Goldilocks and the three bears of critical thinking (Part 3)

Young woman studying at coffee shop

(This is the last part of our three-part series “Goldilocks and the Three Bears of Critical Thinking.” Read part one and part two).

Empty calories or nutritious porridge?

Most students acknowledge that easy classes tend to serve the empty calories of rote memorization and regurgitation; however, when given a choice, students often pick such an option over a more rigorous course that serves the nutritious porridge of critical thinking.

We see this behavior when students “shop” for the easiest professor. In all honesty, I can’t blame them. It’s only natural that students are pathologically hung-up on grades when parents, scholarship committees, and collegiate programs are GPA obsessed.

During my 15 years of teaching introductory microbiology and anatomy and physiology to allied health students and tomorrow’s nurses, I have heard the phrase, “I have to get an A” countless times. However, a high GPA is not necessarily linked to passable work-skill competencies or even average critical thinking skills.

This is partially why standardized tests have become important screening tools for admission into colleges and graduate programs. When students say they, “have to get an A,” perhaps we should reply that an A is useless if it’s not packed with vitamins. So, how do we make a healthy porridge that students will try and perhaps even enjoy?

A recipe for porridge

Students often avoid trying the critical thinking porridge because they are afraid to fail. It’s no wonder they fear failure—society’s message is pretty clear, “We don’t have time for you to learn from your mistakes.”

The good news is we can get students to try the porridge of critical thinking and position them for success if we add pedagogical ingredients that: (1) foster a growth mindset, (2) require that students are prepared to participate in class, and (3) include context-rich assessments that provide ample opportunities to practice in the Goldilocks zone of development.

Let’s delve a little deeper into each of these ingredients.

Intelligence mindset matters

Psychologists tell us that how we perceive intelligence may affect our academic experiences. Some people have a fixed intelligence mindset, which means they see intelligence as static. In contrast, others see intelligence as cultivable, and are said to have a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset often interpret a struggle with tough course material as proof of an inherent lack of ability.

They are therefore, more likely to give up when courses challenge them and they are prone to excusing themselves from the struggle with cop-out phrases such as, “I’m just not a math person,” (or fill in your choice of discipline).

As educators, we have an important role in shaping the intelligence mindset of our students. We should emphasize that just as students can strengthen their muscles through training and pushing their boundaries, so too can they strengthen their minds through practice.

Prepared to participate

My gym teachers never made dressing out optional. We were required to come prepared to participate, otherwise we were as good as absent. The same should hold true when it comes to academic classes. If we expect students to be prepared to participate, then we can’t make being prepared to participate optional—we must require it.

To do this I use Pearson’s MyLab and Mastering platforms, which integrate Socratic coaching and immediate wrong answer feedback so that my students are redirected before misconceptions take root; this also affords them a chance to ask about missed questions in class. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everyone will do the work, but certainly more do it than if I didn’t require it.

Requiring that students are prepared to participate through a warm-up exposure to the content facilitates more meaningful content exploration in class.

Plus, because the online platform gives me diagnostic information and specifically points out where students are confused, I can practice precision training with my students instead of making assumptions about what they do or don’t understand. That optimizes our class time and keeps boredom at bay.

The Goldilocks zone for development

The work we give students must be relevant to their careers which means it must put content in context. Case studies, word problems, and reflecting on loosely defined problems are good exercises, but only if they are in the “just right” zone for student development.

That means the work can’t be too easy, nor can it be frustratingly difficult. There’s a reason we don’t use James Joyce novels to teach 6-year-olds to read.

Goldilocks wins

Goldilocks’s triumph over the bears in the forest of critical thinking doesn’t have to remain a fairy tale. We can help students navigate the forest of critical thinking by filling their prerequisite knowledge gaps, overtly teaching critical thinking, and providing context rich exercises in their zone of development.

To accomplish this, we can’t rely on teaching strategies that were designed to support the education goals of the Industrial Revolution. In this Information Age, where information is cheap and easy we must leverage technology to get students from where they are to where they need to be.

There is more than just a grade at stake. The innovators of tomorrow are in our classes, let’s not feed them to the bears.

Hear directly from Dr. Norman-McKay in her recent webinar Thinking Critically from Day ONE of Class on how to explore and apply case-based content to facilitate deeper thought and authentic learning opportunities.

About the Author

Lourdes Norman-McKay

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay  earned her B.S. in microbiology and cell science from the University of Florida and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Her postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology and immunology focused on the role of viruses in cancer. She has fifteen years of experience teaching allied health students at the associate, baccalaureate, and post baccalaureate levels. She is a full-time professor at Florida State College Jacksonville where she mainly teaches microbiology and anatomy and physiology, and where in 2016, her peers and students recognized her with the Outstanding Faculty Award.

Dr. Norman-McKay has extensive STEM program development experience that ranges from developing and launching a biomedical sciences baccalaureate program to serving as a curriculum designer and subject matter expert for the Florida Space Research Institute and Workforce Florida. Most recently, she was invited to serve in the U.S. Department of State’s speakers program to promote STEM education innovation and women in STEM. Dr. Norman-McKay is an active participant in the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Microbiology in Nursing and Allied Health Task Force Committee, which just published curricular guidelines for microbiology courses that train nursing and allied health students.


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