“Weighing the evidence”: Using online tools to encourage critical thinking

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

In the last month, I have spent a good deal of time developing the curriculum and material for a new EAP program at our school. A major focus of the course will be developing critical thinking skills, especially in the area of research for writing academic papers. For some of the students, this isn’t anything new, but for a section of the group, this is a skill they have never been encouraged to develop. I am having students work in pairs or small groups to form a research question or hypothesis and then research the opposing sides of the argument before making a final decision and supporting that opinion. Since most of the work will be online, I am encouraging students to use online tools to share the information they find and to write up their charts.

Rationale:

  • Critical thinking: Students are required to think and read about various viewpoints and then develop their own opinions.
  • Summarizing: Students need to condense what they are studying into shorter pieces which helps them developing better writing skills.
  • Framework: It gives students a starting point from which to work from when writing their research papers in university.
  • Collaboration: Students need to work together to brainstorm, debate, and talk about how to interpret the information they have gathered.

Tools:

  • Online Document: I have often used TitanPad as my registration-free real-time collaborative document tool, but for this exercise, I am using the rich text function of Kl1p to make a table that the students can fill in.
  • Annotator: I have blogged about a number of online annotation tools, but for this exercise, I will use Markkit as an online highlighter.

Steps:

  1. Create a Kl1p site for each group of students. Make a rich-text page and add a table that has two columns: ‘Supporting Evidence’ and ‘Opposing Evidence’. Along the top of the page is the hypothesis or question and below the table is the ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Reasons’ sections.
  2. Add the Markkit bookmarklet to each browser that the students will be using. This makes it easy for students to highlight and share their findings with the rest of the group.
  3. Have students look for articles that support and oppose the hypothesis or question. When they find a statement for one of the two sides, they should highlight the sections, click on the bookmarklet, copy the new URL, and then paste the URL in one of the table columns along with a summary of the information.
  4. Once students have collected what they believe to be enough information, have them discuss their findings and then draw up a conclusion along with the reasons for making this decision. This should be written in the proper sections at the bottom of the page.
  5. Have students share their page with another group. Each group should comment on the other groups’ pages and should look for potential holes in their arguments.
  6. Students read over the comments and then address any issues raised by the other groups.
  7. Once everyone is done, students can then write up a short essay based on their information.

Having students use an online document allows students to work independently and yet still collaborate on their work. Using an online annotation tool keeps students from losing where they found their information and can allow others to check on the authenticity of their findings.

I would appreciate any feedback you might have regarding using this exercise in an EAP setting. You can add your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or you can email me using the comment page on this website. Thank you.

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