By Kristi Kaeppel
Throughout my teaching career, I’ve seen standards for students’ academic performance rise and curricula adjust to meet new demands. These well-intentioned efforts by policy makers and administrators have done a good job of identifying skills that students should gain during their education, but it’s been left to instructors themselves to figure out how to move students toward these targets. Simply raising a bar does not tell us how to reach that bar. And given that the cognitive abilities needed for each student to reach academic targets are influenced by a number of factors outside a teacher’s control–genetics, their environment, prior educational experiences–it is a difficult, formidable task.
In my quest to better understand what I can do to help students engage in, practice, and acquire the thinking skills needed for academic success, I took a graduate course on this very subject (Improving Thinking Skills at the University of Connecticut). In one assignment, the instructor asked us to compile a list of our top tips to prompt and scaffold students’ cognition based off what we learned in the course. Below, I share a few of mine in hopes that they’re helpful for other instructors who, like me, want to not just demand and measure student thinking but help enhance it.
- Be explicit about learning objectives and the purpose of the skills you are building. As instructors, we may take the importance of our course content to be self-explanatory, but it may not be to our students. Typically, we read over course objectives quickly at the beginning of the semester, and it’s rarely mentioned thereafter how they relate to assignments, lessons, and assessments. By being explicit about the objectives and purpose of class work, learners have a clear target and can better monitor themselves toward reaching that goal. It also can foster student buy-in. Two ways to do this are to articulate the objectives and purpose yourself or pose the question to students, e.g. “Why would it be important to have a clear thesis in an argument? Where in life would that come in handy?” This technique has also been found to improve transfer of material to contexts outside the classroom (Perkins & Salomon, 1991).
- Provide students with language and sentence starters that model academic thinking. Sentence starters include phrases like “Building on what you just said..” or “Her/his point reminds me of what author x said in…” These sentence starters or “academic moves” are especially important for first-year students or those who have not had much exposure to settings that required participation in academic discourse. The language we use in these discussion makes explicit the type of thinking we are looking for in students–for example, their ability to understand another’s views, build on them, and challenge them when it’s necessary to do so. You can adjust the type of sentence starters to your discipline and make these known to students so they understand the type of thought and contributions being sought. Commonlit.org provides a list of these sentences starters for engaging in academic discussions.
- Make explicit cognitive strategies used in your discipline. In my work with adult education students, I’ve noticed that the reading strategies I use and take for granted are not ones my students necessarily engage in. These include strategies like previewing a text, deciding which sections are most important, asking the purpose of each section/paragraph, and making predictions. See a list of active reading strategies to improve comprehension here. Pressley and Harris (2001) note a critical factor in students struggling with reading and writing might be that they lack these strategies. Each discipline has its own techniques that support thinking in that field. In math and the sciences, supports might be drawings, charts, or other visual organizers (in fact, graphic organizers are powerful scaffolds of thought in general. See more here). Ask student their process in approaching work in your discipline and provide them with additional strategies to support thinking in your field.
- Use cooperative groups. Often the best support for students’ thinking is their peers. In structured group activities, students will consider new perspectives or approaches to an issue or problem that can result in new ideas and understandings that would have not been reached alone. To demonstrate the power of peers in extending students’ thinking, I often have students try to work out questions or problems alone then discuss their answers and reasoning in groups. I ask students to note changes in their responses. Some of my best teaching moments have been in listening to them articulate their positions, reconsider them, and come to a more thought-out answer after working together.
- Ask questions or assign tasks that demand higher-order thinking. An adage I’ve found to be true in teaching is that we get what we ask for. Cognitive science tells us that humans are cognitive misers who are cost-efficient when it comes to expending mental energy. In general, we only do as much work as is needed for a goal, and that’s where the teacher prompt can be so influential in the quality of thought and work we receive. Consider how you craft your questions and instructions to students–are they demanding critical thought? Have you provided enough support or resources for students to succeed? If not, consider what questions or skills might precede being able to answer the one you are really interested in students exploring and build activities around those.
Instructors are in a tough position of being tasked with helping each student reach and demonstrate levels of cognition that are influenced by factors outside of our control and ones that are still unknown in our understanding of human learning. While there are no magic bullets in promoting student thinking, there are strategies that help move the needle.