Writing critical thinking learning outcomes

Posted by: Associate Professor Kym Fraser, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

A photo of The Thinker by Rodin located at the Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinker, Rodin (cc) Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Andrew Horne

Building on Helen McLean’s post Bloom ‘n’ Biggs and John Benwell’s post Course guides: Bloomin’ verbs, this post provides ideas for writing critical thinking learning outcomes. Critical thinking is one of the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) cognitive skills requirements that all programs will need to demonstrate from 2015.

Critical thinking is a complex process that requires the use of the higher level cognitive skills in Bloom’s taxonomy: analysis; synthesis; and evaluation (Bloom et al, 1956). We may expect students to demonstrate that they are thinking critically in many different ways, including: raising vital questions and formulating them clearly; gathering and assessing relevant information; using abstract ideas; and thinking open-mindedly. We also may expect our students to consider the context, justify their answers and analyse their own thinking in terms of clarity, accuracy, relevance, logic and fairness. Some theorists suggest that critical thinking is social in nature and therefore requires reflection followed by communication (Choy and Cheah, 2008: 199).

We can make our critical thinking skills development explicit for AQF requirements through the writing of our course guide learning outcomes. Through these we alert students to the focus of the course in terms of both the discipline content and the skills. We also help staff teaching courses in later semesters to see the outcomes students have achieved in our course and how they might build upon those achievements. Outcomes let students know some of the specific ways in which you expect them to develop and demonstrate their critical thinking skills in your course (how to think like a journalist/teacher/engineer). They also help students to better understand the language of the discipline and ways of thinking, which can often be quite discipline specific.

Writing critical thinking learning outcomes that are useful to students can be challenging. Table 1 provides a list of verbs that can be used in the formulation of outcomes. They should also aid you in aligning the learning experiences and assessment tasks that lead to those outcomes.

Table 1.  Useful terminology for writing critical thinking learning outcomes*

Analysis Synthesis Evaluation
Analyse Argue Assess
Apply Categorise Appraise
Break down Combine Challenge
Compare and contrast Compile Compare and contrast
Deconstruct Create Conclude
Determine Devise/develop Criticise/critique
Discuss Design Defend
Describe Explain Discriminate
Differentiate Generate Evaluate/judge
Discriminate Modify Explain
Distinguish Organize Interpret
Identify Plan Justify
Illustrate Prioritise Recognise
Infer Rearrange, reconstruct Relate
Manage Reorganise Review
Outline Relate Select
Relate Revise Summarise
Review Rewrite Support
Select Summarise
Separate

* Adapted from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 1956. (At our institution ‘outcomes’ rather then ‘objectives’ are used in course guides.)

Figure 1 below provides examples of critical thinking learning outcomes. As you will see, some of these incorporate all three of Bloom’s higher order cognitive skills (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) while others reflect just the one skill.  I hope that you find these useful when thinking about your course planning.

Figure 1. Critical thinking learning outcome examples

  1. select, analyse, interpret and evaluate a range of source materials.
  2. describe patterns or relationships in large amounts of written and/or visual information.
  3. evaluate available written and/or visual information, evidence and argument for reliability and authority/usefulness (e.g.; observation, testimony, measurement, experiment).
  4. look for, recognise, articulate and challenge assumptions and presuppositions, gaps/silences, suppressed/overlooked evidence in their own, peer and professional opinions.
  5. identify and manage the risks associated with making and implementing decisions.
  6. make a reasoned argument
  7. analyse and assess the strength of an argument and the implications for a course of action that follows from it.
  8. access or generate alternatives and select the most appropriate.
  9. develop a well-supported, clearly articulated argument to support a view and use it to justify one or more conclusions.
  10. prioritise tasks according to their own or other considerations.
  11. apply systematic research processes.
  12. develop industry/professional standards that may affect their decision making.
  13. develop a clearly articulated argument to support a view and use it to justify one or more conclusions.
  14. select and discuss written and/or visual information to produce a comprehensive picture for different ways of viewing a problem.
  15. determine the component parts of a problem/issue, their relationships to each other and to the issue/problem as a whole.
  16. identify and explain/rectify logical and/or other errors in an argument.
  17. assess the strength of an argument and the implications for a course of action that follows from it.
  18. develop a rationale for performing a character in a particular way.
  19. compare and contrast (eg documents, accounts, arguments, different styles of presenting a performance, the rights of individuals in different regional contexts).
  20. judge the validity of a group’s right to self determination.
  21. analyse a conflict and draw relationships with historical examples.
  22. generate critical questions about historical examples.
  23. reflect on the strength and weaknesses of yourself and your team members and suggest ways in which you and others could improve the work of the team in the future.

Resources

Griffith University Critical Evaluation Toolkit (accessed November 9, 2012 at http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/290659/Critical-evaluation-skills.pdf)

This toolkit was developed by Griffith University and is intended for use by academics. The toolkit identifies principles of critical thinking and analysis, elaborates on employer and graduate needs with respect to critical thinking and includes information on designing learning activities and assessing critical thinking.

Oliver, B. Assuring Graduate Attributes. (accessed November 9, 2012at http://boliver.ning.com/)

This is a site to which individuals can subscribe. Once subscribed, go to the ‘Set Standards’ section and in the right hand column you will see examples of standards in different disciplines. Some of those examples include detailed standards for critical thinking.

Bibliography

Bloom, S., Engelhart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W. and Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. David McKay Company, Inc: New York.

Choy, S.  and Cheah, P. (2008). Teacher Perceptions of Critical Thinking Among Students and its Influence on Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 20 (2), 198 – 206.

Facione, P. A. (2009) Critical thinking: what it is and why it counts. Online at http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/what&why2006.pdf (accessed August 18, 2009).

Fagin, B., Harper, J. Baird, L., Hadfield, S. & Sward, R., (2006). Critical thinking and computer science: implicit and explicit connections. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, 21(4), 171-177.

Jones, A. (1997), Multiplicities or manna from heaven? Critical thinking and the disciplinary context. Australian Journal of Education, 51(1), 84-103

Jones, A. (2004). Teaching critical thinking: an investigation of a task in introductory macroeconomics. Higher Education Research & Development. 23 (2): 167 – 182.

Moore, T. (2004). The critical thinking debate: how general are general thinking skills? Higher Education Research & Development,23(1), 3-18.

Sharma, P. & Hannafin, M. (2004). Scaffolding critical thinking in an online course: An exploratory study, Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31(2), 181-208.

Tapper, J. (2004). Student perceptions of how critical thinking is embedded in a degree program.  Higher Education Research & Development. 23 (2): 199 – 222.

Thomas, T., Davis, T. & Kazlauskas, A. (2007) Embedding critical thinking in IS curricula. Journal of Information Technology Education, 6(1), 327-346

Share your thoughts about critical thinking learning outcomes (or critical thinking skills in general) in the comments! 

One thought on “Writing critical thinking learning outcomes

  1. Thanks for sharing such deep information on critical thinking. I have not just read the blog content but also the reference links provided here. I was more particularly interested in critical thinking methodfor employees. If you have that method with you, please elaborate it also.

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