Situation Critical: Good Thinking Can Come from Better Writing

by Nancy Vazquez

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2006.


Writing is often regarded as a highly useful tool for developing students’ critical thinking skills—and rightly so—but assigning more writing isn’t in and of itself enough to improve student’s critical acumen. To foster critical thinking, instructors need to keep cognitive goals in mind at every step of the teaching process.

The term “critical thinking” has been variously defined by researchers, but in general refers to careful, judicious thinking that questions the relevance of facts, the validity of sources, and the logic of conclusions. Critical thinkers can identify patterns, apply information, draw conclusions, and make recommendations—in short, the abilities expected of college graduates.

When planning writing tasks for a course, instructors need to consider what kind of thinking the work asks of students. It may be helpful to refer to Bloom’s taxonomy, the well-known categorization of thinking skills that identifies six levels of cognitive tasks in order of increasing difficulty: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Each level lends itself to distinct kinds of writing assignments.

Knowledge

At this level, instructors expect students to recall information or demonstrate understanding of a subject’s key components. Most short answer and multiple-choice tests focus on this level of cognition. A typical writing assignment might ask students in a psychology class to explain the stages of emotional development in children or ask students in a science class to describe the process of DNA duplication.

Comprehension

This level asks students to take their knowledge and order or classify it. The traditional compare and contrast essay is often a standard demonstration of comprehension. Students in an economics course could be asked to compare two economic theories. At this level, the instructor would expect only a factual comparison, not an evaluation of the theories’ relative merits.

Application

This cognitive step requires students to use knowledge in new circumstances. For instance, an instructor in an education class might ask students to write a paper demonstrating how a particular educational model could be used in a specific classroom setting. Students at this level of thought begin to see real world uses for their learning.

Analysis

At this stage, students recognize patterns and look for evidence. In a structural engineering class, students might be expected to write a report explaining what went wrong with a building that collapsed. At this stage students begin to explain phenomena and ideas.

Synthesis

As students move to this level, which is sometimes seen as equal in complexity to the next stage, they draw on knowledge from diverse sources to draw conclusions and predict outcomes. In a crop sciences class, an instructor might introduce a reading about how a certain species of non-native plant adapted to the Texas Gulf coast region and then ask students to speculate about how the same species might adapt to the coastal plain of Virginia. At this level, there’s greater emphasis on generalizing knowledge.

Evaluation

Finally, at this level students are asked to look for bias or subjectivity in information and put forth a position of their own. A typical assignment in a marketing class might ask students to compare two marketing strategies for a new product and argue which is more likely to be effective. Or a medical student might be asked to review relevant research and argue for how often doctors should recommend certain routine health screenings. Students at this level can contend with questions that have no clear-cut answers.

When working to encourage students’ critical thinking skills, instructors should remember that the best assignments work in sequence, meeting students where they are and building from there. For instance, at the beginning of the semester, the instructor might ask for several brief (perhaps ungraded) assignments that ask students to demonstrate comprehension of the reading and lecture material. The responses can help an instructor gauge where students are in their intellectual development. Additional assignments can progress from that point.

Most of the recommendations for teaching writing dovetail nicely with the recommendations for fostering critical thinking. For instance, most composition theorists suggest abandoning research papers in favor of more real-world assignments. Such assignments are a natural for students at the third stage of development, application, which asks them to use knowledge in new contexts.

Likewise, the multiple drafts touted as a best practice for teaching of writing, lend themselves to improving critical reasoning because they give instructors repeated opportunities to redirect students’ thinking, using questions, for instance, to encourage them to dig deeper.

Similarly, when using peer response, instructors can direct students to move beyond proofreading to question the effectiveness of the evidence their peers offer or analyze the appropriateness of the piece for its intended audience.

Finally, instructors might ask students to reflect on their own learning. When students hand in an assignment, instructors can ask them to describe their writing experience: What did they find difficult? What did they do well? What would they do differently next time? Do they have any questions about the material?

At first, students may see this assignment as little more than an opportunity to offer up excuses, but eventually they come to see “writing about the writing” as a chance for genuine dialogue, not only with the instructor but also with themselves. After all, a critical eye should also be able to look inward.