How to support critical thinking in eLearning

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November 6, 2018 min. read
  • Instructional design
  • Andrew Vela, Instructional Designer
  • As the workplace has evolved through the tech-age, employers are increasingly looking for “softer” skills, such as critical thinking. You may have heard the term critical thinking thrown around more in recent years, but what does it really mean? There are various definitions of critical thinking, but it is generally agreed upon that critical thinking refers to the ability to make well-informed and objective judgements, which can be used to evaluate the value or merit of something. For example, an idea, a business opportunity, or even a relationship. When people are critical thinkers, they are able to process information to create logical and results-focused solutions to complex problems.

     

    While some are born with a knack for critical thinking, most of us aren’t. Fortunately, like any other skill, critical thinking can be learned and taught. The challenge for training professionals is to find ways to support critical thinking in an eLearning environment.

     

    So, what’s the problem?

    During medical school, aspiring doctors are required to participate in exercises that simulate authentic medical incidents. Students assess the conditions of fictional patients, and focus on information from the lab-work data, patient symptoms, medical history, and medications. Using this information, the medical students are required to make decisions about treatment and staff actions. These exercises are an example of an instructional method known as Problem Based Learning (PBL). As the name implies, PBL is concerned with learning by way of problem solving. Through PBL, learners reach conclusions by solving open-ended problems using the information available.

     

    The value of problem based learning extends beyond medical training. This instructional approach not only improves knowledge acquisition, but also improves knowledge retention, that is, it makes information stick with the learner for longer.

    So what does problem based learning have to do with critical thinking? PBL is an effective way to promote critical thinking as it requires learners to wholly understand an issue and consider various methods to address that issue. Learners are required to process information, consider multiple factors, and use this information to form logical solutions. Furthermore, when learners need to consider the value of potential solutions, they are engaging in critical thinking.

     

    Incorporating PBL into eLearning is most effective through interactions and informal assessments. For example, a safety training course could provide learners with a case study regarding a hazardous material spill in an urban area. Using the information provided, learners would need to decide the best response to the situation. There would not be a single “right” answer, but rather numerous choices and potentially branching scenarios, which would require learners to assess the situation and think critically about the merits and pitfalls of potential solutions. This type of eLearning interaction is an example of PBL, and in turn, supports critical thinking.

     

    Self-direction

    Another way you can facilitate critical thinking in eLearning is by promoting self-direction.

    When we talk about self-direction in an eLearning setting, we’re talking about individuals having the ability to govern themselves and make their own choices within that environment.

     

    How can self-direction be accomplished through eLearning without causing frustration? You can, perhaps, allow learners to make decisions about their learning. This may include having learners choose a topic to explore, or even have them choose how they wish to assess their knowledge.

     

    Self-direction is essential to critical thinking because it allows for higher-level thinking. Studies have found that critical thinking and dialogue is increased when learners interact with content on a self-directed basis. When learners have choice, they are more inclined to interact with information and create meaning from it.

     

    Reflective feedback

    The feedback learners are provided in an eLearning setting can support critical thinking. In order for this to happen, feedback needs to be elevated from a simple “right” or ‘“wrong” indicator, and should challenge learner assumptions. When we prompt a learner to question their assumptions and/or assess the value of a concept, idea, or procedure, for example, we force learners to think critically about their responses.

     

    For example, a learner may engage in a multiple-choice interaction where they need to select the most appropriate tool to complete a task. After the correct selection, feedback could prompt the learner to consider whether there are situations in which using that tool would not be the best selection. This could be an additional assessment where learners indicate factors that would affect their choice of tool (environmental conditions, lack of training, etc.), or could merely be a prompt that is used for reflective purposes.

     

    Feedback that supports critical thinking should also focus on metacognition, which is commonly referred to as “thinking about thinking.” When a learner is thinking about their thought processes, they are also assessing the value and logic behind those thought processes, which is an important element of thinking critically. Feedback that enables metacognition, and therefore critical thinking may include prompts such as:

    • What made you decide to choose that?
    • How do you know that what you are choosing is correct?
    • How do you know your information is reliable?
    • What is your confidence, on a scale from 0 to 10, that your idea is correct?
    • What do you see as the problem at this point?
    • What information would you like to know next?

    Critical thinking is a skill that is recognized as key to succeeding in any workplace. When designing eLearning, a focus on how to support critical thinking through methods such as problem based learning, self-direction, and reflective feedback can allow learners to develop their critical thinking skills, while also mastering the course content.