Critical thinking helps cadets ‘make the grade’

  • Published
  • By Amy Gillentine
  • Office of Research

Creating leaders who communicate effectively, think critically and make ethical decisions are goals of every institution of higher learning, and the Air Force's Academy is no exception.

This is one reason the Academy holds the annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Forum, or STLF, an event focusing on education research to develop new ways of engaging students, said Dr. Lauren Scharff, the STLF Center's director.

The forum has been held at the Academy in October for the last five years.

The Academy is working to develop leaders who can solve problems, Scharff said. In one of her classes, cadets had to come up with a problem and solve it. Along the way, they had to create a video presentation on the steps chosen to get to the solution, she said.

"It had to be something that could be solved in the cadet wing," Scharff said. "And then they had to come up with a plan. It takes them right into reality because not only did they have to solve the problem, they had to document how they did it."

But teaching students to use those skills outside the classroom can be difficult, said Dr. Craig Nelson, professor emeritus of biology at Indiana University and founding president of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and takes an entire overhaul of the way classes are taught.

It comes down to deciding which outcomes graduates should have: the ability to be responsible, collaborative and ethical, to think critically and creatively and to write and speak well, he said. And then, curricula should be created that best reaches those outcomes.

Nelson said it's a backward way of designing a course.

"First we come up with the outcomes, then the assessments and then create the learning exercises," he said. "Everything that doesn't fit in with the outcomes, we don't use. Now, we have course design that starts with content and adds outcomes as an afterthought."

Nelson argues that teaching students to think critically means they'll pick up the content of a course faster, but it's nearly impossible for the opposite to happen.

"You can't teach them content and expect them to learn critical thinking quickly," he said. "It doesn't work that way."

Dr. Michelle Butler, who teaches behavioral science courses and works with the Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center at the Academy, said students learn best when the approach includes more than examples from a textbook.

"Ethical reasoning can come from class," she said. "But face-to-face interaction is better. Learning that people who look or act differently are really similar to us -- that takes personal interaction. It can't be just learning from a textbook."

Studies show that most people don't possess critical thinking skills -- most simply "go with their gut," Nelson said.

"They go with what feels right," he said. "And that's as sophisticated as it gets."

What students should develop is the ability to apply context, values and options to come to a reasonable stance based on critically applied reasoning. But not many graduates get there, Nelson said.

"Out of 20 graduates, 19 never get there," he said. "We need to change that."

Research presented examined different ways to improve student learning and their critical-thinking skills, Scharff said.

The 20 projects selected for the forum covered teaching research such as course designs for algebra, homework strategies, syllabus design and developing scientific reasoning skills.

Dr. Frederick Kontur researched ways for physics students to fully understand the practical applications of physics research found in scholarly journals. In the past, he had students read journal articles and discuss them with the class.

Last year, his advanced physics students had to write a science-fiction short story based on the journal article -- they had to use the science from the article in the story.
The effort achieved mixed results, he said.

"Some of the students got really ambitious and turned in a 50-page story," he said. "In some of them, only one paragraph was about the science and the rest was all about the character development and plotline. But it was clear that they read the journal article more than once, and really tried to understand the practical application of the science."

Butler has been working on research to break down stereotypes since 2008. Called "Respect for Human Dignity', she takes students to the Colorado School of the Blind and Deaf and to Craig Hospital in Denver, a rehabilitation center for people with traumatic brain injuries or spinal injuries. She discovered people are much more likely to respond to individuals who are different from themselves after face-to-face interactions.

"We asked them questions about their perceptions of people with disabilities before they went," she said. "Are they more likely or less likely to engage with someone that looks different or has a disability? Then we create scenarios that challenge those perceptions -- and it works. It changes their minds."

Scharff is already planning next year's forum, to be held during the fall semester, she said.