Outcomes-based assessment. The key to teaching critical thinking.
What is critical thinking?
Teaching students to think critically and solve problems is a widely pursued goal in higher education. Definitions of critical thinking vary but basically come down to having students examine an ill-defined or messy problem and carefully apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired during the instructional process to analyze the problem and suggest a solution.
To learn to think critically and solve problems, students must take an active role in constructing and defending their knowledge. The best way for students to demonstrate critical thinking is to attempt one or more outcomes-based assessments.
Outcomes-based learning and assessments
What will my students do “out there”—in the real world of family, work, and community—as a result of what we do “in here”—in my classroom? 1
This question presents a useful way to think of student learning outcomes and enables us to envision a broad, overall view of course content and goals. Sometimes this is termed “backward design” or “designing down,” referring to a process of defining intended outcomes first, and only then defining the content and designing the instruction.
Defining the desired outcomes first is relatively easy for information technology courses. It is not difficult to envision what IT students will do “out there,” because of the discipline’s relatedness to employability skills. We have always been comfortable with helping students bridge classroom and real-life experiences.
Once intended outcomes for a course or unit of instruction are determined, a student engages in observation, practice, and other learning activities to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills associated with the course content. A student is then prepared to engage in an outcomes-based assessment, actively engaging the student in learning to think critically and solve problems by making judgments and taking appropriate actions that are observed and evaluated, simulating what occurs in real life.
Discussions and evidence of critical thinking determined from outcomes-based assessments typically include the differentiation between novice and expert work. Authors such as Willingham and Riener2 and McTighe and Ferrara3 look at the progress of the students in terms of moving from novice to expert. Think of student performance as a continuum of competency; for example, the varying belt colors one can earn while studying martial arts.
Students develop critical-thinking skills by observing excellent work and engaging in learning activities to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the outcome. Student skills eventually become routine compared to the beginning of their learning when careful thought was required.
For example, you can relate the learning process to how individuals learn to play a video game. They watch a friend, the expert, play a game and then gradually, with practice, learn the game mechanics. Additional practice leading to mastery moves them from novice to expert to eventually being able to strategize the game play and become an expert.
Assessment of critical thinking
An outcomes-based assessment is also referred to as an authentic assessment in the sense that the assessment is realistic. An authentic assessment engages students to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired during the instruction in ways that reflect problems they would encounter in the real world. Such an assessment has no right or wrong answer but rather reflects the thinking of an expert in the field.
The outcomes-based assessment provides the opportunity for students to apply their knowledge and skills to ill-defined problems like those in real life. Doing so requires integrating the discipline-based knowledge and skills they have acquired with completing various learning activities. Students learn to think critically by attempting an outcomes-based assessment that is representative of a current problem an expert in the discipline would encounter.
Both the student and the instructor apply an analytic rubric to the result, discuss the results, and based on the instructor’s feedback, the student may attempt the outcomes-based assessment again until the work is of professional quality as determined by the rubric. When students attempt outcomes-based assessments, they are likely to be more effective as professionals.
How to develop an assessment for critical thinking
As instructors, we know that developing and grading an assessment that has no right or wrong answers can be time-consuming. Fortunately, there is abundant research and examples of how to do this, and many Pearson textbooks include outcomes-based assessments. For example, the GO! Series for Microsoft Office 365 uses an outcomes-based framework, and each unit of instruction includes numerous critical-thinking assessments and accompanying rubrics. Each instructional project includes a critical-thinking quiz so the student can immediately review the project and identify the purpose and benefit of creating the information.
To develop an assessment for critical thinking, one useful device is the GRASPS model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and detailed in Designing Authentic Performance Tasks and Projects.4 The acronym GRASPS stands for:
G—a realistic goal
R—the role of the student
S—the real-world situation
P—the product or performance the student will demonstrate
S—the criteria for judging success
For example, in a class where you are teaching Microsoft Excel, you could use the GRASPS model to develop an assessment for critical thinking as follows:
You are an assistant in the Supply Chain and Logistics department of an online vitamin company (role). Your manager asks you to create an inventory status report (real-world situation) to present to the Chief Financial Officer (audience) of the company so the company can estimate warehouse costs for new products (goal). Based on inventory data, you develop an Excel workbook (product) that presents the inventory information in a way that makes it easy for the Chief Financial Officer to visualize warehouse needs (criteria for success).
How to grade an assessment
Students learn to think critically by attempting outcomes-based assessments that are representative of a current problem an expert in the discipline would encounter. Multiple exposures to outcomes-based assessments provide students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to ill-defined problems like those in real life. To do so, students must integrate the discipline-based knowledge and skills they acquired during the instructional process.
An analytic rubric distinguishes novice work from expert work. On completion of an outcomes-based assessment, both the student and the instructor apply an analytic rubric to the result and discuss the results. Based on the instructor’s feedback, the student attempts the outcomes-based assessment again until the work is of professional quality as determined by the rubric.
An analytic rubric divides a product or performance into distinct traits or dimensions. As the instructor, you can judge and score each trait separately. The rubric is known ahead of time by both the student and the instructor. The analytic rubric gathers evidence of the student’s performance against a set of pre-determined standards. By applying the rubric, both you and the student can place the performance on a qualitative continuum.
For teaching productivity software, here is an example of an analytic rubric that can be applied to any critical-thinking assessment such as the GRASPS example above: