Monday, November 11, 2013

Promoting Critical Thinking Skills in Online Discussions

One of the learning outcomes of higher education is for students to develop critical thinking skills. This skill can often be difficult to develop and assess in the online learning environment. However, according to Morrison (2013), asynchronous discussions can have value in developing higher order thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

Morrison defines critical thinking as "thinkers who know what they don't know, and know how to learn what they don't know" (2013). Morrison emphasized that effective discussion forums in small online classes are focused, structured and purposeful places for learning (2013).

Scriven and Paul (1987) defined critical thinking as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. It is a standard of intellectual excellence required for full participation in social, economic, and political life of a given society" (A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987).

Specific Learning Conditions

  • teaching presence (students sense the instructor is 'there'),
  • structured learning through purposeful course design (the discussions are structured around the course learning outcomes),
  • planned and guided student interaction that generates thoughtful and meaningful discourse,
  • guidelines for students that include concise instructions for participation, expectations and assessment criteria,
  • consistent feedback from instructor in the form of a grade, or individual or collective comments on discussion outcomes (Morrison, 2013).

Why Do Online Discussions Promote Critical Thinking?

"Compared with spontaneous and transitory face-to-face class discussions, online discussions are text-based and more structured, providing students time to formulate thinking and compose postings, thus helping to promote student higher order learning…The text-based feature of online discussions makes student thinking visible and leaves a permanent written record for student's later review. Text-based communication may actually be preferable to oral communication when the objective is higher-order cognitive learning.” Wang, Y. & Chen V. (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence – A Practical Experience.

Part of having a community of inquiry is the development of a cognitive presence in the course to the extent that learners are able to construct meaning through sustained communication and discourse in the community. In order for this level of critical thinking and knowledge construction to be reached, the interaction and discussion must be structured and cohesive.

Instructor Behavior that Supports Asynchronous Online Discussions:

  • Responding to student postings to encourage elaboration, clarify information, and prompt further discussion,
  • Encouraging students to add value to the discussion by prompting them to share resources, ask questions, and incorporate content from the course in their posts,
  • Avoiding domination of the discussion - let it flow naturally and intervene to keep the discussion focused and/or to enhance the conversation,
  • Providing a summary of the discussion responses at the end of the allotted time period to share the highlights of student posts and emphasize prominent perspectives and ideas (Morrison, 2013).
For more information, view Morrison's  slideshare presentation, "How to Promote Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom". The presentation includes examples of effective discussion prompts and feedback.


Morrison, D. (2013, October 1). How to promote critical thinking with online discussion forums. Online Learning Insights Blog.

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