Editorís Note: Greg Walker applies critical thinking theory and practice to asynchronous online discussions. As with the Murchu and Muirhead article, he explains the importance of writing, vocabulary, and reflection, and activities such as questioning and role plays. He also explores the facilitator role and how this differs in asynchronous online as compare to traditional classroom activities.
Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions
Critical thinking is a process that allows learners to gain new knowledge through problem solving and collaboration. It focuses on the process of learning rather than just attaining information. It involves discovering how to analyze, synthesize, make judgments, and create and apply new knowledge to real-world situations.
Critical thinking is important in the learning process since it presents opportunities to learn through discovery. When learners think critically they become actively responsible for their own learning. This can be a liberating experience that often leads to wisdom, and not just the learning of new information.
Higher levels of interaction in asynchronous discussions are needed to encourage learners to think critically. The rapid growth of online discussions has shaped current research on how higher order thinking, and learning, can be promoted through interaction between instructors, learners, and learning content (Blignaut & Trollip, 2003). This paper will examine strategies and challenges to encourage learners to think critically in asynchronous discussions.
Strategies for Using Critical Thinking
in Asynchronous Discussions
Asynchronous discussions can be improved with the use of critical thinking strategies. Information needs to be clearly stated for learners to critically reflect upon, and review, at their own pace. Pre-established guidelines are needed to shape the use of critical thinking. A variety of writing activities can be employed to promote critical thinking. Discussions need to focus on issues as problems to work out rather than subject topics learners discuss. Subject matter experts and role playing can enhance critical discussions. The use of convergent, divergent, evaluative, and Socratic-questioning strategies can encourage critical dialogue.
Critical Reflection and Review
Information in asynchronous discussions needs to be clearly stated in writing, reflected upon, and reviewed by learners at their own pace. When participants communicate with text, required criteria can be simply stated, differences between facts and opinions can be clearly outlined, assumptions can be examined, and explanations, causes, and solutions to problems, can be detailed by referring to specific issues (Jones, 1996).
Certain strategies should be followed for critical reflection and review. Instructional objectives should be posted at the start of the discussion. Learners should be able to select their own path of review and investigation. Learners should be able to interact frequently at a high level of cognitive involvement, and alternative paths should be available (Jones, 1996). Assignments should be relevant to encourage reflection and critical thinking. Integrating critical thinking into the online learning process requires information to be presented from a variety of perspectives that involves both the cognitive and affective learning domains (Muirhead, 2002).
Shaping Asynchronous Discussions with Pre-established Guidelines
A variety of pre-established guidelines can shape critical thinking in asynchronous discussions. Clark (2004) uses a scaffolding strategy to stimulate critical thinking. Scaffolding begins with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a single concept, and then the discussion builds on the knowledge presented by learners. After discussing the first concept, another concept is added, and the discussion centers on analyzing which concept is better. Then, one or two more concepts are added and the discussion centers on the gray areas, and the pros and cons, of multiple concepts. Finally, learners choose the best concept and link them to another discipline.
Morgan (2001) provides pre-established guidelines as a strategy to encourage critical thinking along logical lines of thought. First, a learner presents a claim. Next, a second learner provides evidence for the claim. Then, a third learner counters the claim. Finally, a fourth learner provides evidence for the counter claim. This strategy works well for debates and exchanging explanations and stories, but doesnít encourage dialogue through critical reflective exchanges.
Morgan (2001) also uses guidelines to form a social argument as an experiment. First, a group of learners claim a hypothesis as an experiment. Next, other groups test the experiments validity. The groups have a choice of accepting the experiment and its results, providing another experiment that may be rejected, examining the validity of the groups experiment and providing further evidence, or providing an alternative hypothesis. Morgan uses arguments as an experiment to discuss learner exchanges, to summarize online discussions, and as an introduction for the next discussion session.
Guidelines can be and effective strategy to present an issue to solve rather than a topic to discuss. Online discussions need to be designed around specific issues, and cases, to help learners ground their discussion on shared data, and sequence and build upon them in later discussions (Morgan, 2001). Learners often respond to issues as topics that can be recited. Many do not understand that issues are problems that need to be investigated, and that it takes time to frame an issue. Guidelines need to be established to shape issues by sequencing them over numerous discussions. According to Morgan an issue is first presented for learners to respond to. Next, the facilitator reviews the responses and complicates the issue for more discussion. As the discussion advances the facilitator encourages dialogue towards the issue by identifying quality exchanges, and explaining why they are good. Finally, the facilitator reviews and summarizes the discussions.
Writing Activities that Promote Critical Thinking
Using a variety of writing activities can help promote critical thinking in asynchronous discussions. Common writing assignments include answering and responding to other learnerís discussion questions, analyzing case studyís, writing reports, research papers, projects and weekly summaries. Collaborative written assignments such as developing team reports on specific topics, group answers to discussion questions, joint research papers, debates, and critiques of arguments can also enhance critical thinking.
One strategy to promote critical thinking is to have learners choose issues or topics that relate to their interests and course content, and post completed assignments for discussion and evaluation by other course participants. Other strategies include relating assignments to personal experiences, reinforcing and synthesizing course materials by personalizing them to specific professional, academic, and personal needs, and communicating a variety of perspectives and subjects that are personally useful (Illinois Online Network, 2003). It is strategically important to provide writing activities that allow learners to take positions, and state their perspectives on subjects that relate to the course objectives.
Strategies for Using Subject Matter Experts
Using subject matter experts with asynchronous discussions can be an effective strategy to enhance critical thinking. Muirhead (2002) found that learners enjoy reading about individuals and subject matter experts who relate to the course materials. Subject matter experts provide a human element to discussions, and can make issues more meaningful.
Pennsylvania State University uses mock interview exercises as a strategy to promote critical thinking (Creative use of on-line discussion areas: Suggestions to integrate technology, 2002). First, learners locate and read about a person who is an expert in an area that is relevant to the subject matter. Next, they formulate critical questions to ask, and justify the reasons for the questions by relating them to the course material. Finally, the questions and justifications are posted for learners to debate and critique.
Asynchronous discussions can also be used to interview subject matter experts. Learners at Penn State interview subject matter experts at key points in the course after they have done online background research (Creative use of on-line discussion areas: Suggestions to integrate technology, 2002). The asynchronous interview is facilitated by the instructor to ensure questions are not repeated and similar questions are merged into one question. Penn State also uses subject matter experts as guest facilitators to lead asynchronous discussions for a set period of time. Before the discussion learners read a paper or article written by the guest facilitator that relates to a subject in the course. Then questions are prepared to ask the guest facilitator. Next, the questions are posted to the online discussion, and learners justify their questions by relating them to the guest facilitatorís work. Next, the questions critiqued before they are presented to the guest facilitator. Finally, after the guest facilitator has answered the prepared questions, learners analyze and evaluate the process.
Role Playing Strategies
Role playing can be an effective strategy to promote critical thinking in online discussions. One strategy is to have small groups of learners develop scenarios around specific course content, and assume roles within the scenarios (The Illinois Online Network, 2003). Another strategy is to have small teams of learners analyze a case study scenario with role playing (Creative use of on-line discussion areas: Suggestions to integrate technology, 2002). First, a scenario is presented in the online discussion and each team develops questions based on the scenario. Next, teams interview the facilitator, who assumes a role, by posting questions to the discussion. Next, each team member takes on a role representing different sides of specific issues and presents them by suggesting, interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, inferring, or explaining their positions. This helps learners critically compare their reasoning with other learners. Next, each team summarizes their findings and presents them online for feedback. Finally, learners post their ideas for a solution and receive feedback from other learners on how their ideas could be applied to another discipline, or how they could be expanded.
Effective questioning strategies guide asynchronous discussions and promote critical interaction. Blanchette (2001) found that asynchronous discussions allow for a higher level of cognitive questions that encourage critical thinking. Learners have more time to process questions and develop responses, and the learnerís cognitive level of response often matches the cognitive level of the questions asked. Higher level cognitive and affective questions encourage learners to interpret, analyze, evaluate, infer, explain and self regulate. According to Wilson (2002) there are four types of questions that encourage learners to use higher levels of cognitive, or affective, processes for critical thinking. They are convergent, divergent, and evaluative questions. Blanchette (2001) found that evaluative questions were asked most often in asynchronous discussions. Divergent and evaluative questions generated the most interaction, and evaluative questions provided the greatest motivation for discussion.
Convergent Questioning Strategies
Convergent questions normally ask learners to analyze issues, and their personal awareness of issues. Learners often become more conscious of the learning process when convergent questions are framed around relationships between concepts, ideas, and information (Crafting Questions for On-line Discussions, 2002). Key words used in convergent questions are support, translate, judge, classify, select, match, explain, represent, and demonstrate. Convergent questions ask learners to analyze information by breaking down parts, recognizing patterns, forming assumptions and identifying relationships (Wilson, 2002). Convergent questions are used to check for understanding by asking learners to identify content information or interpret information in a new way. Blanchette (2001) found that convergent questions did not generate a great deal of interaction in online discussions.
Divergent Questioning Strategies
Divergent questions explore different possibilities, variations, and alternative answers or scenarios, and require learners to analyze, synthesize or evaluate knowledge, and project, or predict different outcomes (Wilson, 2002). Divergent questions generally stimulate creativity, and are used to investigate cause and affect relationships. Wilson points out that answers to divergent questions often have a wide variety of acceptability since they are subjective and based on the answers possibility or probability. Divergent questions often challenge learners to synthesize information through creative and original thinking. Learners integrate knowledge and combine essential elements into patterns that were not previously noticeable (Crafting Questions for On-line Discussions, 2002). Divergent questions are used in online discussions to provide opportunities to expose learners to alternative possibilities, and new solutions presented by different learners.
Evaluative Questioning Strategies
Evaluative questions require comparative analysis from different perspectives before learners can synthesize information and reach conclusions. Evaluative questions usually require higher levels of cognitive and emotional judgment (Wilson, 2002). Evaluative questions promote critical thinking in online discussions by providing reflective opportunities. Learners evaluate issues by assessing, appraising, and defending information according to a set of criteria, and justification of their beliefs, and then reflect and gather resources to support their opinions (Crafting Questions for On-line Discussions, 2002). Discussions can often become intense and emotional, and facilitation is critical to prevent argumentative interactions.
According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking (n.d), the best known teaching strategy for promoting critical thinking is Socratic-questioning since it highlights the need for using clarity and logical consistency. Socratic-questions encourage critical thinking when learners look deeply into assumptions, points of views, perspectives, and evidence to analyze assumptions, and examine reasons, concepts and consequences. They help learners to understand the implications of what they discuss online. Socratic-questions ask learners to identify cause and effect relationships, probe by asking ďso whatĒ, and look for relevant responses (Stepien, 1999). They ask learners to clarify, look for meaning, and provide justification and evidence. Socratic-questions ask learners to consider and evaluate different paths.
Challenges for Using Critical Thinking Strategies
in Asynchronous Discussions
Learner challenges for promoting critical thinking in online discussions include time constraints, and a lack of motivation and self-directed learning skills. Faculty can be a challenge for using critical thinking strategies when they do not understand their role as a facilitator. Faculty members need to acquire facilitation skills to help learners think critically. Faculty attitudes toward facilitation can also be challenge for the use of critical thinking strategies. Finally, it can be a challenge to integrate methods of learning and interaction that stimulate critical thinking in asynchronous discussions.
Time constraints and a lack of learner motivation and self-directed learning skills can restrain critical thinking in online discussions. According to Morgan (2001) learner interactions are often trivial or superficial. The same positions and perspectives are simply restated rather than reflected on and critiqued. Dialogue doesnít develop between learners since responses are just a series of ongoing monologues that are directed to the instructor. Learners respond to writing assignments as topics rather than issues, and they have difficulty creating issues that prompt discussions. Learners do not engage in exploratory, reflective, or constructive dialogue and often use discussions for communicating personal opinions, and become defense when they are evaluated or offered other points of view. Learners often do not take the time to process questions and develop responses. As a result, they communicate with lower level cognitive responses.
Faculty are Facilitators
The rapid growth of the Internet has created a huge increase in the use of asynchronous discussions for online learning, and many faculty members are facilitating online discussions with little or no experience, or training. Many faculty members have only taught in a classroom and do not understand their role as a facilitator in asynchronous discussions. Facilitating critical thinking goes beyond many classroom experiences, and some expertís fear that several classroom experiences are harmful to the development and cultivation of critical thinking (Facione, 1998). Facilitators require training and experience to promote interaction and critical dialogue that leads to reflection, and a deeper understanding of issues. Faculty development training is critical to help learners develop, and nurture, their critical thinking skills in online discussions.
Facilitators need to acquire skills to help learners think critically in online discussions. They need to understand how to continue and reintroduce issues in later discussions without taking away from new issues. They need to understand how to facilitate dialogue, since it can be unpredictable, and can quickly change based on the opportunities that are presented in the discussions. It can also be difficult for facilitators to read and interpret critical and rhetorical exchanges since there is no formal criterion that describes how high-quality critical dialogue is disclosed (Morgan, 2001).
Faculty Attitudes toward Facilitation
Faculty attitudes toward facilitation can affect the use of critical thinking strategies in online discussions. Training in the facilitation of asynchronous discussion may be a major challenge for faculty members who are satisfied with the way they instruct. Many instructors feel their teaching methods have been successful in the past, and feel there is no reason to change their approach. Some have become accustomed to delivering lectures in the classroom, and have not provided opportunities for learners to practice critical thinking, or use active learning. Faculty members may ignore training they receive to help them facilitate critical thinking since they do not think there is anything wrong with the way they currently teach. In the past, faculty attitudes have frequently undermined the success of instructional development programs (Brown & Meuti1, 1999).
Integrating Methods of Learning and Interaction
It can be a challenge integrating methods of learning and interaction to stimulate critical thinking in asynchronous discussions. Often courses are designed with just one method of interaction, such as answering and responding to questions. When the question approach is used excessively it creates predictable online discussions that often lack critical thinking (Muirhead, 2002). Online discussions can be designed to stimulate creative and critical thinking, and appeal to different learning styles, by integrating a variety of links to sounds, music, pictures, cartoons, simulations and graphics. Methods of learning that can be integrated into online discussions include; case studies, role playing, interviews of subject matter experts, guest facilitators, team activities and short projects that are based on the learnerís goals and interests. Blanchette (2001) believes one of the greatest challenges in asynchronous discussions is to provide opportunities for learning and interaction that actively engages learners. For learner to be creative, and think critically, methods of learning and interaction need to focus on reality, and relate to the work environment.
Critical thinking in online discussions can often be difficult since learners have different needs. Learners need to be encouraged to think critically by promoting a higher order of interaction in asynchronous discussions. When learners use a variety of critical thinking skills the probability of a higher order of interaction increases. Learners need to be able to formulate and justify their own ideas in writing, share knowledge through collaboration, and evaluate results to see if their goals have been reached. Processes need to be relative and appropriate to each learners needs. When learners are able to collaborate in a socially interactive constructivist environment, they will be able to develop their critical thinking skills
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About the Author
Dr. Greg Walker
Dr. Greg Walker designs online training and instruction He is a Blackboard coach and software instructor at Heald College in Honolulu. Dr. Walker has a Ph.D. Education, with a specialization in Instructional Design for Online Learning, from Capella University. His Masters Degree is in Education, with a specialization in Educational Technology Leadership, from George Washington. His website address is gregaloha.com.
Web Page: http://home.hawaii.rr.com/gregaloha/