Project Background Description
By Gary Brown, Bill Condon, Diane Kelly-Riley, and Richard Law
Fostering critical thinking skills in undergraduates across a university’s curriculum
presents formidable difficulties. Making valid, reliable, and fine-grained assessments
of students' progress in achieving these higher order intellectual skills involves
another set of obstacles. Finally, providing faculty with the tools necessary to refocus
their own teaching to encourage these abilities in students represents yet another
formidable problem. These, however, are precisely the problems Washington State
University is addressing through one concerted strategy. Washington State University
has received a three-year, $380, 000 grant from the U. S. Department of Education FIPSE
Comprehensive Program to integrate assessment with instruction in order to increase
coherence and promote higher order thinking in a four-year General Education curriculum
at a large, Research-I, public university, and to work with our two- and four-year
counterparts in the State of Washington. As a result of a Washington State HEC Board
funded pilot study, we have substantial evidence that we can significantly improve
student learning, reform teaching, and measure the critical thinking gains of students at
Washington State University. This project represents a collaboration among WSU's Campus
Writing Programs, General Education Program, and Center for Teaching, Learning, and
Technology, and it builds upon WSU's nationally recognized leadership in assessment
in writing and learning with technology.
When WSU began a General Education reform in the late-1980s, we proposed to achieve these
desired goals through General Education curriculum and writing-across-the-curriculum
initiatives. While Washington State University has fully integrated writing into all
aspects of its undergraduate curriculum, particularly General Education, recent self-studies
indicate that the writing-to-learn and learning-to-write strategies have not translated into
well-developed, higher order thinking abilities, in spite of demonstrable progress in
improving the quality of students' writing abilities.
In 1996, the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT), the General Education Program,
and the Writing Programs collaborated to develop a seven-dimension critical thinking rubric
derived from scholarly work and local practice and expertise to provide a process for improving
and a means for measuring students’ higher order thinking skills during the course of their
college careers. Our intent has been to develop a fine-grained diagnostic of student progress as
well as to provide a means for faculty to reflect upon and revise their own instructional goals,
assessments, and teaching strategies. We use the rubric as an instructional guide and as an
evaluative tool using a 6-point scale for evaluation combining holistic scoring methodology with
expert-rater methodology (Haswell. & Wyche, 1996; Haswell, 1998). Early studies conducted by
CTLT and the Writing Programs indicated an atmosphere ready for implementation of a critical
thinking rubric within the WSU curriculum.
The instrument itself identifies seven key areas of critical thinking. The dimensions include:
A fully developed process or skill set for thinking critically will demonstrate competence
with and integration of all of these components of formal, critical analysis. The
instrument was developed from a selection of literature, including Toulmin (1958), Paul
(1990), Facione (1990) and others, as well as the expertise and the experience of educators
at WSU. The instrument and methodology has sustained a cumulative inter-rater reliability
in our formal studies of 80%.
- problem identification
- the establishment of a clear perspective on the issue
- recognition of alternative perspectives
- context identification
- evidence identification and evaluation
- recognition of fundamental assumptions implicit or stated by the representation of an issue, and
- assessment of implications and potential conclusions.
The 1999 Progress Report on the WSU Writing Portfolio showed that 92% of student writers
received passing ratings or higher on junior-level Writing Portfolios, indicating that an
overwhelming majority of upper-division students demonstrated writing proficiency as defined
by WSU faculty. However, a pilot critical thinking evaluation session conducted in the
summer of 1999 on papers from three senior-level courses revealed surprisingly low critical
thinking abilities (a mean of 2.3 on a 6 point scale). This phenomenon, in which writing
deemed acceptable in quality despite lacking obvious evidence of analytic skills, was also
discerned among other General Education courses. In one workshop session in 1999, twenty-five
instructors of the World Civilizations core courses evaluated a freshman paper in two ways--
in terms of the grade they would give (they agreed on a B- to B+ range) and in terms of critical
thinking (a score of 2 on a 6-point scale). The conclusion they arrived at informally was that
as an instructor group, they tended to be satisfied with accurate information retrieval and
summary and did not actively elicit evidence of thinking skills in their assignments.
In December 1999, several WSU units working collaboratively on these issues sought funding
from the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB). We received $65, 000
from the Fund for Innovation in Quality Undergraduate Education to explore the usefulness
of the critical thinking rubric developed at Washington State University both to foster
student higher order thinking skills and to reform faculty practice. With these funds, we
explored the relationship between WSU’s writing assessment instrument, which evaluates
student writing at entry and at mid-career, with the critical thinking rubric and the
skills we were trying to measure with it. Furthermore, we compared data collected from
courses specifically designated to integrate the rubric into their evaluative and
instructional methods with courses that did not.
These initial studies yielded interesting results. First, we discovered an inverse
relationship between our current scoring of student work in our writing assessment
program and our assessment of the same work in terms of the critical thinking rubric.
Our assessment practice, in other words, tends to elicit and reward surface features
of student performance at the expense of our reported highest priorities—higher order
thinking. Second, we found that integrating the WSU critical thinking instrument and
methodology into teaching practices and assignments makes a significant difference in
students' higher order thinking abilities over the course of the semester. In the
HECB-funded pilot study, we ascertained that students' critical thinking scores:
As we expanded our pool of faculty participants in the HECB study, we found that
some instructors demonstrated a substantial need for support in revising their
practices of instruction and evaluation. That is, their habitual teaching approaches
did not elicit critical thinking from their students, and it was not easy for them
to change to a mode that would. On the positive side, we found that faculty from
all areas of the university, from the sciences as well as from the arts, humanities,
and social sciences, found the rubric applicable to their definitions of critical
thinking and usable in their disciplines. We had anticipated that definitions of
critical thinking would be discipline specific or politically charged. In order to
avoid unproductive ideological conflicts, we introduced the rubric as a diagnostic
guide for faculty to freely adapt to their own pedagogical methods. Faculty were
invited to make revisions and alterations relevant to their specific contexts.
Evaluation of course papers is conducted using the more general critical thinking
- Increase three and a half times a much in a course that
overtly integrates the rubric into instructional expectations,
compared with performances in a course that does not.
- Improved more in one semester in those courses than students
not in those courses demonstrate in the two years from freshman
to their junior year, as established by comparison of entry and
junior level performances in WSU's writing assessment data.
From these initial studies we concluded the following: as a faculty, we are not eliciting
systematically the kinds of higher order thinking skills that we have defined as our desired
program and course outcomes. We, therefore, need to make a shift in our academic culture,
so that we focus consciously and collectively upon our agreed upon goals and use effective
means to move our students to the desired levels of achievement. In the WSU critical
thinking rubric, we have an instrument capable of helping us achieve that shift in our
teaching practices. The rubric has proven useful as a diagnostic tool for faculty in
evaluating their own practices and testing the outcomes of different approaches objectively.
In our comparison of the writing assessment exams and the critical thinking rubric, for instance,
we evaluated 60 samples of writing, representing pairs of entry-level Writing Placement Exams
and junior-level timed writing portions of the WSU Writing Portfolio, using the critical thinking
rubric to gather general baseline data regarding the critical thinking abilities of students at
WSU. This population represented students who wrote on topics that required them to analyze a
subject, but students in this sample population had no prior exposure to the critical thinking
rubric. We found that a surprising inverse correlation existed between the writing assessment
rubric and the critical thinking rubric. The higher the Writing Placement Exam score, the lower
the critical thinking score at a statistically significant level (r = -.339, p = .015).
The same inverse correlation phenomenon appeared in the rating of the junior-level timed writings,
though the results were not statistically significant ( r = -.169, p = 235.) Overall, students
writing at the entry-level received a mean critical thinking score of 2.59 (SD =.738). At the
junior-level, the mean critical thinking score increased to 3.05 (SD = .791). This indicates
that students’ critical thinking between the freshman and junior year improves significantly
(p = .001), though not to a generally appreciable level. The .458 overall increase reflects
significant gains on all dimensions of critical thinking identified in the rubric. Yet the
mean of 3.0469 nonetheless is barely half the ideal critical thinking score. In addition,
the inverse correlation points out the need for our assessments to extend beyond the mechanics
of academic writing and to address more fully and aggressively the critical thinking competencies
A further outcome of the HECB study demonstrated the success of the critical thinking rubric
as faculty integrated it into undergraduate classroom expectations. To assess the gains
within an individual course attributable to the integration of the critical thinking course,
papers were rated from two different semesters of Entomology 401, Biological Thought and
Invertebrates, representing a single course and instructor, one semester when the rubric
was not used (n = 14), and from the following semester when the rubric was used (n = 12).
The overall mean score in the semester without the rubric, 1.867 (SD = .458) , increased
significantly to 3.48 (SD = .923, p = .001) the semester when the rubric was used.
These gains were further supported in studies observing courses that implemented the rubric
as opposed to courses that did not. One hundred and twenty-three student essays were assessed
for critical thinking from several lower and upper division undergraduate courses. In the
four courses where the rubric was used variously for instruction and evaluation (n = 87),
the papers received significantly higher critical thinking ratings than in the four courses
in which the rubric was not used (n = 36). The mean score for courses in which the rubric
was not used was 2.44 (SD = .595) compared to 3.3 (SD = .599, p = .001) in courses which
employed the rubric.
Over the three years of the FIPSE CT project, we will enlist 120 faculty in the General
Education core courses representing a variety of disciplines to adopt the new assessment
instrument, revise their own pedagogies in terms of the program goals and outcomes, and
develop innovative combinations of teaching and assessment based on the instrument. In
addition, these faculty will give presentations to their campus colleagues regarding their
instructional innovations, and they will be encouraged to write up their findings for an
edited, book length edition on successful teaching methods using these methodologies.
In addition to targeting the core General Education courses—a combination of lower- and
upper-division classes that span the disciplines—we will also revise the WSU writing
assessment instrument to elicit higher order thinking more overtly as one of its aims.
This instrument will be used for all incoming freshmen in the Writing Placement Exam and
for undergraduates across the disciplines for the junior-level Writing Portfolio. A cadre
of faculty will be trained to think in terms of learning outcomes and equipped with a set
of tools for making valid assessments for these exams and for evaluation of critical thinking
gains in the General Education courses.
Dissemination efforts will focus on collaboration with state organizations, the Washington
Assessment Group and the Washington Center for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education,
to promote student learning, reform teaching, and develop and implement a means to measure
the gains in critical thinking of students at other institutions regionally and nationally.
Facione, P.A. (1990) Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. research findings and recommendations.
Haswell, R. H. (1998). Multiple inquiry in the validation of writing tests. Assessing Writing, 5 (1), 89-108.
Haswell, R. H. & Wyche, S. (1996) A two-tiered rating procedure for placement essays. In T. W. Banta, J. P. Lund, K. E. Black, & F. W. Oblander (Eds.), Assessment in practice: Putting principles to work on college campuses (pp. 204-207). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Paul, R. (1990) Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for critical thinking.
Toulmin, S. E. (1958) The uses of argument. New York: Cambridge University Press.