published November 1, 2005

SENCER E-Newsletter, November 2005, Volume 5, Issue 3

Pilot Study at Wagner College Links Critical Thinking and Civic Responsibility: Donald Sterns Gives Presentation on Study at SENCER NJ Meeting

Donald E. Stearns, professor of biology from Wagner College, gave a presentation titled "(CT)2: Critical Thinking for Civic Thinking" at the Fall 2005 SENCER New Jersey Regional Meeting held October 21st at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He described a pilot study designed to link the learning of critical thinking with a heightened sense of civic responsibility - both necessarily linked components for the development of responsible citizenry (civic thinking). Instead of creating a particular course for this purpose, the pilot study links these skills in already-existing science courses in four colleges and universities. Short (20-minute) (CT)2 exercises created for the project are embedded in the participating courses. Each exercise presents a scenario of a realistic community situation, followed by one question that requires critical thinking and one question that requires civic thinking. The participating faculty can apply two fairly simple assessment rubrics - one for critical thinking, one for civic thinking - to student responses. By deconstructing some of these exercises in class, the students learn to develop these skills.

Donald Sterns

Some of the discussion stemming from the presentation focused on the concern that the scenario of a (CT)2 exercise could be worded to expect a particular ideological response for a particular level of assessment. In such a situation, the student would be assessed as having higher level skills if s/he provided a particular perspective than if s/he presented another perspective. The discussants concluded that it is important to develop purposely ambiguous (CT)2 exercises that present the student with moral dilemmas to ponder instead of setting up the scenario to steer him/her towards a particular "solution" that is ideologically based. The assessment tools, which are ideologically neutral, are then used to assess improvement in the development of critical thinking and civic thinking skills.

(CT)2 : Critical Thinking for Civic Thinking Presentation Abstract

Donald E. Sterns, Wagner College

A civic action is any action a person takes as a responsible citizen to improve society's condition. (Society can refer to a small community or be expanded to include larger communities and ultimately the global society.) Before a person can improve society's condition, (s)he must have as clear as possible an understanding of its present condition, to act responsibly. Only by considering the evidence, making connections, separating the facts from the falsehoods, can one achieve a clearer understanding of any situation. That process is called critical thinking. While the development of critical thinking skills is necessary for anyone to act responsibly to improve society, one can be an excellent critical thinker without developing a sense of responsible citizenry (here referred to as civic thinking). Explicit attention to relationships among critical thinking and civic thinking is not broadly evident in undergraduate curricula, and while institutions of higher education include critical thinking and some aspect of civic engagement as student goals that stem from institutional missions, the two goals are presented and assessed as separate entities.

Wagner College Main Hall

During the summer of 2004, representatives from four colleges and universities (Central Connecticut State University, Portland State University, University of Akron, Wagner College) formed a group to address this critical thinking/civic thinking linkage. Beginning with selected science courses in biology and geology, the participants are presently (fall, 2005; spring, 2006) conducting a pilot study in preparation for an NSF proposal submission in May, 2006. For the pilot study, the participants have created what are termed (CT)2 exercises - scenarios of realistic community situations, each followed by one question that requires critical thinking and one question that requires civic thinking. All participating faculty, regardless of class subject, have agreed to give their students the same 20-minute (CT)2 exercise near the beginning of the semester and again near the end of the semester. During the term, each professor decides individually how to approach critical thinking and civic thinking pedagogically. One approach is to deconstruct a (CT)2 exercise in the classroom, to show the students how one might approach the two questions. (This would not be done with the first/last exercise, as that exercise is used to provide a measure of possible improvement in critical thinking and civic thinking.)

Student responses to the first/last (CT)2 exercise will be sent to one of the institutions for coding and randomization, after which the responses will be assessed for level of critical thinking using the SOLO Taxonomy and for level of civic thinking using the Civic Thinking Taxonomy created by one of our participants and modified by the (CT)2 team. The assessments will be done by graduate assistants after they have received substantial training to ensure inter-assessor reliability. The (CT)2 team will be looking for improvement in level of critical thinking and level of civic thinking, as well as a relation between these two student learning goals.

To quote from an earlier (CT)2 proposal, "The first goal of this project seeks to address that inter-relationship [among critical thinking and civic thinking] by making science relevant to students through the implementation of effective pedagogical strategies tied to [(CT)2] exercises embedded in beginning level science classes. The second goal of this project seeks to place the general skills of critical thinking and civic thinking in the context of science." Although the project involves targeted science courses, the (CT)2 exercises linking critical thinking and civic thinking can be expanded to include most other disciplines. The (CT)2 project thus encourages the teaching and learning of two major but often neglected student learning goals that stem from the mission statements of most institutes of higher education. The pilot study is trying out a mechanism for teaching critical thinking and civic thinking as linked learning goals within the context of any discipline, as embedded exercises instead of stand-along courses that would add to the overall curriculum. This approach acknowledges and follows the understanding that critical thinking and civic thinking are skills that are developed over time with proper guidance as integral components of curricular programs.

For more information email Donald Stearns at