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Boosting critical thinking in UofGH students

If you don’t think critical thinking skills can be taught, think again. A recent study at the University of Guelph-Humber could indicate otherwise.

The main question of a one-year research program recently conducted by University of Guelph-Humber instructors Christine Zupo, John Irwin and Theo Selles through UofGH’s Early Childhood Studies program was: Can teaching students about critical thinking help them learn how to think critically?

They decided to use a second-year Family and Community Social Services course Selles was teaching on working with high-risk populations. Before and after the course was taught, students were polled on the definition of critical thinking and which teaching methods hinder or help the development of critical thinkers. The instructors pursued the study as part of inquire, a University of Guelph Certificate program intended to enhance competency in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Although definitions of critical thinking can differ, the core concept relates to rigorously testing and questioning your thinking, and applying creativity to problem-solving. 

In practice, Selles hoped that students would challenge and question the material of the course through a variety of discussions, games, activities and projects. As the course went on, he started to see a difference in the students.

“At the beginning, there can be some friction, confusion and resistance at times. Students can wonder, ‘Why are you asking me questions? You know the material. You’re supposed to teach it and give me a grade,’” Selles said. “As the course moves forward they get into it and find it enjoyable. They feel respected because I am genuinely interested in their opinions and their ideas.

“They start to question more. That’s education and the process of inquisitive learning.”

By the end of the course, 86 per cent of the 28 students surveyed reported a change in their understanding of critical thinking. The same number said learning about it helped them apply critical thinking to their studies. Zupo, Irwin and Selles are considering publishing their findings in a journal.

“Critical thinking is an important part of a University education, an important skill to acquire,” said Early Childhood Studies Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn. “As policies, procedures and pedagogues change within the field it is important that our students are able to think critically and evaluate the changes to meet the needs of the people they are supporting and society in general. Through the development of critical thinking we are building a strong foundation for our future, of people who can think for themselves and critically determine the best course of action. This is important. 

“It is important that the University of Guelph-Humber supports the instructor and helps to facilitate their innovative approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is though projects such as this that we are able to reflect on the positive impact we are making in the classroom and support our students’ development as competent professionals.”

Of course, Selles himself wouldn’t be much of a critical thinker if he didn’t question his own findings.

“I was overjoyed – and skeptical, as you should be. That’s the whole point of critical thinking,” he said. “But it wasn’t just the students saying their critical thinking skills had improved. At the beginning of the course, their definitions of critical thinking were very basic. By the end of the course, when we asked them to define it again, their definitions were much more complex and actually matched the definition used by the University of Guelph. That’s significant. They’re demonstrating that they’ve grasped this concept at a deeper level.”

Beyond this specific study, Selles has always encouraged his students to think critically.

He points out that the days of institutions or educators having exclusive access to information is over. Now, information is at everyone’s fingertips, but the focus has shifted from merely accessing information to being able to analyze it.

“That’s where critical thinking comes in,” he said. “Everyone has information but they don’t know if it’s reliable information. So the process is about looking for alternatives, being skeptical about the sources, being aware of one’s own biases, and knowing how to appropriately apply what they find. Especially in this era of accusations of fake news, students need critical thinking skills to evaluate the information that’s available to them.”

He thinks back to his own educational experience at a strict faith-based school where he said a creative, inquisitive mind wasn’t encouraged. Now, urging students to ask questions is a key part of his teaching approach.

“What students often describe having happened in their earlier education is a suppression of curiosity and critical thinking,” he said.

“I don’t refer to my classes as lectures. I don’t believe people learn when they’re lectured to. So I refer to my classes as conversations. A conversation means that I’m engaged with my students in a relational, interactive process, exploring, challenging and looking for alternative ideas.”