Online forums don’t scale well. Specific learning conditions are required for closed, small online classes that include:
- teaching presence as per one of the three dimensions of the CoI model
- structured learning through purposeful course design
- planned and guided student interaction that generates thoughtful and meaningful discourse
- guidelines for students that include concise instructions for participation, expectations and assessment criteria
- consistent feedback from instructor.
Below are highlights of research focusing on asynchronous online discussions that address strategies and guidelines for fostering deep and meaningful learning.
“If students are to reach a high level of critical thinking and knowledge construction, the interaction or discourse must be structured and cohesive.” D.R. Garrison & M. Cleveland-Innes, (2005). Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online Learning: Interaction is not Enough
“We identify motivations to learn that are generated by the dynamic discussion and show how effective moderating can help to sustain conversation and advance it towards pedagogical objectives.” Xin, C. & Feenberg, (2006). Pedagogy in Cyberspace: The Dynamics of Online Discussion
“Compared with spontaneous and transitory face-to-face class discussions, online discussions are text-based and more structured, providing students time to formulate thinking and compose postings, thus helping to promote student higher order learning…The textbased feature of online discussions makes student thinking visible and leaves a permanent written record for student later review. “Text-based communication may actually be preferable to oral communication when the objective is higher-order cognitive learning.” Wang, Y. & Chen V. (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence – A Practical Experience