Monday, January 7, 2013

Technologies for Assessing Deeper Learning in Higher Education

More and more college faculty are grappling with the challenges of crossing disciplinary boundaries to ensure their students are learning critical thinking skills. Both accreditation agencies and employers increasingly seek evidence that such skills are learned in college. Faculty commonly focus on teaching the rules of reasoning in their own disciplines, but branching out to teach reasoning across the disciplines is something new. I gave a presentation today at the faculty professional development day at Notre Dame de Namur University, a small, Catholic 4-year college in Belmont, CA. The talk presents an overview of new educational technologies in higher education and some links to online tools that faculty can use. In addition, I presented a perspective from educational and cognitive psychology on the concept of "critical thinking." The practical implication of this perspective is that unless faculty explicitly help students make connections across disciplines through assignments and assessments--most students will not make such connections. Why? Cognitive psychology tells us based on empirical evidence that people learn to reason within domains. As a result, what constitutes good reasoning in one domain does not precisely constitute good reasoning in another domain. The underlying logic does not easily "transfer." The sidebar conversations with faculty generated some interesting ideas. Maybe simply preparing students to know that whenever they enter a new domain, they need to appreciate that the "rules of the reasoning game" change constitutes a kind of critical thinking skill. If faculty in different disciplines can work together to articulate the "rules of the game" within their respective disciplines, and then discuss how to share the essentials across disciplines, they may move into a more coherent and effective approach to demonstrating results in improved critical thinking. One professor discussed how he teaches modus ponens to his students, and then has them apply this logical rule to different contexts. While such a logical reasoning framework has broad application and relevance, it does not necessarily help students apply, say, the rules of foreign language conjugation, the rules of biological metabolic processes, or the rules of supply and demand in economics. These latter reasoning systems are forms of "model-based reasoning" that have a non-intuitive quality. They constitute a domain-specific form of reasoning that is essential to be a critical thinker in those domains and essential for quality reasoning for a wide range of problems in the world. I look forward to hearing more about how the NDN faculty address their challenges around critical thinking. They may soon be exploring the idea of identifying the various essential forms of "model-based reasoning" per domain and using these as a basis for providing evidence of critical thinking across the disciplines.

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