When do students learn to think critically?
By: The Globe and Mail staff article Can students learn how to think about, analyse and respond to complex information in a way that makes sense and improves their skills?
That’s a key question in a new paper that offers some interesting results on the subject.
A new paper published in the journal Psychological Science offers some promising insights, and the authors call on the Canadian Association of University Teachers to explore the issue further.
The paper’s lead author, Susanne Hargreaves, is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, and a member of the Canadian Psychological Association’s research and policy group on cognitive skills.
Her research focuses on how students learn in high school and college and how that influences how they practice, study and perform in life.
“We’re interested in the impact of cognitive development on students’ abilities to understand complex information,” she says.
“Students learn to apply critical thinking to solve problems in high-stress situations, and then they are challenged in later life when they are learning to do the same.”
Hargreets says the idea of learning to think critical is important.
“It’s a skill that can help people learn more effectively in complex situations,” she explains.
“But there’s so much that students can learn by doing the same thing over and over again.”
The paper examines how students are taught in school and how they learn cognitive skills at school.
“If you ask students how they learned to think in highschool, they will usually tell you that it was the kind of thing that was taught in class and you just had to learn it, and you did it in a particular way,” Hargres says.
“The kids would say, ‘It was the stuff in class that I didn’t learn in school that I did better than the stuff that I learned in school,’ and that’s true.”
When students do start to study, the students are often given a structured task that teaches them to think logically.
For example, the task might be, ‘write a sentence that is three syllables in length and ends with an exclamation point.’
This helps students learn that they have to use the rules of logic to form a sentence.
But Hargs says the students’ thinking can get distracted in high schools.
“So, students are very, very focused on the task at hand,” she observes.
“They’re focusing on the words they’re working on, not thinking about what’s happening next.”
As students become more aware of their cognitive skills, they are able to more effectively process information and solve problems, Harges says.
But this process is interrupted by what is known as the “flow of information” that occurs when students are studying.
This is when students have to focus on a problem and then think about the steps to solve it.
“Students who are exposed to the flow of information in high education are often really, really good at solving problems,” she notes.
“And if you’re not that good, you’ll be a terrible student.”
Students who have a better understanding of the flow-of-information process can more easily plan ahead and plan their future plans.
And when they learn how the flow is disrupted, the flow goes back to normal, she says, and they learn to work more effectively.
“It’s interesting to see how students do in that scenario,” Hasker says.
She says this may help students understand what is important in their future, and when to focus more on those aspects of learning.
The study also looks at the impact that learning to talk about complex ideas, and how students develop those skills, have on cognitive development.
“These are the kind-of learning activities that students might go through at high school, and it’s really important that they develop the cognitive skills to do them,” Hargees says, “because then when they go back to school, they can do it in context with the other stuff they are doing.”
The researchers hope the paper will help teachers and students better understand how to best teach students to think.
It also highlights the importance of learning how to work collaboratively to solve a problem, and that learning how critical thinking works in this context can help students become better problem solvers.
Follow The Globe & Mail on Facebook