Promoting Critical Tinking Skills
January 2007

Promoting Critical Tinking Skills

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Internet has created a new medium for education known as “online learning” which enables “digitised information”, accessed by a wider society. Online learning allows learning to be tailored to meet the student's needs and improve the interaction between instructor and student. The concept of online learning provides a bridge between the physical distance instructional resources and expertise and students who, for certain reasons May be of access to these resources.

According to Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ (1991) online discussions allow students to share their knowledge that enables them to take responsibilities for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers.

Background of the study

This research focuses on measuring the participation and critical thinking among Fundamentals of Networking class students. The framework for this study is based on the theory of “community of inquiry” by Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, (2001). This framework for a community of inquiry consists of three overlapping core elements: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, (2001)

Among these three elements, cognitive presence is the central to successful higher education learning experiences. “Cognitive presence presented is the extent to which students are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” Garrison et al. (2000). Within this framework, critical thinking falls under cognitive presence. This study is an analysis of level of critical thinking took place as defined in Practical Inquiry Model phases that are triggering event, exploration, integration and resolution (Garrison et al. 2001).

This study is aimed to answer the following research question: How does online discussion assist students to develop critical thinking?

Online discussion is growing as a tool that could provide opportunities for teaching and learning beyond traditional classroom setting. This article presents a study on a group of four “Fundamentals of Networking” subject students to analyse the usage of online discussion in assisting them to encourage critical thinking. Blackboard Learning System that provides a platform for online discussion was used in this study. The result indicated that online discussion is a useful learning tool in encouraging students to “speak” and exchange their opinions. The author finds online discussion board an ideal learning tool for teaching and learning as the new age Information and Communication Technology, the Internet provides limitless information for students to analyse and post quality messages.

Rationale of the study

Jonassen et al. (1995) based on his study found that teachers control 80% of classroom discussions whereas in computer conferencing such as discussion board, instructors only contribute between 10-15%. (p. 14). Keeping this in mind, the current study designed to allow students interact online with their peers to share their ideas on a particular topic. The focus of the study would be on student led discussion whereas teacher does not play any role but just to guide the students to wrap-up up the discussion during the lecture.

Asynchronous discussion allows students to do some critical thinking and hence express their own opinion. Although more time May be required, students are given a chance to familiarise themselves with others' ideas and then develop a better response from them. Walker (2002) pointed out that using asynchronous discussion to stimulate critical thinking could be very challenging. As such he suggested integrating various learning styles by using sound, music, pictures, graphics, and simulations that can stimulate creative and critical thinking.

Text base asynchronous online discussion is the only style used in this study.

Classes' met on an online discussion sessions are held for two weeks, between weeks three and four. During this week students are required to join the online discussion replacing the traditional classroom discussion. The discussion will be conducted using discussion board available in Blackboard, a Learning Management System software used by Sunway University College.

For the purpose of this study, every group member is given a role and one of the members played the role of a leader. The next step is allocating a problem base question to the group in the discussion board. The instructor in early week 3 posted the question. Each student is then required to post discussion base upon their role also to respond to their group members. As this is a group work, each member of the group is required to help each other to solve the problem.

Critical thinking in online discussion

Discussion started in week 3 of the semester. In total there were seven groups that took part in this online discussion. The discussion started with “off-task” messages before moving into more active posting at a later date. This group posting are quiet consistent. Even though from 28th Jan  2006 to 5th Feb 2006 was a semester break, these students still able to contribute their ideas while being at home. This would not have been possible in a classroom discussion environment.

Online Discussion
Online learning tools such as discussion board provide many ways to increase communication between students and instructor. Rossman, (1999) concluded that communication using asynchronous postings to the discussion forum allows students to post at their convenience. Students are able to take time to read the messages, have deep thought and understanding about it before responding with valuable and mind provoking responses.

It appears that in case that asynchronous online discussion allowed most of the students to participate at a time appropriate to him or her whereas in a face to face discussion would never have this many messages especially when time is limited. All students were given equal chance to contribute their ideas and share their knowledge with their peers. Some students who hardly speak in classroom, have posted 12/13 messages over the two weeks. Marks could be the main motivator for this.

Online discussion encourage active participation

The number of messages posted and read was gathered from the Black-board system and added to get the total. In total there are 47 messages posted over two weeks. The average number of posts per student was 11.75. The length of total messages is 2291. In a group of 4 students, these results indicate a high level of participation, which might not have been achieved in a typical classroom discussion setting.

The self-pace environment that online discussion offers allow students to post quality messages, which shows that deep learning, took place. In total, the messages are read for 602 number of times. This shows that students have read the messages many times and this gives them an opportunity to increase their knowledge. Whereas, for discussion that takes place in classroom there will be no way to access or read it on their own pace and time.

The analyses of messages revealed that the quality of messages posted gets better in second week of the discussion whereas in week one students spend time introducing themselves, exchanging contacts and assigning of roles. In week two, critical thinking skills such as explo-ring, integrating and later on applying the ideas into real world took place.

Most of the time, these students post their message at at night. This is not possible for classroom discussion. The above example shows that active participation happen regardless of time in online discussion.

Findings and discussion

There are four phases of PIM to measure level of critical thinking. All messages were analysed on these entire four categories.
Higher number of messages in resolution phase could have been reached if instructor interfered and facilitated the discussion. McLoughlin & Luca (1999) found that when instructor interferes in the discussion, he is able to guide the students into a higher level of critical thinking.
Quality of messages improved rapidly in Week Two, as students were able to discuss and understand the given task better. It also helps them to have intense thought before responding with mind provoking responses.
Evidence from messages posted in Week Two shows that students have improved their writing skills as well. Discussion board helps student improve their writing skill. Cohen and Spencer (1993) as cited by Greenlaw (2003) commented that writing is essential for critical thinking as it allows student to build arguments.
Students that fail to attend lectures were still able to take part in the online discussion. They can still grasp the knowledge that they miss in class by reading the messages posted in the online discussion board. In this study the high number of messages read (602 times) shows that the students spend a lot of time reading message. This is supported by Greenlaw (2003) who commented that students would not miss the discussion as they can observe the flow of discussion anytime, anywhere without attending class.
The design of task given in this discussion is also another crucial issue for the success of online discussion. Each student assigned a role and grouped in a group of four. This gives them pressure and an impression that their contribution is very important to ensure the success of the group.

Future recommendations

Students were able to reflect their thoughts better with the guidance from Instructor. As such, instructor should involve himself in sending prompt replies to student to guide them to post high quality messages. This will be another motivating factor for students as it gives them the impression that the instructor checks each of their messages in detail.

Information collected from the messages posted by students is not sufficient to check whether critical thinking took place. Additional information from questionnaires from students would give a better insight to the researcher to evaluate the effectiveness of discussion board in building critical thinking

Practical Inquiry Model measuring cognitive presence (adapted from Garrison et al., 2001)
Descriptor Indicators
Phase 1 Trigger events Recognising
Sense of puzzlement the problem
Phase 2 Exploration Information exchange
Suggestions for consideration
Brainstorming
Phase 3 Integration Connecting ideas, synthesis
Creating solutions
Phase 4 Resolution Vicarious application to real word
Testing solutions

Critical Thinking

According to Cohen and Spencer (1993) as cited by Greenlaw (2003), writing is an important element for critical thinking. It allows the students to learn and develop arguments that are supported by logic and facts. While Jonassen (1995) cited that, critical thinking involves three general skills, evaluating, analysing and connecting, it also allows students to  construct new knowledge that empowers them and encourages critical thinking.

Lengthy messages might not favour some students as it takes long time to read and understand. As such, students need to be made clear on the length of messages they can post. Discussion should include other features such as images, videos, animation rather than plain text. This will help students communicate their ideas easily and creatively. This is supported by Walker (2005) who found that integrating various learning styles in online discussion board encourages critical thinking.

Discussion board- the ideal learning tool!

Flexibility in time that online discussions allow students to critically analyse their message before posting it. Therefore, discussion board would be an ideal learning tool for teaching and learning as information are always overflowing with the arrival of Internet.  

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