“I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially when we mix in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and fake news. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to discuss practical techniques faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.
- Nilson, Linda (2021). Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide. Stylus.
- David Brightman on twitter.
- Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students? self-awareness and learning skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Media Bias / Fact Check
- AP News Fact Check
- Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. University of Chicago Press.
- Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2021). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
- Association of College and University Educators (ACUE)
John: “I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially in a social media environment filled with conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake news. In this episode, we discuss practical techniques that faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Linda Nielson. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking into your Course: a Concrete, Practical Guide, as well as many other superb books, book chapters and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Linda.
Linda: Thank you very much for having me back, John.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Linda, are you drinking tea?
Linda: I certainly am. And this is Twinings Berry, multiple berries.
Rebecca: Oh, yum.
Linda: Yeah. It’s delish. And I’m so glad you’ve helped to get me back into tea. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: As everybody should be,
Linda: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a wonderful thing.
John: I had some of the Twinings mixed berries early today. But I’ve got a chocolate mint black tea, which is really good.
Linda: Ooh, chocolate.
Rebecca: Chocolate anytime of day is excellent.
Linda: Yeah, really.
Rebecca: It’s an important food group. [LAUGHTER] Just like tea. I’m drinking that palm court blend that I have recently started making pots of. It’s pretty decent.
John: We just saw a note that you have this forthcoming book on critical thinking. What motivated you to write this book, now that everyone has this universal agreement on facts and reasoning and logic…
Linda: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
John: …and we don’t have a lot of disputes on these things anymore? [LAUGHTER}
Linda: Ha hah… Ah, yes. Actually, politics had nothing to do with it, if you can believe that. Originally, I got interested in critical thinking in the 90s. I decided to give a talk on it for some conference. And I got into the literature. And I said, “Okay, as soon as I get this talk over with, I am never, ever, ever going to do anything having to do with critical thinking, again, because the literature, it’s just a siloed mess.” So anyway, I just put that away. Well, then I guess it was something like eight years ago or so, Clemson University, in its infinite wisdom, decided to select critical thinking for its QEP, its Quality Enhancement Plan. And I thought, “Oh, no, do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” And of course, I figured, like, I’m going to be doing workshops, so I got to get back into this literature. And I realized what I had to do was synthesize it for the faculty, because why should I inflict a literature’s flaws and warts on them. So that’s what I decided to do. Well, then, as it turned out, Clemson wasn’t the only university picking critical thinking for a QEP, and so I started getting invitations to do workshops, so I got on the road, and that’s always fun to do. I was back into it, but trying to make it as practical and as easy to implement for faculty as possible. So that was my goal, is always to make the faculty member’s job easier. So, I was comfortable with that. Well, a couple of years ago, David Brightman from Stylus contacted me, asking me to write a book on critical thinking. And I thought, “Well, I’m kind of enjoying being semi-lazy and just traveling around, oh, what fun.” And then I thought, “Well, look, I don’t know about this. But let me just start outlining the book and see how it feels.” Well, it felt really good. I was amazed. [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Okay, lazy is not so interesting to me anymore. I’m going to write this book.” Well, he was happy. I was happy. And so I immediately started writing it, and because I had these workshops to work off of… updated by reading of the literature, of course… but other than that, it was probably the easiest book I’ve ever written. And so, this is fun, this is neat, this is great. And so I finished it really very quickly. And I was glad to do it. I finished it in four months or so… four to five months, the whole….
Linda: Yeah, I know. Well, I was a house afire and I had nothing better to do. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, that’s how I was inspired to do it. It was really David Brightman ‘s idea. And if he was excited about it, that kind of got me excited about it. And I knew the need was out there. I knew the need because there were still universities crazy enough to adapt critical thinking as a QEP. I had also acquired some friends in the critical thinking community by then and so “Okay, this is fine. This is great. I’m going to do this.” And so I did it. And so now it’s due out March, maybe April, because you never know about these things. So it’s really happened. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I found that a lot of faculty really believe in the idea of critical thinking, but have no idea how to define it or explain it to students.
Linda: Yes. And that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction for them to have, because of the massive literature out there. And it’s just the idea of critical thinking, it’s such an abstract, squishy, ephemeral idea. And we’re like, “What is it?” …and of course all faculty think they’re teaching it, right? But they’re not ,unless you make critical thinking, an outcome, a specific outcome that makes sense in your course. And you tell your students about it, and you call it what it is, that you’re not teaching critical thinking. It’s not going to happen by osmosis. It’s not going to happen by happy accident. Critical Thinking just doesn’t do that, it has to be a very, very conscious effort. And there’s a lot of literature to back this up.
Rebecca: So what is it? [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Oh, that’s a good follow up question. Well, I’m not going to go through the litany of definitions that you can find out there in the literature. But what I was able to glean from that literature is this: it’s interpretation, analysis, and/or evaluation, for the purpose of making some sort of decision or solving some sort of problem. And that’s it. But you could get definitions out there that go on for a couple of paragraphs, you can get definitions that seem to change color from one chapter to the next. I mean, they’re all there. And I just found it very confusing myself. But again, it was all about synthesis to me… all about synthesis, taking the best from these different silos, these different frameworks, and try to put them together into something that’s easiest, into a pocket definition: interpretation, analysis, evaluation. Now, you can put that in your pocket. And so can students.
Rebecca: I’m sold. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Alright. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.
John: I remember when we introduced a critical thinking Gen Ed requirement here at Oswego, that everyone agreed that that was something that was desperately needed. It’s just everybody had a different idea of what it was. [LAUGHTER] And so eventually, it became infused within the disciplines. But I still think that that discussion of what exactly it is was never really resolved. It was kind of a way of sublimating that whole discussion and debate. So is critical thinking the same across disciplines? Or is it really going to be different depending on your disciplinary context or lens?
Linda: Okay, well, when you’re talking about interpretation, analysis, evaluation, yeah, that goes across the disciplines. But that’s not of much help to faculty. And so I put it in the disciplines, or I should say, in disciplinary clusters, because let’s face it, chemistry shares a lot with biology, right? …just in terms of general approach to observation, its approach to testing, just the general scientific thinking. And the humanities, there are a lot in common. And by the way, sometimes the social sciences pretend to be humanities, when you’re talking about the theories and things like that. Now, the social sciences, I look at them as sciences. So I put them in that scientific cluster. And then they’re the arts. Well, they’re off somewhere else entirely. They’ve got all….
Rebecca: Hey! [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Ah… oh, I’m sorry. You’re in it. But the arts are in a beautiful place. And they’re far more beautiful than the other disciplines. And then there are the, what I call the Applied Sciences, they’re different still. Oh yes, they share some overlap with the sciences. But so what I do is, there’s one chapter where I talk all about critical thinking outcomes by these disciplinary clusters. And now I have a list of different outcomes for each cluster. So take your pick, add more, but it’ll sound familiar to faculty. It’s using their vocabulary, it’s addressing their concerns, the sort of things that they strive to teach, the sort of things that they want their students to be able to do. And so I like to put it in the, at least, disciplinary clusters. Now it’s still you know, yes, you have to bring it down to your particular discipline, and then your particular course. But other than that, there are all kinds of tremendous overlap. But it’s such a different context. Sometimes you’re not even using the same verbs, and you’re certainly not using the same direct objects. I can assure you of that.
Rebecca: Why do faculty think it’s so hard to teach?
Linda: Oh, well, they’ve sure got good reasons. And I have a whole chapter on 10 reasons why teaching critical thinking is so challenging, and it’s got all kinds of reasons. First, there’s the literature, okay, that’s reason zero, okay. And so, I’m sort of, in a sense, telling faculty “Don’t read the literature, just don’t worry about that, or pick one and have fun” … whatever, but that’s not going to help you a lot. And that’s what’s different about my book, that mine’s, again, practical, concrete… here’s what you do… connect the dots. But reason number one is critical thinking about certain kinds of thinking, like that definition I gave you, but also a certain kind of subject matter. And there are courses out there that don’t have that subject matter. There has to be, in this subject matter, it has to be content containing claims, statements that may or may not be complete, valid, or at least the most valid, or the most viable, and for perfectly good reasons as well. For instance, there might be other respectable competing claims, the evidence supporting a claim may be weak or ambiguous, the data may be suspect, the source may have a lack of legitimacy or conflict of interest. So anyway, there are some courses that just seem to just be teaching undisputed facts. Now, if you’re teaching disputed facts, that’s fine, then you could talk about critical thinking. But there has to be some sort of dispute, some sort of competition, something among different claims. And again, there are, unfortunately, some courses that don’t have that… now you can add them in. Another thing about teaching critical thinking… It’s difficult for people to do, for students to do and it’s unnatural for students, for learners, for people to do, because we all want our current beliefs and values and ways of thinking confirmed. That’s what we are usually going for. And then there’s the whole struggle of learning. Learning is struggle, learning is effort. And students don’t seem to accept that. It’s like we’re supposed to make learning so easy. As easy as it was in elementary and high school. Isn’t that our job? …to make learning easy and effortless? No. But in any case, they might fight that: “Well, this is hard. So you’re not a good teacher. And anyway, students also bring biases and misconceptions into the classes that interfere with critical thinking. They’re not aware of these, and so you have to make them aware of them. And students don’t necessarily like that. Critical thinking requires self regulation, or metacognition. If you’re not observing your thinking, there’s no way you can think critically, I’m sorry, you have to question yourself all the time. But you’ve got to be aware of what that thinking is to even talk about it. Here’s another one and it’s nasty. Critical thinking requires the traits of good character. So virtues like integrity and determination and morality and inner strength. And some of our students just don’t have those virtues. Now, there are ways, there really are ways, that you can teach them about good character and bad character. And just the way good character is portrayed in our media and our literature, in movies, television, whatever, it makes good character look good, makes it look more attractive. But students don’t necessarily know what even good character is. And they can’t do self-regulated learning without having some intellectual virtues, like perseverance, like wanting to pursue truth, intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, certain dispositions that are absolutely essential. Otherwise, why bother to do critical thinking? Why put yourself through this? Here’s another thing that critical thinking requires: mental health, emotional health. Now, on the level that you can start increasing students’ mental health is on the level of defense mechanisms. But if you’ve got students out there, and I bet you do, who have personality disorders, they’re narcissists, they;re sociopaths, they’re psychopaths, so they might murder you someday. Forget about them, don’t even have hope for them. They have no interest in pursuing truth at all. That’s why they don’t wind up in the psychiatrist’s office. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong,” right? And so what’s wrong with my thinking? Nothing’s wrong with my thinking. So they’re not into this, forget about them. Critical Thinking also requires students to respond to questions. And students don’t always like to respond to questions. They don’t mind telling you what day of the week it is. But beyond that, if they’re going to have to think, they might not be eager to do this. Now, if everybody else is doing it in the class, that helps. It really does. So yeah, there are all kinds of reasons why critical thinking is very difficult to teach, but it’s not impossible, and it’s not mystical.
John: You mentioned self regulation, what are some techniques that we can use in our classes to help students become more self regulated in terms of developing critical thinking skills that let them analyze evidence more effectively and interpret arguments more effectively?
Linda: Yes, well, again, awareness is where you start. So the first thing you want to do, the first habit that you want to develop in your class is whenever you have students give a statement… I don’t mean an undisputed definition, okay, I mean something that’s addressing a claim or making a claim in some way? And you’ve got to just keep asking them: “Well, how did you arrive at that response?” Now, you’re going to sound like a broken record the first couple of weeks, and then students will realize, “Okay, I’m not going to talk unless I have an answer to that question, because I know that Professor so and so is going to ask me this question.” So they start to think about this on their own, and they’re ready to answer it, or they’ll keep their mouth shut. But it’s not so impossible to look into your head as to how you came up with a certain answer. And initially, students will have to say, like, “I don’t know,” and you know what, that’s okay. Because now you have their attention. If they don’t know that that’s a perfectly fine answer, you need to start thinking about that, you need to start observing your thinking. And that’s the first thing you get them to do. Now, in terms of like, with readings, or if you’re having them watch videos and these sorts of things, you can give them reflective assignments to accompany those readings, and for that matter accompany any other kind of assignment. But what you want them to do is you want them to reflect on perhaps their affective reactions to the reading, or what they found particularly important, or what they found particularly surprising when they do a reading and then they have to answer this question or couple of questions at the end. And again, there are no wrong answers. This is like no stress, folks, just I want at least 100 words from you, that students start looking over what they just read and thinking about it from their own viewpoint. What did they find most important? How did they react emotionally? What connections did they make to what they already knew. So it’s making them more aware of what kind of impact that reading had. And those are just the simplest things in the world with substantial assignments, writing assignments, what you want your students to do is sort of a meta assignment at the same time. And again, you can’t go wrong, folks. And all you’ve got to do as a faculty member is just to check these in, just make sure that they did it and if you want 200 words, perhaps, “Okay, describe your reasoning in solving this problem.” or ”How did you reason through this case, in debriefing this case? What questions did you ask yourself along the way? What skills did you improve in the course of doing this assignment?” There’s so many different possibilities. And so, yeah, self awareness, self awareness. And then, of course, after a test when they get a graded exam back, make them aware of how they prepared or how they didn’t prepare. And so it’s making them face the music about, “Okay, what did you expect to get on this exam? And what did you get?” Gee whiz, how do you feel about that? Now, “A” students are gonna “Oh, yeah, I thought I got an A,” or I thought I’d get a “B” but I got an “A,” and so I feel whoopee.” Okay, don’t worry about them. They’re already self regulating, they self regulate to the point of paranoia, they’re the least of your worries. [LAUGHTER] But other students need to become aware of, “Okay, so how did you study? Did you study the way I told you too, which is quizzing yourself? Or do you just reread, reread, reread, reread the way I told you not to, because that’s a waste of time? How many hours did you study? Was this enough? What are you going to do differently on the next exam to do better?” And so students have to think about a strategy, they’re meta-studying in a way. And so they’re thinking about their learning strategies. And they really need to do a lot more of that. Any kinds of like, experiential activities… there are all kinds of questions that they can ask themselves, or you can ask them to write about, “Well, what were your goals originally? And how did they change through the simulation or the game or the role playing?” And this would be true of like service learning or field work or any of these things. “How did you respond to other people involved in the interactions? And why would you respond differently next time?” So there’s a lot of self assessment going on. And this is a good place to start with self assessment. It’s a safe place to start with self assessment, because usually everybody changes their strategy from the beginning through the middle to the end. And that’s good. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s called learning. [LAUGHTER] But it makes them aware of that learning. That’s how you do it. Yeah.
John: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of overlap between improving students’ critical thinking skills and improving students’ metacognition,
John: Is it effectively the same type of strategy used in both cases? Or is it essentially the same process In both cases?
Linda: What’s different about it is with critical thinking, you’re dealing with real disciplinary content. And you’re not necessarily doing that with metacognition. Yes, self awareness is definitely a part of critical thinking. But that’s not all. I mean, you’re actually trying to come to some sort of conclusion or solve some sort of problem, maybe even decide to take some sort of action. You’re examining claims, you’re examining data, you’re examining sources, you’re examining a lot of different things along the way that you’re not necessarily doing in metacognition, but metacognition, it precedes critical thinking. I mean, if you’re not aware of how you’re thinking, how in the world, are you going to come up with a well reasoned approach to a problem? So there’s a lot more. You’re using metacognition, to extend reasoning into something that is disciplinary based.
Rebecca: I’m so glad we’re having this conversation today. Because I’m working on a new class where practicing thinking moving into higher-level classes is the goal of the class. And so I was working on a lot of reflection assignments. So I was just doing a little editing while we were chatting. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Oh. alright, See, I’m glad this is useful, and that’s the whole thing. I want that book to be useful. And that’s what makes it, I think, different from the other books out there and critical thinking, because most of them are in a particular silo, they’re coming from a particular silo, they’re may be extending that silo in some way. And I was looking for common ground across multiple silos, and then maybe not all of them, but multiple silos, I tell you one thing that they all have in common, they all say that critical thinking involves metacognition or self regulation.
John: And I remember reading a really good book on creating self-regulated learning.
Linda: Oh yeah, that one, yeah.
John: That might be something we’d recommend to faculty.
John: We’ll include that in the show notes as well.
Linda: Okay, good. Yes, indeed, I’m glad I wrote that book beforehand. I really am. [LAUGHTER]
John: And it ties in nicely with a lot of your discussion in the book. In this new book, you’re also addressing how specifications grading could be used. And I know there’s a really nice book on that as well.
Linda: Oh yeah, yeah.I remember that one.
John: You mentioned that when you grade things, that it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of work for the faculty member. Could you just talk a little bit about how specifications grading could be used to evaluate these types of activities?
Linda: Sure, absolutely. First of all, all assignments, not courses, all assignments are graded pass/fail, and for that matter tests, but you don’t pass either a test or an assignment at a C level, you raise your expectations to a B level. But guess what, you’ve got to know what components in that essay or that paper or whatever that design that you want to see to achieve a B level. Now, if you already have rubrics, fine, you can start looking at the top level of the rubric and maybe take a few from the next one down. But those are the things that have to be in the piece of work for it to pass. And by the way, you explain this to students. Now the stakes suddenly become higher for students. So guess what? They read the directions? Isn’t it wonderful? They do, they want to pass. Now, initially, they don’t believe that they could possibly fail at anything because of partial credit. Well, guess what, there is no partial credit here. But they won’t believe it till they fail something. So you always want to give them some get out of jail free cards, so they can maybe fail a couple of times, and then redo the assignment the correct way, because they realize, “Oh, he or she is really serious about this. Oh, goodness. Okay.” So yeah, they really start reading the directions and doing what you asked them to do. And you know what? If they’re worried that they’re not doing it, they visit you, they call you, they email you, they actually ask for clarification, because this means something. And we’ve been lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes for years now, because we don’t want to cause them any stress. Well, you know what? We’re going to have to cause some stress. Learning is stressful, sorry. It’s just the way life is. So anyway, when you know what you want to see there, and this is where the thinking is… this thinking it might be before the course starts. So once the course starts, you’re on easy street, because all you have to do is look for those elements in the piece of work that the student hands in. Something missing? You mark which element is missing. If you want to make other comments, hey, far be it for me to tell you not to write comments. But you don’t have to, you don’t have to, and relatively short assignments. You don’t have to, unless you want to. I mean, if you’ve got a student, they had all the elements in that, you want to draw a happy face, knock yourself out. [LAUGHTER]
John: Or at least for the artists, among us. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Exactly. Now, if you want to go specs grading… because we’re talking about specs, we’re talking about specifications, like in a computer program, essentially… but you really have to look in the mirror and say, “What do I want my students to be able to demonstrate that they can do in this assignment, or on this test, or in this particular essay?” And that can be hard, because we’ve never had to be so specific, but this is what students love about specs grading. We get specific, we tell them what we want, they know what our expectations are, and they haven’t known, this might be the first time they’ve ever really known, what we wanted, because we have to be specific. And if we left out a specs that we wish we’d put in, well, better luck next semester, right? Just remember to put those in. But you can’t change those once you give students your list of specs. And then there’s bundling. With specs grading, you can also bundle assignments and tests together for various grades where students decide, “Oh, you know, you have to do so much work for an A, and it looks very difficult. I’m not going to go for an A. How about if I go for a B and that way this isn’t that important of a course to me. It’s alright.” And they might decide to go for a C. And you know what? what should you care? This is their decision, and if they’re going to be happy with a C, you can respect that. And otherwise, we look at C students like, well they were lazy and didn’t care and this and that. No, no, no. Students choose it for themselves. Fine. No problem. We don’t look down on our C students, as we unfortunately will kind of do sometimes. Anyway, but that specs grading. We’re on critical thinking and critical thinking, if you have the specs for something written, or a presentation for that matter, but if you know what you want students to show that they can do in terms of critical thinking, this is an easy way to grade, it really is. All the work is upfront.
Rebecca: Yep. It’s very time consuming upfront with what I’m doing right now. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: And it’s stressful. It’s stressful for us, because we “Oh, should I give this five points or six points?” Forget it. Don’t worry about that. And you know, students will go to you and argue for a half a point, they don’t mess with that with specs grading at all. They don’t do that. So it saves you a lot of wear and tear. And it’s better for your relationship with your students.
John: In large classes, how can you help students develop critical thinking skills if you don’t want to read lots of written work?
Linda: Ah, okay. Well, this is the beauty of groups. There are two methods that are particularly important in teaching critical thinking, there’s discussion, and that includes, by the way, debate…. debate’s really good, but discussion, debate. And you might have to do that in terms of just teaching in small groups. And that’s okay. Because the whole idea is that students are getting different points of view on a claim or a statement or something like that and then they have to defend it. But that’s all something that you can have students do in groups, those sorts of activities. Another thing that’s very important are some kinds of problems to solve. And I don’t mean the cookbook types. I’m talking about complex problems, fuzzy problems, if you will. And again, usually we have students work in groups for that, anyway. So that’s how you can teach it in large classes. It’s lovely if you have a small class, and everybody can hear everybody else’s statements and discussions and things like that. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can still teach critical thinking in large classes. And again, this is where spec grading can really, really shine. Because your grading time is cut to a fraction, an absolute fraction. Let me say one other thing. I talked about methods, but really the key to teaching critical thinking is questions, the questions that you ask your students, whether it be in class, or whether it be a writing assignment, or a paper or for a design or presentations, whatever it is, the key is questions. And each silo, each framework offers certain questions, that here you should have your students do this or answer these questions. So what I did was I put all of those together, synthesized them into a list of 45 critical thinking questions. Take your pick. Now, of course, you can look at your outcomes, and they make excellent assignments and questions and things like that. But these are general questions that make students think critically. And of course, you always follow up with “Well, gee, how did you come to that response? How did you arrive at that?” So anyway, there are certain questions that guarantee students are doing critical thinking and you have to adapt it to your particular class, but a lot of them, they go across the disciplines. And this is where you can see some of the similarities, like asking about the source of a claim, for instance, can you trust this source?”
Rebecca: How do we help students that come in with biases, preconceptions and things?
Linda: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Rebecca: …resisting facts. How do we start to overcome that?
Linda: Well, I think what you need to do is you start your course… you might have to start your course anyway… with selling critical thinking to your students. Because first of all, critical thinking is a skill that employers want. And I start my book with that, just so much evidence of that, say analytical thinking and that’s the same sort of thing. But there’s also beyond employment, there’s a quality of life. Now, if your students do not want to be suckers and fools, and if they don’t learn to think critically, that’s exactly what they’re going to be, suckers and fools. For instance, it takes critical thinking to avoid scams and shams. And if you google “scams,” you get billions of hits. It’s horrifying. Questioning and other things like they don’t know how to make sense out of popularized research studies. Well, a critical thinker knows enough to check those things. Advertising, that’s another place where you have to be very discriminating. And you have to critically think about “Well, what did that mean that such and such is twice as effective? Twice as effective as what? And what does ‘twice as effective’ mean?” There’s propaganda, fake news, disinformation, demagoguery, doublespeak, all this stuff to cover up the truth. And what students don’t know… a lot of people just don’t know… is there are fact-checking sites out there, there are quite a few of them. I talked about eight of them in my book, and how to get there and where it’s from, who puts this together. But it’s a good idea, I would say to give students an early exercise. And it could be, if you’re teaching chemistry, make it chemistry, if you’re teaching political science, make it political science, politics, to give them some fact-checking assignments. And if you’re worried about the politics, like all of these sites will call both sides of the political debate down on their lies or their distortion. So they’re fair that way. And so, if you want to get students to question their own politics, it’s great if you can get some good examples of things that they can go research where there’re lies on both sides, and that shows them that. But then they start realizing, “Oh, my god, there are lies. Oh, goodness, I’ve been believing all this.” There is Politifact.com. There is FactCheck. There is FlackCheck. There is OpenSecrets, Media Bias / Fact Check. There’s apnews.com/apfactcheck. There’s Snopes. There’s Truthorfiction.com. I mean, there’re all these sites. There’s so many of them, and that’s just the few that I talked about, because they tend to be better known. And they’re put out by like AP or something or Annenberg Foundation. And so that will teach them how much is garbage out there. Again, from both sides. Both sides in the political debate are full of garbage. But you also have debates going on in biology or in medicine. Remember, I’m sure you do, when they were saying, “Oh, coffee is terribly bad for you.” And then three years later, “Oh, it’s very good for you.” So it really hits all fields. Some of my very favorite ones is doublespeak. And I don’t know if students are aware of doublespeak like “servicing the target.” That’s military talk for bombing, to service a target. Yeah. “Neutralize” that means to kill. “Downsizing” means firing employees, “misconduct,” white-collar crimes committed by politicians, business leaders, military professionals, the police, that’s misconduct versus crime. “Detainee” is a prisoner of war. I mean, I could go on and on and on. And I do in my book.
John: You mentioned how important critical thinking skills are to employers. What does the evidence show about how effective colleges are in terms of helping students improve their critical thinking skills?
Linda: we’re not so hot, but it’s just put it that way. According to Academically Adrift, we improve the critical thinking skills of about one third of our students. Now, I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate myself. But I mean, at least we do that. But, these are often the students who came in with some critical thinking skills to begin with. The ones who need the help the most to critically think are not getting that help. They’re just not getting it. And so we’ve got to go out of our way to reach them. Again, most faculty think they’re teaching critical thinking when they’re not because they’re not consciously doing it. So there’s a sense in which we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can teach in terms of critical thinking. And again, with all the different definitions out there, and all the different silos, I don’t blame faculty at all.
John: We can hope that your book will help reach more faculty and help us be more effective in this task.
Linda: Let me add one other thing that you can sell students on. Critical thinkers, and there’s research on this, tend to experience fewer difficulties in life than others do, whether they be health difficulties, financial, personal, legal, they just lead less troublesome lives. So if you kind of want to be happy, it’s a good idea to think critically, because it’ll keep you out of difficulty.
Rebecca: A good selling point, a good selling point.
Linda: Yes, it is a good selling point. [LAUGHTER] It is. And that’s just it. You might have to sell students on it. And you’re going to have to explain what critical thinking is to students, but they can take that pocket definition. It’s not negative thinking. It’s not just criticizing things. It’s nothing like that at all. And it’s not leftist, that’s not it at all. But they need that clarification because they’re coming in with misconceptions about what critical thinking is. And what the words sound like. Maybe it’s not a really good name for it, but that’s what we’ve been calling it. So we’re stuck with it.
Rebecca: It also seems like faculty make a lot of assumptions about students knowing how to analyze or how to interpret and what the question focus that you’ve indicated we should pay attention to, is really getting at that by asking the questions to get them to do the activity that we want them to do, when they might not know what that word actually means. Because it’s not been modeled.
Linda: Exactly, we should stop and model and then say, “You know, this is an analysis question that I’m asking you or that I just asked you.” We need to label things, so students get to understand what these cognitive operations are. And unfortunately, we make assumptions and studentsmight say, “Oh, analysis, that something a shrink does.” No, no, no, no, no, no. Interpretation. “Well, that’s something that people who read novels do.” No, we are all doing it all the time. So even chemists do interpretation. You interpret the data, and you can come up with different things.
Rebecca: And a lot of students get stuck right on describe, they don’t go much past that, and they don’t know that that’s what they’re doing
Linda: …or summarize. Yeah.
Rebecca: I’ve had conversations with students about those kinds of words before and it was really productive.
Linda: Yeah, yeah. because nobody’s really told them what these words mean.
John: It seems that higher ed is not doing quite as well as we’dlike in terms of increasing students critical thinking skills. Should this be an important focus for higher ed?
Linda: First of all, the buck stops with us. Otherwise, they go out into the world. And they could be adrift in general, without our teaching them critical thinking. They’re not likely to learn this in K through 12. I’m sorry. Oh, yes, they will in prep schools, but we don’t worry about those kids. So we have to keep people who are in power, and people with money honest, and the only people who really have ever wound up doing that are fairly well educated people. That’s why higher education is so important. And unfortunately, over the years… certainly, from when I was in college to now… the whole reason people go to college, and what they want out of college has changed. Now they want a job. Well, I hate to use this phrase. Back in my day, we wanted to develop a sound, sophisticated philosophy of life. Now that fits right in with critical thinking, critical thinking was very much a part of it. But now, that’s kind of like out the window. Well, to keep a job, you need to become a critical thinker. This is what employers need. This is what the world needs. And we can’t do good production without it. But even more important than that, we talk about freedom, for this society, any society, our freedom lies in our awareness of our patterns of human cognition, how they can be exploited, these patterns. And just, in general, our awareness of this worldwide pandemic of dishonesty in the pursuit of money and power, and it’s almost considered okay, because it’s all around us, we see it. Well guess what? It’s not okay unless we say it’s okay. So if we want to preserve freedom, we absolutely need this awareness. And it’s not like we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Because really, this awareness and this watchdog-type thinking really gave rise to a lot of successful movements, the environmental protection movement, the conservation movement, sustainability, recycling, stronger vehicle safety standards, and that’s just to name a few. And they all came out of critical thinking and awareness of where our weaknesses as human beings are. We all have a mind… well, almost all of us have a mind… and we need to know how it works so we can protect ourselves from all the advertising and scams and shams of demagoguery… which by the way, appeals to emotions… to all these different trips that individual institutions, organizations, corporations are trying to lay on us. And they are, because, hey, its profitable to lay the sawdust if we buy into it, we can’t afford to. We should not.
John: We always end with the question: What’s next?
Linda: Ah, yes. What’s next? Well, first of all, I hope getting back to travel.
Rebecca: Me too.
JON: Me too.
Linda: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Doing workshops and keynotes instead of this virtual nonsense where you’re talking into a screen. To see an audience tells me everything about what I need to do next in the workshop or in the keynote. But aside from that, I’m just finishing up another book: Online Teaching at its Best, the second edition. And in the second edition I talk about the kinds of teaching we’ve been doing lately, like remote teaching, hyflex teaching, Well, hybrid, we’ve been doing, but talking about it in another way. And in addition to the fully online learning that we talked about… Ludie Goodson and I talked about in the first edition… but the second edition has a lot more about what we’ve been doing lately because it’s possible universities and colleges might decide to keep some of this remote stuff. Hyflex is very much a disaster when you’re dealing with this pandemic and masks and all that. But, anyway, universities might say, “Hey, you know, it’s cheaper to do remote, we don’t have to build any more buildings, students can learn at home, hey, students might like that.” But again, they might not. But I’m afraid they’re going to do this with conferences, and it just makes me want to cry. Let’s do virtual conferences. We don’t have to pay hotel bills. And people don’t have to worry about getting travel funding. But in any case, it worries me that we’re going to get too accustomed to and accepting of, this virtual communication, which we all know, deep inside of our hearts, that’s not as good as human face-to-face contact. So anyway, but that’s next, that book will be coming out, I think, in the summer. And right now Ludie and I have the manuscript in but we’re still doing some pre-production stuff having to do with author queries, proofs, all that nonsense that makes you wish you didn’t write the book. [LAUGHTER] Writing is the fun part. This isn’t. But I’ll do it. I promise.
John: More information on effective online teaching, I think, is especially important these days. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more people doing it even when the pandemic is over, now that people have learned that it can work.
Linda: Yeah, it can work. But we just started doing these things, not knowing how to make it work. And learning has suffered, grades have suffered, and rigor has suffered. So far, no real good has come out of the switch. It can, it can, and that’s what the second edition will hopefully begin to do.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us again, and having such a rich conversation.
Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. This has been great. Thank you.
John: And our faculty very much appreciates all the work you did with ACUE as well, because they keep bringing up some of the things they learned watching some of your videos in that course.
Linda: Oh, good. I’m glad to hear that. Well, thank you ever so much for this chance to talk about a book that isn’t even out yet but that I’m truly in love with.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.