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Critical Thinking And Collaborative Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The posting below is an abastract of a chapter on the key aspects of the pedagogy of critical thinking and its relationship with collaborative learning. It is taken from Nelson, C. (1994). Critical Thinking and Collaborative Learning. In K. Bosworth & S. J. Hamilton (Eds.), Collaborative learning : underlying processes and effective techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The abastract, prepared by Vaibhavi Gala of the Stanford University Learning Laboratory (SLL) and under the direction of Dr. John Nash, is another in a series of learning summaries prepared regularly by the Lab. All abstracts in this series are copyright ?1999 Board of Trustees Leland Stanford Junior University.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Response - Higher Education: The Vision [2015]


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Nelson, C. (1994). Critical Thinking and Collaborative Learning.

In K. Bosworth & S. J. Hamilton (Eds.), Collaborative learning: underlying processes and effective techniques.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



* Mental models

* Discourse communities

* Discipline communities

* Perry's Scheme of Intellectual development


In this chapter, Nelson provides an introduction to key aspects of the pedagogy of critical thinking and its relationship with collaborative learning. He develops three frameworks-existing mental models, differences between academic and discourse communities, and differences in the expectations of different disciplines-to illustrate why it is so hard for students to acquire critical thinking skills. He also presents collaborative learning approaches that faculty can use to circumvent these difficulties and help foster critical thinking.


1) Mental Models:

Piaget (1967) proposed the idea that each of us has a certain mental framework based on our past experiences. Trying to fit new experiences to our exiting mental models often leads us to wrong interpretations and ideas. This suggests that besides teaching the right way to view the material, faculty must also help students to understand what is wrong with alternative interpretations. However, there is simply not enough time for the faculty member alone to work through the misconceptions of all the students. Engaging the students in collaborative learning activities can often help discover many misconceptions. For example, consider a teach-write-discuss approach. At the end of a unit of instruction, students can be asked to answer a short question with an explanation of why their answer is good. Once the students have worked on it individually, asking them to compare their answers with each other will allow many misunderstandings to be corrected. A whole-class discussion will then find the array of answers that still seem reasonable and why. This also helps the faculty become aware of what misconceptions need to be addressed and what content needs to be taught or retaught.

2) Discourse Communities:

There are large differences between the communities that a student encounters before college and the general academic conversation in college. In most discourse communities, which are imbued with social traditions, great emphasis is given to factors such as deference to authority, unreflective intuition, and social dexterity. In contrast, academia requires us to justify our beliefs and actions in ways grounded in reason, evidence and personal values. In other words, it is no longer enough that my dad says so. These differences between the two communities are a further explanation of why critical thinking is difficult. An example may help elucidate this issue. Treisman (1986) found that about 60 percent of the rural whites and some ethnic minorities were making very low grades in calculus at the University of California, Berkeley. Further investigation revealed that these groups came from high schools that were not heavily oriented toward college preparation and that they harbored the notion that only weak students studied together (as in remedial halls). Moreover, in their high school peer communities, studying had negative social prestige-they made you a nerd-so, many students studied alone, virtually in secret. In contrast, Asian Americans had formed study squads to get through calculus. Treisman invited the students from the underrepresented groups to an honors discussion section in which he required them to work in collaborative small groups. As a result of the intervention, the proportion of D, F, W, and I grades dropped from about 60 percent to 4 percent. This example illustrates three key points:

a) The reacculturation that college demands is not restricted to controversial topics like creationism or social roles, but is a part of all courses, even mathematics,

b) Large increases in student success can be made by instituting collaboration, and

c) Collaboration is important in achieving even the simplest form of critical thinking-complex critical thinking-where all students should get the same answer (e.g., calculus problems).

3) Collaborative Learning and Disciplinary Discourse Communities:

Each discipline has its own conventions and these conventions differ markedly among disciplines. Because of this difference in discipline-based expectations, the expected response to structurally identical questions can differ radically among fields. Consider Compare plants and animals in biology and Compare Hercules and Hamlet in English. In biology, we expect the students to list five to ten important points. A student who applies the same approach to the latter question ("both lived in ancient times") is in trouble. In humanities, a compare question should elicit one or two existentially important theses.

To address this issue, a professor provided sample essay questions with an array of answers and asked students to decide collaboratively in small groups which answers were good and which were not, and what made them so. Once the students understood the key differences between good and bad answers and the conventions associated with the discipline, their answers improved remarkably. This example illustrates two key insights

a) It is helpful to try and make the tacit disciplinary expectations explicit and give students guidance in seeing and using the expectations and

b) Collaborative learning is very effective in helping students to understand and master a discipline's conventions.

Intellectual Development:

According to Piaget (1967), children initially acquire skills in concrete tasks, and only with more experience and maturation do they become capable of dealing with abstract ideas. When students come to class, they may not have developed the intellectual capacity needed to understand the way in which a discipline works. Perry's (1970) scheme of intellectual development help us understand four different approaches to intellectual challenges that students face in accomplishing tasks that faculty usually characterize as critical thinking.

The simplest approach is dualism, which divides reality into polar categories, such as true and false. Students who use this approach rely on authority on provide the 'right' answers without questioning why. However, no one can think critically about things that they accept as unquestionably true. The primary teaching task with such students is to show them the extent and scope of legitimate uncertainty in the area. This leads students to the second stage i.e. multiplicity. This stage is usually characterized by students thinking that as there is no guaranteed right answer in an area, all opinions in the area must be equally valid. The transition from multiplicity to the next stage, contextual relativism requires students to recognize that, despite the uncertainty about 'the' right answer, we can still often select one or more ideas that are superior or inferior to others. The primary teaching task becomes one of showing how we recognize acceptable, better, and terrible within the discipline. Students can think more critically if faculty explicitly delineate both the alternatives and the criteria that they use to adjudicate among them.

In the intellectual games of contextual relativism, we understand that people living in different contexts often legitimately have different beliefs. However, in order to make wise judgements, we need to assert our own values. We have to begin to take stands again, as we once did in dualism, but our enterprise is now based on an articulation of our own values and analyses, not an echo of authority's positions. We come to see knowledge as constructed rather than discovered, as contextual, and based inevitably on approximations.

Collaborative Learning and Intellectual Development:

To foster critical thinking, it is not sufficient to simply have students work together. Faculty can provide intellectual scaffolding in the following three steps: preparation, cognitive structuring, and role structuring. Preparation can achieved either by structuring a shared background or selecting for discussion, points on which all students can safely be presumed to have some relevant knowledge. A common background can be provided by readings outside class, or presentations in class. Cognitive structuring implies providing students with frameworks or questions that prompt them towards more sophisticated thinking than would come spontaneously. The question 'what assumptions underlie this argument?' often serves this function. Role structuring is the specification of a collaborative process that gets all the members of a group to participate meaningfully. Consider the teach-write-discuss exercise discussed earlier. The lecture segment and the writing time prepare the students for collaboration. An appropriate question provides cognitive structuring. Finally, working briefly in pairs on what each student has written provides role structuring i.e. students primed by their small-group discussions will be more willing to participate in whole-class discussion.

As our thinking becomes more sophisticated, we switch from an identity based on what one believes and does-an identity base that persists from dualism through contextual relativism-to an identity based on conscious choices. Whether we view these changes as intellectual development or reacculturation, the existential challenges are great. Most students do by far the most serious rethinking during and in preparation for collaborative sessions. Collaboration thus often provides an effective stimulus for the changes required for critical thinking. It also provides the social support needed to make those changes emotionally acceptable.


In conclusion, the author recapitulates the various alternatives that faculty can adopt to foster critical thinking and reemphasizes the positive relationship between critical thinking and collaborative learning. Faculty can expand their teaching to help students discover and correct the mental models of reality that they have. They can introduce the conventions of individual disciplines and explicitly teach features of critical thinking such as an acknowledgement of the extent and sources of uncertainty and the use of criteria to adjudicate among possible formulations. With each approach, structured collaborations increase the number of students with whom faculty will be effective. And these approaches will in turn increase both the effectiveness of the uses of collaborative learning and the enthusiasm with which the students embrace them.