Promoting Critical Thinking through Online Coursework

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

As educators, it can be difficult to engage students in critical thought, but doing so in an online course can be even more challenging. In this lesson we will look at strategies to help students cultivate critical thinking skills in the online classroom.

Creating Critical Thinkers

A lot of students believe online classes are the easy way out. They think they can read a text, answer some questions, and it's a done deal. How can you get away from that and push your students to higher-level thinking? How can you make online content meaningful for your students and keep them engaged in the coursework?

Let's take a look at strategies we can use to deliver our content in meaningful ways that can inspire our students to think deeply and critically.

Our first goal is to get students to want to think. Easy enough, right? Without that individual conscious drive to think, critical reasoning cannot occur. To build the type of environment that fosters critical thinking in an online class, we must give students multiple opportunities to express themselves so that they are open to new ideas and are able to acknowledge critical argumentation versus explaining personal bias.

Start simple. Promote basic vocabulary and new concepts while allowing students to work through their personal biases and prejudices. Once you build a philosophical foundation of content, you can start breaking down ideas and concepts using analysis and critical reasoning.

Reflect and Discuss

At times, we are so focused on teaching content that we forget about digesting that content. A large part of teaching students to reflect is giving them the time and space to do so. Depending on the online platform, you could give students prompts and have them post their responses on a discussion board, or have them use a different website to blog their thoughts and feelings.

Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are a great way to have students express their thoughts and reflect in a structured environment. It's important to give your students open-ended questions that encourage a wide variety of arguments. These questions could reflect a reading, film, or a question related to the philosophical foundation of the content. For example, you could ask your students something as follows: ''Think back to chapter 1. What did you take away from the reading and why? How can you connect the content to the real world?''

Once the students post their responses, make them read through peer responses and comment. The goal is to replicate a classroom discussion, but more importantly, keep the students accountable for their thoughts, ideas, and reactions to their peers' thoughts. This process forces students to think about the content and reflect on their own ideas regarding that content. It also gives them an outlet to share and critique the newly learned material in a way that will foster critical thought.

Blogging and Journal Entries

To track a more natural progression of feeling and thought, you can have students keep a journal or blog on a blogging website, such as Tumblr or WordPress. The structure could consist of posting 1-3 times a week depending on your class, content, and pacing, with a more open-ended approach regarding the journal topics. This is an independent exercise, but you could request that students visit their peers' blogs and comment as well.

Socratic Seminars

Now that you have a solid content foundation, and students are learning how to communicate through informal posts, you can add formal discussions called Socratic seminars, where students must prepare research ahead of time and discuss a topic with limited help from you. This method gives you insight as to how your students are able to gather data and relay that data appropriately in the moment.

In a classroom-based Socratic seminar, students would sit in a circle and discuss their thoughts while you observe. In an online course, you can use a chat room to mirror the 'real time' feel of a discussion, then grade each student based on specific criteria. While you would typically sit back and observe, you may step in and/or lead the discussion depending on the grade and content levels. This strategy is an excellent way to engage students in critical-thinking exercises where they must use prior knowledge and course material in the moment.

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