Critical Thinking, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

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Critical Thinking, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

Peggy A. Weissinger

Why Critical Thinking?

Accepting critical thinking as an educational ideal brings with it ramifications for what we teach and how we teach. A paradigm shift in our education system is required that facilitates development of the critical thinking skills that modern society demands.

Critical thinking, which involves knowledge of strategies as well as a propensity toward applying them, is a major component of higher education and a national priority for American colleges and universities (Brookfield, 1987; National Education Goals Panel, 1991; Nelson, 1994; U.S. Congress, 1994). The broadly defined benefits of higher education are often operationalized under the construct of critical thinking (Wood, 1997); in other words, the aim of higher education is to transfer abstract principles to concrete applications. University mission statements contain references to critical thinking, but have colleges and universities cultivated student awareness of difficult real-world problems and prepared their graduates to evaluate the merits and demerits of proposed solutions? While faculty in all disciplines want students to perform complex mental operations that will allow them to be successful in coursework, in future careers, and in their personal lives (Pellegrino, 1995; Siegel, 1980; Weiss, 1992/1993), is higher education doing its job? The answers to these questions have concrete implications for what happens in the classroom and how it is assessed.

Does Critical Thinking Just Happen?

Development of thinking skills is not a natural occurrence, an accidental outcome of experience, or an automatic byproduct of study in a subject area (de Sanchez, 1995; Taba, 1965, as cited in Beyer, 1987). It requires deliberate, continuing instruction and practice in order to develop it to its full potential (Arons, 1979; Kirby & Goodpaster, 1999; Perkins, 1985, as cited in Beyer, 1987; Thoms, 1998). Unfortunately, the traditional instruction paradigm, a 50-minute lecture intended to disseminate information, cannot fulfill critical thinking objectives (Barr & Tagg, 1995), and critical thinking will not take place if a student's goal is simply “an exit score from school necessary to enter a professional course, [which only] involves surface approaches to learning with (inappropriate) assessment-driven learning” (Aldred & Aldred, 1998, 654).

Pre-college Preparation

There is a misconception that anyone going to college already possesses critical thinking skills. With concepts presented didactically and with limited exposure to tasks that stimulate thinking, students do not develop critical thinking skills in high school (Arons, 1985; Neilson, 1989). Assignments and tests focus on the end result of subject matter acquisition rather than on reasoning (Arons, 1985); the majority of questions asked by K–12 teachers call only for a “yes” or “no” answer (Sirotnik, 1983) and “less than 1% of teacher talk requires that students think beyond the recall level” (Davidson & Worsham, 1992, xv). Taught in this manner, students receive information passively, lack the ability to question, are not encouraged to engage in lateral thought, and do not deal well with ambiguous situations (Aldred & Aldred, 1998; de Sanchez, 1995). Students enter college with a simple view of knowledge and are not ready for courses that use formal operations (Arons, 1990, as cited in Nelson, 1997; Perry, 1970). Incoming undergraduate students may even bring with them a culture that is antithetical to critical thinking, and the result of these influences does not disappear when they enter college classrooms (Kurfiss, 1988).

Traditional Undergraduate Education

Critical thinking is not a certain outcome of postsecondary education: while it is highly revered in the abstract by educators, it is often systematically ignored in practice (Browne & Keeley, 1994). Although research supports improvement between the thinking abilities of college freshmen and college seniors, the increase is modest (Angelo, 1995). Students learn in college, but whether they learn to think in college is debatable (McKeachie, 1999). “Most of the thinking skills deficiencies that college students demonstrate have their origin, at least in part, in academic settings that emphasize memorization of isolated knowledge components, which are devoid of meaning, lack transferability, and are easily forgotten” (de Sanchez, 1995, 73). Ideally, thinking activities should abound in coursework throughout the university; but when today's educators view curriculum as content and require students only to listen passively and recall information, opportunities for developing higher-order thinking skills are limited. What happens when the facts are forgotten? What happens when the “facts” change?

Students who begin college at the dualistic developmental position view the world as dichotomous—right/wrong, black/white, either/or. They regard the professor as the authority and the textbook as the final word (Perry, 1970). With lecture as the predominant teaching method, faculty perpetuate this belief with the teacher-directed, content-oriented approach, giving the impression that learning is simply a process-transfer operation (Cooper, 1995; Neilson, 1989; Nelson, 1999; Perry, 1970). Students blindly accept the accuracy and validity of information; they do not know how to evaluate resources (Blumberg, 2000) and may even be resistant to critical thinking (Nelson, 1999; Perry, 1970). Faculty cite limited time when questioned about alternative teaching strategies. They feel like they must “cover the material,” but dissemination of information does not equal comprehension and reciting facts does not equal understanding of concepts. In other words, “the greatest enemy of understanding is [the notion of] coverage” (Gardner, as cited by Brandt, 1993, 7).

Students at the multiplicity level realize that uncertainties exist in the world but do not analyze or evaluate why. Students who do not master foundation skills in critical thinking rarely move past the multiplicity position, making this a crucial turning point for development of critical thinking (Kurfiss, 1988; Ryan, 1984). The potential stagnation carries serious implications for higher education. If critical thinking is the desired outcome, but students are only required to memorize facts, evidence is sufficient to speculate that the development of critical thinking skills is not taking place except as a possible result of increase in age or maturity (Chickering, 1981).

A major shortcoming of traditional college classrooms is that faculty present products of their skills, failing to model their own thinking processes for students (Arons, 1985; Davidson & Worsham, 1992; Nelson, 1997). The reality may be that, while faculty value students' upper-level thinking abilities, it is easier to teach and assess lower levels of learning—knowledge and understanding—than to teach and assess higher-order thinking, in particular critical thinking. If classroom activities lie at the bottom of Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of educational objectives, requiring students only to listen passively and recall information, then critical thinking is not consciously being developed, and colleges and universities do not produce the critical thinkers they think they do (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Browne & Keeley, 1994; Chickering, 1981; King & Kitchener, 1994).

If critical thinking remains an educational objective, then changes in curriculum design and teaching methods should be considered. Institutions of higher education and faculty in every classroom must provide students with a foundation of critical thinking skills, an environment that encourages the use of critical thinking, and opportunities “to manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications, such as when students combine facts and ideas in order to synthesize, generalize, explain, hypothesize, or arrive at some conclusion or interpretation” (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993, 9; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo, 1997).

Is Defining Critical Thinking Really Such a Problem?

While definitions of critical thinking vary and are sometimes vague, they generally contain verbs located within the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy (Facione, n.d.). Four basic components surface across and are threaded through many definitions of critical thinking: foundation skills, knowledge base, a willingness to question, and self-reflection (Beyer, 1987; Facione, n.d.; Halpern, 1998; McPeck, 1981; Weissinger, 2003). For that reason, definitions of critical thinking should encompass all four of those components. Critics purport that critical thinking is not the identification of foundation skills but an attitude requiring knowledge in a designated domain (Siegel & Carey, 1989). These views need not be exclusive. Foundation skills can and should be viewed within the framework of sister components. The components are not only equal in importance but are interrelated and should be integrated into any definition of critical thinking, as in the following:

Critical thinking is defined as an awareness of one's own thinking (self-reflection) and the ability (foundation skills) and willingness (willingness to question) to clarify and improve understanding which aids in drawing appropriate conclusions and making the best decisions possible within a context (knowledge base) (Weissinger, 2003).

Figure 1 is a visual representation of a comprehensive definition of critical thinking. The upper circles of the Venn diagram in the figure—foundation skills and knowledge base—sit upon the attitudinal components of critical thinking—willingness to question and self-reflection. If a person has foundation skills and knowledge base but neither monitors the process nor is willing to use those foundation skills, then according to this comprehensive definition, critical thinking is not taking place. In other words, a critical thinker must not only be able to perform basic critical thinking skills but be willing to perform them within a context that he or she understands and can use as a basis for evaluation. Let's look at each of these components.

Foundation Skills

While critical thinking is an abstract concept, embedded within are core skills that are directly observable. Competencies include the ability to judge the credibility of sources; to identify issues, conclusions, reasons, and assumptions; to judge the quality of an argument including its reasons, assumptions, and evidence; to develop and defend a position on an issue; to ask appropriate clarifying questions; and to draw conclusions when warranted, with caution (Beyer, 1987; Brookfield, 1987; Dressel & Mayhew, 1954; Ennis, 1993).

Critical thinking foundation skills are necessary but probably not sufficient to progress to higher levels of thinking (Kurfiss, 1988). High performance across the entire set of critical thinking skills is an unrealistic expectation for most students (King & Kitchener, 1994; Wolcott, 1999). But once taught and if they can then recognize and apply foundation skills, “students will be more effective thinkers” (Halpern, 1996, 32).

Critics argue that focusing on foundation skills is narrow in scope and does not allow for transfer (McPeck, 1981; Siegel & Carey, 1989). I disagree. If opportunities to apply foundation skills were limited to worksheet “skill and drill” activities, perhaps these critics are correct; but it is the honing of these skills and their application in various contexts that allow learners to transfer. Students “must master less complex skills before they can master more complex skills” (Wolcott, 1999, 4). Foundation skills are tools, and without them students may never progress beyond Perry's (1970) multiplicity stage.

Knowledge Base

A knowledge base provides the context for foundation skills to be applied. Generally, the term knowledge implies academic knowledge (factual information) and ignores applied knowledge (Maudsley & Strivens, 2000). But even with an expanded view, true knowledge competence is not a substitute for thinking and vice versa (de Bono, 1978). Both components are necessary, and neither alone is sufficient for critical thinking to take place.

Knowledge mastery—understanding rather than memorization—is the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). It is a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understanding facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and the ability to organize that knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application (Garetto, 2001). This includes the ability to select pertinent information for the solution, to make relevant hypotheses, to draw valid conclusions, and to judge the validity of inferences (Dressel & Mayhew, 1954). Does the claim come from a credible source? Is there reason to suspect bias in the source? Without a knowledge base, people have no information upon which to make judgments.

Willingness to Question

Underlying the development of abilities are the attitudes and inclinations to use them (Ennis, 1996). Critical thinking necessitates learning in both the cognitive and affective domains (McPeck, 1981). Attitudinal components include the disposition to question, persistence at a task, monitoring one's thinking, maintaining an open mind, and working cooperatively with others (Halpern & Nummedal, 1995). Students' resistance to critical thinking frequently arises because they are stagnated in one of two fundamental epistemological belief systems—dualism or multiplicity (Kurfiss, 1988). Traditional, didactic pedagogy encourages this stagnation. After years of enrollment in a structured lecture format, students can be resistant to challenges aimed at moving them beyond being told what facts are important. Even if they see all points of view, they may not be able to discriminate between them, assuming all have equal value. Thinking involves operations, knowledge, and dispositions: “Each builds out of, and contributes to, the others” (Beyer, 1987, 20).

Self-Reflection (Metacognition)

Dewey (1910) first defined critical thinking as suspended judgment. Although vague, the definition carries an important implication: the willingness to think critically and to reflect on one's own thinking. Metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking process for functional purposes (Beyer, 1987; Flavell, 1979; Halpern, 1998; Hanley, 1995). It is the ability to monitor one's current level of understanding and determine when it is not adequate (Garetto, 2001). It is “stepping back from whatever one takes for granted (a fact, a decision, a problem) and examining the evidence or basis for its acceptance” (Siegel & Carey, 1989, 16).

Self-reflection drives and supports the development of thinking skills as well as the habits and disposition to use them. While the major operations of planning, monitoring, executing, and assessing a plan appear to be sequential, in reality they are recursive (Beyer, 1987). Ideally, students should assess their thinking before, during, and after a problem-solving or decision-making process; they should monitor the level of their understanding and be aware of their improvements, acknowledging where they need to develop cognitive skills or correct faulty thinking patterns (Bransford et al., 2000;Halpern, 1998; Hanley, 1995; Woolfolk, 2001). This is metacognition.

Is Problem–based Learning a Sound Instructional Strategy?

To create an ideal learning opportunity, instructional design theory recommends the alignment of learning objectives, classroom activities, and assessment strategies. If the objective is to improve critical thinking, then faculty should choose instructional strategies that are effective for achieving this objective. One of those strategies is Problem–based learning (PBL).

“Problem–based learning is an instructional strategy that encourages students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they can carry with them throughout their lifetimes” (Samford University, n.d.). PBL is an excellent environment within which to develop critical thinking skills because it provides opportunities to grow in all four components of critical thinking (see Figure 2): (1) PBL can provide a strong grasp of knowledge base—factual and applied; (2) it provides opportunities for the development of critical appraisal skills; (3) its environment encourages students to question; and (4) in PBL faculty step back and allow students to direct their own learning, which becomes the foundation for future professional behaviors.

In a group setting, students are presented open-ended, messy problems that they work together to form a better understanding through the listing of known facts, generation of possible solutions, identification of issues that need further research, and eventual proposal of a resolution with rationale. Students are encouraged to activate their prior knowledge; perform in a context that resembles the “real world” where the problem will be applied; and better understand, process, elaborate, and recall information (Bridges & Hallinger, 1998). PBL “mirrors [adult learning theorist Malcomb] Knowles' context for supporting lifelong learning, particularly address[ing] self-directed learning; accessing up-to-date information resources efficiently and habitually; and interaction between learners for critical reflection through multiple perspectives” (Maudsley & Strivens, 2000, 542).

PBL, an Outgrowth of Behaviorist and Cognitive Models of Learning

The student-centered learning environment in PBL is an outgrowth of both behaviorist and cognitive models of learning. Behaviorist models focus on observable behaviors without identifying specific critical periods of development or the need for motivation (Schunk, 2000; Svinicki, 1999). Learning is a process of forming connections between stimuli and responses or stimuli with other stimuli. Pedagogical responses to this model were simple: “organize the learning environment to ensure that correct responses [are] likely to occur, and when they [do], reward them” (Svinicki, 1999, 6). Outgrowths of this movement, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, still exist today with some elements evident in PBL: self-paced instruction;incorporation of immediate, specific feedback; and criterion-referenced evaluation. Where PBL diverges from the behaviorist model is in not sequencing behaviors to achieve final mastery of learning. In PBL, “the problem always comes first; content is never presented prior to the engagement of the student/student group in the critical thinking required to analyze the problem” (Fincham & Schuler, 2001, 409). After that, the students themselves identify what they need to know and determine the direction of their learning.

Early cognitive theorists viewed learning as acquiring facts, so instruction was organized to direct a learner's attention to key points. Later cognitive theorists shifted the focus from memorization of information to processing it, describing learning as a restructuring of memory to make sense of the world (Schunk, 2000). The teacher determined how to link new material with old information and provided support in the form of examples, analogies, or mnemonics to assist learners. Background knowledge and existing schemata influenced the processing and storage of the new information (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1978, as cited in Svinicki, 1991; Bransford et al., 2000). Problems arose when students' preconceived misconceptions hindered learning. PBL diverges from these learning models too. Rather than the teacher determining the value and sequence of material, the students ascertain what is needed to help solve the problem.

Later constructivist models required the learner's role to change from passive to more active, encouraging self-regulation and self-determination of learning. In other words, learners were encouraged to engage in metacognition. They conduct their own background knowledge probes and determine the next steps in the learning process, with the focus on process rather than only on the dissemination and receiving of facts. Factual information remains important, but the idea of knowing shifts from being able to repeat information to being able to find, organize, and use that information (Simon, 1996, as cited in Bransford et al., 2000). This is vital in a field of study where the amount of knowledge increases daily. The result is a higher quality of learning where students value understanding over rote learning (Coles, 1990; Newble & Clarke, 1986; Rhem, 1998), the opposite of learning in traditional programs of study (Vernon & Blake, 1993).

The Role of Faculty in PBL

Traditional, teacher-dominated pedagogy does not create conditions for higher-order learning nor emphasize student responsibility for learning (Fincham & Shuler, 2001). In contrast, an instructor who consistently models reflective behavior, verbalizes his or her own thinking process, and explains the reasons is a highly effective tool for expanding students' awareness of the critical thinking process (Brookfield, 1987). Student participation, encouragement, and peer interactions have statistically significant relationships with positive change in critical thinking. Not surprisingly, time spent memorizing facts is associated with negative changes (Smith, 1977). The goal is thus to create a safe, nurturing environment that cultivates, encourages, expects, and rewards reflective thinking over scripted problem solving.

While faculty cannot control everything in their students' lives (nor would they want to), what they can control is classroom environment. Faculty are an integral element in the learning process: they make the decisions about instructional activities, choose which types of questions to ask in class, and decide whether to allow time for discussion and reflection. Their decisions should be congruent with instructional objectives. Students' cognitive gains have been linked to their interaction with faculty. The PBL method recognizes this relationship; it values intellectual interaction with students. With the tutor questioning, encouraging, coaching, and modeling, cognitive apprenticeship—another strategy based on constructivist theory—develops in the PBL context (Kerka, 1997). “Interaction between teachers and learners is one of the most powerful factors in promoting learning;interaction among learners is another” (Angelo, 1993, 7). PBL provides opportunities for both.

Educators who value critical thinking must evaluate their own roles in the incremental development of critical thinking (Facione et al., 1997;Greeno, 1989). They must model the type of behavior they hope to develop in students (Savery & Duffy, 1995). When learners are responsible for their own learning—and the self-regulation of that learning via metacognition—the role of faculty shifts from expert to metacognitive coach (Stepien, Gallagher, & Workman, 1993).

Faculty Opposition and Student Resistance

No one thinks PBL is easier or takes less time than traditional educational approaches. Faculty opposition to the methodology may be equaled by student resistance to the method (Rhem, 1998). “In the beginning, the learning curve for PBL students schooled in traditional, positivist approaches is steep” (Banta, Black, & Kline, 2000, 6). Students find it difficult to make the transition from didactic lecture and assessment involving recall of memorized facts to a more ambiguous environment where they must pose their own questions and discover answers independently (Stinson & Milter, 1996; Weissinger, 2003). The recommendation is to persist.

One key to teaching critical thinking is helping students keep a balance between old and new modes of thinking while providing a framework for newly acquired methods (Brookfield, 1987). In PBL, the learning environment is deliberately organized to create cognitive dissonance or disequilibrium, which students must struggle to resolve (Finkel, 2000;Woods, 1994). It involves sensitive gauging—too much and students experience frustration and overload; too little and learning is limited. Helping students with the transition to this very different approach to learning involves orientation, replete with opportunities for student self-reflection and faculty acknowledgment of impending frustration after more than 12 years of success in a didactic format (Weissinger, 2003). With skillful mentoring, “all but the most regimented of students make the transition and eventually thrive in the new learning environment” (Stinson & Milter, 1996, 41).

Why Metacognition?

As noted earlier in this chapter, metacognition, or self-reflection, is an important part of learning. It is a major component in developing critical thinking skills. However, the concept of metacognition is almost as vague as that of critical thinking. What does “thinking about thinking” mean? Positioned in the affective domain, metacognition slows down the thinking process so that learners take deliberate control of it (Beyer, 1987). It is consciously making logical connections between what is known (a person's internal representation of reality) and what is new (information heard or read). It is the intentional structuring and storage of information for later retrieval (Flavell, 1981; Hacker, Dunlosky, & Graesser, 1998). It is eliminating unrelated distractions during the process. It is acknowledging one's personal filtered version of the world. In other words, it is the self-management of learning (Hacker et al., 1998).

How successful one is depends on how skillful one is with the process. Just as any skill, it improves with practice. The PBL process provides many opportunities to develop and practice metacognition. For example, when confronted with a new idea or problem, students engaging in metacognition propose a plan, monitor it during implementation, and, when completed, determine how it went. The internal dialogue continues as one reflects on how things could or should be adjusted if a similar situation arises in the future (Costa & O'Leary, 1992). This is where and when true learning occurs.

As a teacher, most likely you are engaging regularly in metacognition yourself. Your self-reflection enables you to establish a deliberate environment for learning. You monitor how a class session is going, determining what is and what is not working as well as making mental notes on how you might change things the next time the topic is presented (Davidson & Worsham, 1992). This is the same type of internal dialogue in which your students should engage.

Opportunities for metacognition woven into the curriculum have increased the degree to which students transfer learning to new settings and across domains (Bransford et al., 2000; Everson, Tobias, & Laitusis, 1997). Metacognition focuses on oneself using good judgment with respect to knowledge. Journaling, discussion, and self-evaluation all provide opportunities for metacognition.

Metacognition may be new for your students, but it can be eased into the process with a few simple steps. Modeling the process is imperative. First, think aloud. Share with students how you have arrived at certain conclusions. Then, designate classroom time for this important step in learning. Pause and have the students think about what has occurred thus far in the class session. Have them restate what new information they have been presented and how that links to what they already know. Does knowing this new information change previous perceptions? Does the information affect how behaviors or approaches might change in the future? Suggest to students that they do the same when completing homework assignments or research.

In a PBL environment, students regularly engage in metacognition. When discussing a PBL problem, students think aloud, sharing their thoughts via description and/or visual representation. Other students in the group question for clarification or check for accuracy (Davidson & Worsham, 1992; Weissinger, 2003). At the same time, those listening should be thinking, “What am I hearing that supports what I thought before?” These exchanges begin the process of metacognition.

The goal is to enable students to become reflective critical thinkers who demonstrate a consistent intrinsic motivation to be aware, inquisitive, organized, analytical, confident, tolerant, judicious when weighing alternatives, and intellectually honest when judging whether to accept others' ideas and philosophies as truth or when challenged by circumstances (Facione et al., 1997; Hunkins, 1989; McCombs & Whisler, 1997). Their attitudes also should shift toward openness and a tolerance for diversity (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Ultimately, transformative change occurs when people are willing to examine and challenge their own thinking (Senge, 1990).

What Is Holistic Assessment of Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking assessment looks to see whether anything is happening in the mind besides a huge acquisition and storage of information (White, 1970). Because thinking processes cannot be seen, it is difficult to determine when critical thinking has occurred. It is made easier when observable behaviors of critical thinking are identified. The purposes of critical thinking assessment include diagnosing the level of students' critical thinking; giving students feedback about their critical thinking prowess; motivating students to be better at critical thinking; informing faculty about the success of their efforts; conducting research on the topic; and holding schools accountable for the critical thinking competence of their students (Ennis, 1993). But assessing higher-order thinking skills, and critical thinking in particular, is difficult to accomplish because the thinking process cannot easily be “seen.”

As the terms critical thinking and problem solving are sometimes used interchangeably, extracting critical thinking from the related concept, problem solving, is suggested. Critical thinking is the evaluative process that assists one in selecting the best solution. Problem solving is choosing a solution. Hunkins (1989) separates the concepts further, stating “problem solving … is not a thinking strategy but rather a heuristic organizer that allows us to contemplate ways in which we can and perhaps should organize and reorganize knowledge in order to solve perceived difficulty” (p. 9).

This model (Weissinger, 2003) advocates looking at all four components of critical thinking development, acknowledging that learning does not take place in a vacuum and may be influenced by outside factors. The key is using a mixture of multiple and varied measures to include normed instruments, locally prepared assessments, and other measures readily available through student records (Halpern, 1987). Instruments should be chosen because they complement the objectives of the PBL curriculum and target the basic components of critical thinking, which we shall discuss next (see also Figure 3).

Knowledge Base

A natural place to begin a tradition of longitudinal student assessment is in cognitive development (Astin, 1987). This implies drawing on assessment

strategies currently in use in coursework. With an emphasis on outcomes, traditional evaluation methods such as objective, fact-based tests remain the most used method of assessment. Change in the knowledge base can be represented by course grade, semester GPA (grade point average), or other forms of faculty assessment. Assessment could also include monitoring the long-term retention and recall of information. The problem is that, while this can provide information about the knowledge base, it is often too narrow in scope to assess all that PBL claims to do.

Foundation Skills

Using a nationally standardized test lends credibility to a study and provides a basis for comparison with accepted normed measures. “Normed referenced tests are often broader in focus than criterion-references tests” (Mehrens & Lehmann, 1987, 19). There is no perfect test; each instrument has strengths and limitations as well as its critics and supporters.

Standardized tests have their fair share of critics (McPeck, 1981; Pike, 2001). First, conventional closed-response formats are criticized for being narrow in focus, providing only a snapshot of learning at one moment in time. However, that is precisely why they are a good option for assessing critical thinking foundation skills when used as both pretest and posttest. Second, most nationally standardized critical thinking tests use neutral content based on general information. A discipline-neutral content is actually appropriate when assessing critical thinking foundation skills and not knowledge base. At present, it is the best alternative, especially when based on the assumption that critical thinking skills are transferable across domains (Halpern, 1999). “To be proficient in a thinking skill or strategy means to be able to use that operation effectively and efficiently on one's own in a variety of appropriate contexts” (Beyer, 1987, 163). Therefore, you should locate a nationally standardized test that assesses skills similar to those identified as goals in PBL.

Willingness to Question

Surveys allow us a glimpse of student perceptions of their learning process. Student self-report surveys are a modest way to begin assessment (Astin, 1987). While self-report surveys have been scrutinized as legitimate forms of assessment (Hansen, 1998; Mehrens & Lehmann, 1987), in recent years student self-report surveys have “received serious consideration as valid means of assessment … as there is no reason why students cannot assess themselves on all content and lifelong learning standards” (Marzano, Pickering, & McTighe, 1993, 35). In an environment where self-assessment is a regular part of the process and since thinking takes place in one's mind, it seems natural to ask students to share their thoughts.

Choosing an established self-report survey is not always an option for two reasons. First, alternatives are limited; second, if you are interested in students' reflections about specific elements in the PBL process, then the survey items need to address those elements. Consider developing your own exit survey to assess students' perception of factors that may have an impact on the growth of critical thinking. Using a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from 5 (strongly agree) to 1 (strongly disagree), students can select responses corresponding to their level of agreement with statements. Some items can ask about students' perceptions of PBL as a methodology (e.g., PBL provides a safe environment for learning); some can reflect PBL's foundation in constructivist theory (e.g., I am able to tie new information to previous knowledge as a result of the PBL format). Items should be designed to inform faculty and to provide insight into student metacognition. Survey results, in combination with the ongoing self-reflection via written assessments, provide a realistic picture of the students.


Critical thinking is a dynamic process and must be coupled with opportunities for ongoing self-reflection (Arons, 1985; Brookfield, 1987;Halpern, 1999; McKeachie, 1999). Self-reflection is transformative; it provides a means for self-correcting actions (Moore & Hunter, 1993). As students reflect, they open their minds, learn new skills, and become confident about the application of their reasoning skills in academe and in life. Traditional, densely packed curricula often do not allow sufficient time for reflection (Fincham & Shuler, 2001). Students who assess their performance as critical thinkers are encouraged to improve continuously (Wolcott, 1999); assessment plays a major role in the transferability of skills to new situations (Doherty et al., 1996).

Self-report survey items can assess the self-reflection process too. Questions can search for insights on their personal experiences with PBL (e.g., The critical thinking strategies learned in this curriculum stimulate my thinking). Other items may ask students to assess their own level of critical thinking skills (e.g., I am confident in analyzing and evaluating what I read and/or hear). Other evaluation options include written assignments and projects, clinical evaluations and proficiencies, faculty and peer evaluations, and journaling. However, no consensus about the best method has been reached (Lim & Chen, 1999).


Change involves risk. The most difficult instructional development moment for a student is at the transition from knowledge as a discrete entity to a conception of knowledge specific to contextual relationships (Perry, 1970). Critical thinking is a pedagogical tool that creates discord but then helps students resolve the resulting cognitive conflict (Finkel, 2000; Woods, 1994). Students are pressed to identify and challenge assumptions; to explore alternative ways of thinking so that artificial resolutions do not occur; and to be flexible risk-takers (Brookfield, 1987). “Risk-taking is central to critical thinkers, for a hypothesis that is never generated can never be tested” (Siegel & Carey, 1989, 2).

Developmental journeys are not straight paths and cannot be fully explained by theory (Love & Guthrie, 1999). “Offering students the opportunity for self-determination, for soaring and crashing, is essential if they are to function in complex ways when they leave college” (Baxter Magolda, 1992, 362). As critical thinkers, students are asked to set aside familiar modes they have used for years that connect them to prior teachings (Nelson, 1999). A safe environment with opportunities for students to engage in metacognition involves them in their learning and hopefully will develop them into lifelong learners.


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Critical Thinking, Metacognition, and Problem–based Learning

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