Learn to design interest-provoking writing and critical thinking activities and incorporate them into your courses in a way that encourages inquiry, exploration, discussion, and debate, with Engaging Ideas, a practical nuts-and-bolts guide for teachers from any discipline. Integrating critical thinking with writing-across-the-curriculum approaches, the book shows how teachers from any discipline can incorporate these activities into their courses. This edition features new material dealing with genre and discourse community theory, quantitative/scientific literacy, blended and online learning, and other current issues.
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Table of Contents
About the Author
1 Using Writing to Promote Thinking
Steps for Integrating Writing and Critical Thinking Activities into a Course
Four Discouraging Beliefs and Some Encouraging Responses
Conclusion: Engaging Your Students with the Ideas of Your Course
PART ONE: Understanding Connections Between Thinking and Writing
2 How Writing Is Related to Critical Thinking
Overview of the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum and Critical Thinking Movements
Writing, Thinking, and a Dialogic View of Knowledge
Avoiding a Thesis: Three Cognitively Immature Essay Structures
What Causes These Organizational Problems?
Pedagogical Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking
Teaching Thinking Through Teaching Revision
Conclusion: The Implications of Writing as a Means of Thinking in the Undergraduate Curriculum
3 Helping Writers Think Rhetorically
Helping Students Think About Audience and Purpose
Helping Students Think About Genre
Conclusion: Thinking Rhetorically as a Transferable Skill
4 Using a Range of Genres to Extend Critical Thinking and Deepen Learning
The Value of Teaching Closed-Form Academic Prose
The Value of Teaching Alternative Genres and Styles
Genre Awareness and Student Learning
5 Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness
The Difficulty of Teaching Sentence Correctness
What Does It Mean to “Know Grammar”?
The Politics of Grammar and Usage
What Teachers Across the Curriculum Need to Know About Recent Studies of Error
Responding to Error: Policies and Strategies for Teachers Across the Disciplines
A Note About Nonnative Speakers of English
A Note About Spell-Checkers and Grammar-Checkers
Conclusion: Keeping an Eye on Our Goals
PART TWO: Designing Problem-Based Assignments
6 Formal Writing Assignments
The Traditional Method
Alternative Approaches to Assigning Writing
Traditional and Alternative Methods Compared
Thinking Rhetorically: Five Variations on the Same Assignment
Articulation of Learning Goals as Preparation for Designing Assignments
Planning Your Course Backward by Designing the Last Assignment First
Best Practices in Assignment Design
Examples of an Effective Assignment Handout
A Common Problem: Asking Too Many Questions
Asking a Colleague to “Peer-Review” Your Assignment Handout
Giving the Assignment in Class
Assignments Leading to Closed-Form Thesis-Governed Writing
Microtheme Assignments for Writing-to-Learn
More Open Forms: Alternatives to the Thesis-Governed Paper
A Potpourri of Other Kinds of Alternative Formal Assignments
Conclusion: Writing Assignments in the Context of the Whole Course
7 Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities
Why I Find Exploratory Writing Valuable
Common Objections to Exploratory Writing
Logistics, Media, and Methods for Assigning Exploratory Writing
Explaining Exploratory Writing to Students
Twenty-Two Ideas for Incorporating Exploratory Writing into a Course
Evaluating Exploratory Writing
Managing the Workload
Conclusion: Engaging Ideas Through Exploratory Writing
PART THREE: Coaching Students as Learners, Thinkers, and Writers
8 Designing Tasks to Promote Active Thinking and Learning
Ten Strategies for Designing Critical Thinking Tasks
Conclusion: Strategies for Designing Critical Thinking Tasks
9 Helping Students Read Difficult Texts
Causes of Students’ Reading Difficulties
Suggested Strategies for Helping Students Become Better Readers
Developing Assignments That Require Students to Interact with Texts
Conclusion: Strategies Teachers Can Use to Help Students Become Better Readers
10 Using Small Groups to Coach Thinking and Teach Disciplinary Argument
The Advantages of a Goal-Oriented Use of Small Groups
Sequence of Activities for Using Small Groups During a Class Period
Suggestions for Designing Productive Small Group Tasks
Making Small Groups Work
The Controversy over Using Small Groups: Objections and Responses
Conclusion: Some Additional Advantages of Small Groups
11 Bringing More Critical Thinking into Lectures and Discussions
Increasing Active Learning in Lecture Classes
Increasing Active Learning in Discussion Classes
Conclusion: Engaging Ideas Through Active Learning
12 Enhancing Learning and Critical Thinking in Essay Exams
The Importance of Essay Exams
Why Essay Exams Are Problematic
How We Can Improve Our Use of Essay Exams
Conclusion: Getting the Most from Essay Exams
13 Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research
The Complexities of Research Writing
Creating Short Meaning-Constructing Research Assignments
Designing Backward: Teaching Research Skills to Novices
Departmental Collaboration to Teach Undergraduate Research in the Major
Conclusion: Engaging Students in Research
PART FOUR: Reading, Commenting On, and Grading Student Writing
14 Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria
Controversies About Evaluation Criteria
An Overview of Different Kinds of Rubrics
Controversies About Rubrics
My Own Approach to Using Rubrics
Deciding on an Approach to Grading That Works for You
Conclusion: The Role of Rubrics in Coaching the Writing Process
15 Coaching the Writing Process and Handling the Paper Load
1. Design Good Assignments
2. Clarify Your Grading Criteria
3. Build in Exploratory Writing or Class Discussion to Help Students Generate Ideas
4. Have Students Submit Something Early in the Writing Process
5. Have Students Conduct Peer Reviews of Drafts
6. Refer Students to Your Institution’s Writing Center
7. Make One-on-One Writing Conferences as Efficient as Possible
8. Hold Occasional Group Paper Conferences Early On
9. Use Efficient Methods for Giving Written Feedback
10. Put Minimal Comments on Finished Products
Conclusion: A Review of Timesaving Strategies
16 Writing Comments on Students’ Papers
Students’ Responses to Teachers’ Comments
The Purpose of Commenting: To Coach Revision
General Strategy for Commenting on Drafts: A Hierarchy of Questions
Suggestions for Writing End Comments That Encourage Revision
Conclusion: A Review of General Principles
Copyright © 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bean, John C.
Engaging ideas : the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom / John C. Bean. – 2nd ed.
p. cm. – (The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-470-53290-4 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-1-118-06231-9 (ebk.)
ISBN 978-1-118-06232-6 (ebk.)
ISBN 978-1-118-06233-3 (ebk.)
1. Critical thinking–Study and teaching. 2. Academic writing–Study and teaching. I. Title.
The Jossey-Bass Higher and
Adult Education Series
I still remember the first incarnation of this book I saw. It was an in-house manual John had written to help faculty at his institution incorporate writing in their various courses. It was one of those proverbial diamonds in the rough. I remember constructing a list of reasons why Jossey-Bass should publish it as a book, which I presented with some passion to the then higher education editor, Gale Erlandson. I kept my fingers crossed, unsure whether the in-house manual would realize its potential as a full manuscript. When John submitted it, I couldn’t believe how good it was. The years since its publication have confirmed that this book is better than good. It is one of the best books on teaching and learning published during the last twenty-five years. It has become the book that cemented the legacy of writing across the curriculum in countless classrooms. To write the Foreword for a new edition is indeed a privilege.
I was a bit surprised when I reread my Foreword in the first edition. The conditions described there are darker than I remember them. Could this be an even bleaker time? The lack of resources and devaluing of teaching described there are still realities today. Faculty continue to contend with large classes, students with pressing learning needs, and pressure to do lots of scholarship and service in addition to teaching. Higher education’s days of wine and roses have yet to arrive.
Something positive can be said about the differences between those days and these. College teachers everywhere now understand that teaching students to write is a shared responsibility, not one to be relegated to those faculty assigned composition course instruction. Faculty have incorporated writing in courses from introductory to capstone in a long list of disciplines. The results haven’t always been pretty. Many faculty have struggled more than they anticipated with designing writing assignments, reading what students write, providing constructive feedback, and assessing its merit. Teaching writing in any field is a labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor. This book has helped many faculty members accomplish those tasks more productively. There is no need to start working on student writing skills without knowing what to do or how to do it when a book like this offers a plethora of ideas, information, and resources that can dramatically increase the success of those who are teaching and learning to write.
The features that contributed to this book’s enormous success remain in this edition. John sees writing as more than a necessary communication skill, more than the skillful management of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. He believes that writing promotes critical thinking, and he makes that case most convincingly. When students write, their writing and their thinking improve. As a writer struggles with word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph composition, thinking occurs. Writing forces the clarification of ideas, attention to details, and the logical assembly of reasons. You can write without thinking—students often do. But as this book so ably shows, writing activities and assignments can be designed so that they are very difficult to complete without mind engagement, and when that occurs, critical thinking skills are being developed.
As in the first edition, this one showcases the many different ways writing can be used in assignments and activities, all illustrated with concrete examples from a wide range of disciplines. Beyond writing, there are other classroom activities with potential to develop writing and thinking skills—things like reading, working in groups, essay exams, and course projects. This edition concludes with a section of pragmatic advice on ways of dealing with student writing, including how to provide feedback and develop grading criteria. This is a book that addresses all the issues faculty face when they incorporate writing in their courses. This book not only persuades you that you should incorporate writing; after having read it, you are convinced that you can.
Most faculty do not read a lot of pedagogical material. We are not expected to grow our pedagogical knowledge the same way we are expected to keep current in our fields. No special rewards come to those few faculty who are pedagogically well-read. Even so, most faculty are readers, and, if you give them a book on a topic they care about (or think they should care about) that is written with voice and style by an author who knows and believes in the material, faculty will read that book and pass it on to others. I refer to this book when I need an example to support that claim.
If you have read the previous edition of this book, perhaps you even have a copy in your collection, there are lots of reasons to read the new edition. Every chapter has been updated with current references, and new chapters have been added. Those chapters address the need to get students thinking rhetorically, “sizing their audience and purpose,” as John describes the topic. Another new chapter explores genre—the various kinds of writing that can expand critical thinking and promote deep learning. Students benefit when they do different kinds of writing—not just the typical academic, thesis-driven structure that usually ends up as some form of a term paper.
It’s hard to imagine college teachers in any field reading this book and not finding some kind of writing assignment or activity that could be used in the courses they teach. But most how-to books don’t make you think, and this book definitely does. Most how-to books don’t usefully blend theoretical and practical knowledge, and this book does. Most how-to books don’t develop a commitment to do what’s being proposed, and this book does. Most how-to books don’t end up being classics, that kind of timeless resource with dog-eared corners on the cover, turned-down pages, and a wide array of underlines, stars, and marginalia—all signs of hard use and high regard.
Those of us committed to writing across the curriculum have been after John to do a second edition for some time now. Yes, the content merits updating and enriching with new ideas and information that have emerged since the first edition, but more important than making the book current is the continuing need to work with students to develop their writing and thinking skills. Many now arrive at our colleges and universities deficient in both. And to graduate from college without good writing and thinking skills is to embark tenuously on a professional career. The need for faculty to teach writing and thinking in every course across the curriculum has never been more crucial. Fortunately, there is a book that can guide your efforts and contribute to your and your students’ success.
I have been both gratified and humbled by the success of the first edition of Engaging Ideas, which has proven helpful to teachers across a wide range of disciplines. My aim in the second edition, as in the first, is to help teachers design engaging writing and critical thinking activities and incorporate them smoothly into their disciplinary courses. The goal of these activities is to transform students from passive to active learners, deepening their understanding of subject matter while helping them learn how disciplinary experts ask questions, conduct inquiry, gather and analyze data, and make arguments.
What’s New in the Second Edition?
Much has changed since 1996, when the first edition was published. Readers of the second edition will notice (and I hope appreciate) how the second edition responds to recent developments in scholarship, teaching practice, and campus cultures. Particularly, the second edition has been influenced by changes in and interest in:
The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)
Although scholars working in learning theory and pedagogy have long struggled to find a respected place in the research university, the impact of SoTL is increasingly felt throughout academia—in faculty development workshops, in training of graduate teaching assistants, in national teaching conferences, in the growing presence of centers for teaching and learning on campuses, and in spectacular new research in teaching and learning published in recent books and scholarly journals. Nurtured by the Carnegie Foundation, the Professional and Organizational Development Network (POD), the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the National Science Foundation, major granting agencies, and many other organizations and forces, the scholarship of teaching and learning has provided theoretical foundations for pedagogical research along with empirical evidence for teaching practices that promote deep learning. A glance at my references list will reveal the number of recent SoTL publications that have helped shape the second edition.
Recent Scholarship in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing in the Disciplines
The first edition of Engaging Ideas is rooted in the writing process paradigm that dominated composition theory in the 1980s and 1990s—the belief that most problems with student writing could be alleviated if teachers encouraged student writers to spend more time-on-task, going through the stages of the writing process, doing multiple drafts, and learning the principles of global revision. The second edition still emphasizes process but adapts a more broadly rhetorical view of writing based on novice/expert theory, which shows how experts in a field think rhetorically about genre, audience, and purpose. To write “expert insider prose” in their majors—a term I have adopted from Susan Peck MacDonald (1994)—students need to enter their field’s discourse community, especially learning how disciplinary genres embody disciplinary ways of thinking and making knowledge. In the second edition, these influences are particularly felt in an entirely new chapter, “Helping Writers Think Rhetorically” (Chapter Three), an extensively revised and newly named chapter, “Using a Range of Genres to Extend Critical Thinking and Deepen Learning” (Chapter Four), and a new approach to teaching undergraduate research, “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research (Chapter Thirteen).
The Assessment Movement
In 2000, my institution received what we might euphemistically call a “bad mark” for assessment during its accreditation visit from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. Our provost hired an outside consultant—Barbara Walvoord, one of the first proponents of writing across the curriculum and the coauthor of Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment (now in its second edition, 2009), whose work on our campus has influenced me profoundly. Walvoord showed us how embedded writing assignments anywhere in the curriculum can be used for systematic outcomes assessment—not just for assessing writing but for assessing disciplinary outcomes connected to inquiry, research, problem solving, critical thinking, or subject matter knowledge. We soon discovered that if assessments of senior papers revealed patterns of weaknesses, disciplinary faculty could use the principle of backward design to make pedagogical changes earlier in the curriculum to improve student performance—particularly short “scaffolding” assignments in lower level courses to teach targeted disciplinary thinking skills. Walvoord’s visits led to a renaissance in writing across the curriculum at Seattle University—a story my colleagues and I have told in Bean, Carrithers, and Earenfight (2005) and in a number of subsequent articles and conference presentations. Ways to use embedded writing assignments for outcomes assessment are suggested in numerous places in the second edition, particularly in Chapter Thirteen, “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research.”
Quantitative and Scientific Literacy Across the Curriculum
Modeled partially on the writing-across-the-curriculum movement, new programs in quantitative and scientific literacy are having an impact on general education. Among the pioneers are the Quantitative Methods for Public Policy program at Macalester College, the Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge program (QUIRK) at Carleton College, and our own work with rhetorical mathematics at Seattle University. These programs generally do not focus on higher mathematics but on what the Mathematical Association of America defines as the “quantitative reasoning capabilities required of citizens in today’s information age” (http://www.maa.org/features/QL.html). One of the best ways to promote quantitative literacy is to design disciplinary writing assignments that ask students to make arguments using numbers. This second edition has numerous examples of quantitative writing assignments, many of which ask writers to design their own graphs and tables that serve as visual arguments reinforcing the text’s verbal argument.
Use of Classroom Technology
The first edition of Engaging Ideas appeared during the early age of e-mail, long before the advent of classroom management software, drop boxes, class discussion boards, social networking sites, text messaging, Twitter, PowerPoint, or YouTube. The second edition is updated to reflect this new technological universe—including online and blended learning—although I must confess that I have depended on my wired, linked, and gadget-loving younger colleagues to guide me into this new age.
Teaching Undergraduate Research
Although the “research paper” has long been a traditional college assignment, faculty across the curriculum increasingly realize that learning to write a research paper in first-year composition does not teach students the kinds of disciplinary thinking, genre knowledge, and specialized research skills needed for actual undergraduate research in the major. Programs that require a senior thesis, a capstone project, or some other kind of “expert insider prose” in their discipline need to develop a curriculum in which research skills are taught intentionally within the undergraduate major. In this second edition, I propose a new approach to teaching undergraduate research. (See Chapter Thirteen, “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research,” which is a complete revision of the first edition’s chapter on research papers.)
What Hasn’t Changed?
Throughout I have tried to retain the strengths of the first edition, which aims to integrate two important movements in higher education—the writing-across-the-curriculum movement and the critical thinking movement. A basic premise of both editions, growing out of the educational philosophy of John Dewey, is that critical thinking—and indeed all significant learning—originates in the learner’s engagement with problems. Consequently, the design of interesting problems to think about is one of the teacher’s chief behind-the-scenes tasks. Equally important are strategies for giving critical thinking problems to students and for creating a course atmosphere that encourages inquiry, exploration, discussion, and debate while valuing the dignity and worth of each student. Teachers of critical thinking also need to be mentors and coaches, developing a range of strategies for modeling critical thinking, critiquing student performances, and otherwise guiding students toward the habits of inquiry and argument valued in their disciplines.
Unique Features of This Book
In keeping with these premises, therefore, this book has the following unique features:It takes a pragmatic nuts-and-bolts approach to teaching critical thinking, giving teachers hundreds of suggestions for integrating writing and other critical thinking activities into a disciplinary course.It integrates theory and research from the writing-in-the-disciplines literature with the broader scholarship-of-teaching-and-learning literature on critical thinking, intellectual development, active learning, and modes of teaching.It gives detailed practical assistance in the design of formal and informal writing assignments and suggests time-saving ways to coach the writing process and handle the paper load.It treats writing assignments as only one of many ways to present critical thinking problems to students; it shows how writing assignments can easily be integrated with other critical thinking activities such as use of small groups, inquiry discussions, classroom debates, and interactive lectures.It has a separate chapter devoted to academic reading, exploring the causes of students’ reading difficulties and offering suggestions for promoting more engaged and deeper reading.It has separate chapters devoted to small groups, to increasing critical thinking in discussion or lecture courses, and to evoking more learning from essay exams.It devotes a separate chapter to teaching undergraduate research and proposes alternatives to the traditional term paper.It assumes that there is no one right way to integrate writing and critical thinking into a course; it therefore provides numerous options to fit each teacher’s particular personality and goals and to allow flexibility for meeting the needs of different kinds of learners.It emphasizes writing and critical thinking tasks that focus on the instructor’s subject matter goals for the course, thus reducing, and in some cases perhaps even eliminating, the conflict between coverage and process.It offers a wide array of ways to use writing in courses, ranging from short write-to-learn “microthemes” to major research projects and from formal academic writing to personal narratives; it also offers numerous ways to work exploratory writing into a course, including in-class freewrites, blogs, practice exams, and thinking pieces posted on class discussion boards.It devotes a separate chapter to the creation of rubrics for grading student writing, discussing both the upside and downside of rubrics. It also devotes a chapter to the art of commenting on student papers to minimize teacher time while maximizing helpfulness and care.Throughout it suggests ways that embedded writing assignments can be used for assessment.
Link Between Writing and Critical Thinking
Although this book examines a wide range of strategies for promoting critical thinking in the classroom, it assumes that the most intensive and demanding tool for eliciting sustained critical thought is a well-designed writing assignment on a subject matter problem. The underlying premise is that writing is closely linked with thinking and that in presenting students with significant problems to write about—and in creating an environment that demands their best writing—we can promote their general cognitive and intellectual growth. When we make students struggle with their writing, we are making them struggle with thought itself. Emphasizing writing and critical thinking, therefore, generally increases the academic rigor of a course. Often the struggle of writing, linked as it is to the struggle of thinking and to the growth of a person’s intellectual powers, awakens students to the real nature of learning.
Engaging Ideas is intended for busy college professors from any academic discipline. Many readers may already emphasize writing, critical thinking, and active learning in their classrooms and will find in this book ways to fine-tune their work, such as additional approaches or strategies, more effective or efficient methods for coaching students as writers and thinkers, and tips on managing the paper load. Other readers may be attracted to the ideas in this book yet be held back by nagging doubts or fears that they will be buried in paper grading, that the use of writing assignments does not fit their disciplines, or that they will have to reduce their coverage of content. This book tries to allay these fears and help all professors find an approach to using writing and critical thinking activities that help each student meet course goals while fitting their own teaching philosophies and individual personalities.
It may be helpful to realize that this book is aimed primarily at improving students’ engagement with disciplinary subject matter and not at improving student writing. Whenever I conduct writing-across-the-curriculum workshops, I always stress that a teacher’s purpose in adding writing components to a course is not to help English departments teach writing. In fact, improvement of student writing is a happy side effect. Rather teachers should see writing assignments and other critical thinking activities as useful tools to help students achieve the instructor’s content and process goals for a course. The reward of this book is watching students come to class better prepared, more vested in and motivated by the problems or questions the course investigates, more apt to study rigorously, and more likely to submit high-quality work. A serendipitous benefit for teachers may be that their own writing gets easier when they develop strategies for helping students. Many of the ideas in this book—about posing problems, generating and exploring ideas, focusing and organizing, giving and receiving peer reviews of drafts, and revising for readers—can be applied to one’s own scholarly and professional writing as well as to the writing of students.
Structure of the Book
Chapter One, designed for the busy professor, gives the reader a nutshell compendium of the whole book and provides handy cross-references enabling readers to turn to specific parts of the book that concern their immediate needs. It also addresses four misconceptions that tend to discourage professors from integrating writing and critical thinking assignments into their courses.
Part One (Chapters Two through Five) presents the general theoretical background and pedagogical principles on which the book is based. Chapter Two examines the principles that relate writing to critical thinking and argues that good writing is both a process and a product of critical thought. Chapter Three suggests ways that teachers can help students think rhetorically about writing, particularly about purpose, audience, and genre. Doing so helps students develop transferable skills related to titles, introductions, tone, and reader expectations based on genre. Chapter Four introduces readers to the debate in the writing-across-the-curriculum literature between professional writing and personal or experimental writing and argues that students benefit from practicing both kinds. In Chapter Five, I focus on the problem of error in student writing, examine the debate among linguists and others over the role of grammar in writing instruction, and offer concrete suggestions about ways to reduce the incidence of error in students’ writing.
Part Two (Chapters Six and Seven) focuses on the design of problem-based writing assignments. Chapter Six focuses on the design of formal writing assignments and Chapter Seven on ways to use informal, exploratory writing both inside and outside of class to enhance learning and promote critical thinking.
Part Three (Chapters Eight through Thirteen) examines a wide variety of strategies for stimulating active learning and for coaching students as writers and critical thinkers. Chapter Eight provides a heuristic for designing critical thinking problems and illustrates them with examples from across the disciplines. These problems can then be used in a wide variety of ways—as formal or informal writing assignments, as problems for small groups, as topics for class debates, and so forth. Chapter Nine, which focuses on teaching academic reading, explores the causes of students’ difficulty with academic texts and suggests coaching strategies to help students improve their skills in comprehending and responding to difficult readings. Chapters Ten and Eleven together discuss ways to use class time for active inquiry and critical thinking. Chapter Ten focuses on the use of small groups in the classroom, and Chapter Eleven suggests ways to make lectures more interactive and whole-class discussions more productive. Chapter Twelve examines the strengths and weaknesses of essay exams as writing assignments and suggests ways to promote more student learning from essay exam settings. Chapter Thirteen, on teaching undergraduate research, opens with a discussion of students’ alienation from research writing—an alienation that often results in uninspired cut-and-paste writing or even plagiarism—and offers suggestions for engaging students in undergraduate research that is truly productive and inquiry-based. Particularly, it explains the principle of backward design so that skills needed for advanced research writing at the end of the major are taught through strategically designed scaffolding assignments earlier in the curriculum.
The final section of the book, Part Four (Chapters Fourteen through Sixteen), concerns strategies for coaching the writing process and for marking and grading student papers. Chapter Fourteen offers advice on creating and using rubrics, which can clarify an instructor’s grading criteria and, in many cases, decrease an instructor’s time spent grading and commenting on papers. Chapter Fifteen offers ten time-saving strategies for coaching the writing process while avoiding burnout. Finally, Chapter Sixteen focuses on ways to write revision-oriented comments that guide students toward significant revision of their work.
Thanks and Acknowledgments
I have been fortunate over my teaching career at three different institutions to have been supported by major writing-across-the-curriculum grants from foundations or public agencies: Lilly Endowment for its support of a pioneering WAC project at the College of Great Falls (Montana) in the late 1970s; the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) for supporting the Montana State University Critical Thinking and Writing Project (Bozeman) in the early 1980s; the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education (CAPHE) with matching support from the Ackerley Foundation at Seattle University in the early 1990s; and the Teagle Foundation for a recent project entitled Using Embedded Assignments to Assess Writing in the Majors and the Core Curriculum at Seattle University and Gonzaga University (2008–2011). The interdisciplinary conversations and ensuing research and scholarship from these grant-supported projects have created a wide network of colleagues to whom I am deeply indebted.
I wish particularly to thank W. Daniel Goodman in the Department of Chemistry at the College of Great Falls and Dean Drenk, John Ramage, and Jack Folsom for our FIPSE-grant days at Montana State University. At Seattle University, I thank my SoTL colleagues (many of whom have been coauthors with me on WAC or SoTL publications): economists Dean Peterson, Gareth Green, and Teresa Ling; finance professors David Carrithers and Fiona Robertson; chemists P. J. Alaimo, Joe Langenhan, and Jenny Loertscher; historian Theresa Earenfight; English professors Charles Tung, Nalini Iyer, June Johnson Bube, and David Leigh, S.J; and SoTL scholars Therese Huston and David Green of Seattle University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Thanks also to Larry Nichols, Director of the Writing Center at Seattle University, my longtime friend, workshop cofacilitator, and fellow advocate for good writing assignments and engaged learning.
A larger network of WAC friends has also nurtured and inspired my work: Joanne Kurfiss Gainen, former director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Santa Clara University; Linda Shohet, the Centre for Literacy in Montreal, Canada; John Webster, SoTL scholar and Director of Writing for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington; Michael Herzog, Teagle Grant co-investigator and longtime SoTL colleague at Gonzaga University; Carol Rutz, Director of the Writing Program at Carleton College; Carol Haviland, former Director of the Writing Center at California State University at San Bernardino; and nursing professor Rob van der Peet of the Netherlands, who translated the first edition of Engaging Ideas into Dutch.
I owe a special debt of gratitude and warm thanks to pioneering SoTL scholar Maryellen Weimer, Emeritus Professor of Teaching and Learning at Pennsylvania State University, whose faith in my work, whose encouragement, and whose extraordinary generosity of time gave me the confidence to produce the first edition of Engaging Ideas and the persuasive push to write the second. Her contribution to the book is explained in the opening narrative to her Foreword, for which I am most honored and grateful. Finally, I’d like to thank my editors at Jossey-Bass: Gale Erlandson for the first edition of Engaging Ideas and now David Brightman for the second. David has been extraordinarily supportive and flexible in providing the space, timing, and guidance that made the second edition possible. His generous, unflappable spirit has been a comfort throughout the process.
My deepest thanks and love go to my wife, Kit, who is also a professional writing teacher at South Seattle Community College, and to our children Matthew, Andrew, Stephen, and Sarah for their patience and good humor in enduring parents who can turn any occasion into a writing assignment.
John C. Bean
Vashon Island, Washington
About the Author
John C. Bean is a professor of English at Seattle University, where he holds the title of Consulting Professor of Writing and Assessment. He has an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University (1965) and a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Washington (1972). He has been active in the writing-across-the-curriculum movement since 1976—first at the College of Great Falls (Montana), then at Montana State University (Bozeman), and, since 1986, at Seattle University. Besides Engaging Ideas, the first edition of which has been translated into both Dutch and Chinese, he is the coauthor of four composition textbooks with varying focuses on writing, argumentation, critical thinking, and rhetorical reading. He has also published numerous articles on writing and writing across the curriculum as well as on literary subjects including Shakespeare and Spenser. He has done extensive consulting across the United States and Canada on writing across the curriculum, critical thinking, and university outcomes assessment. In 2001, he presented a keynote workshop at the first annual conference of the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing (EATAW) at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. More recently, he and his wife Kit (who is also a college teacher of writing) spent three weeks in Dhaka, Bangladesh, facilitating workshops on critical thinking for Bangladeshi educators at BRAC University. His current research interests focus on problems of transfer of learning as students move through and across a curriculum and on the development of institutional assessment strategies that promote productive faculty conversations about teaching and learning. In 2010 his article “Messy Problems and Lay Audiences: Teaching Critical Thinking within the Finance Curriculum” (coauthored with colleagues from finance and economics) won the 2008 McGraw-Hill–Magna Publications Award for the year’s best scholarly work on teaching and learning.
Using Writing to Promote Thinking
A Busy Professor’s Guide to the Whole Book
In his now classic study of pedagogical strategies that make a difference, Richard Light (2001) examined the connection between writing and student engagement. “The results are stunning,” he claims:
The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students’ level of interest in it—is stronger than the relationship between students’ engagement and any other course characteristic. … [p. 55]
More recent research, conducted jointly by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), has shown that for promoting engagement and deep learning the number of writing assignments in a course may not be as important as the design of the writing assignments themselves (Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, and Paine, 2009). Good assignments, this research has shown, give students opportunities to receive early feedback on their work, encourage meaning-making, and clearly explain the instructor’s expectations and purpose. (I discuss this research in depth in Chapter Six.)
The aim of this book is to give professors a wide range of options for bringing the benefits of engaged learning to students. My premise, supported by an increasing body of research, is that good writing assignments (as well as other active learning tasks) evoke a high level of critical thinking, help students wrestle productively with a course’s big questions, and teach disciplinary ways of seeing, knowing, and doing. They can also be designed to promote self-reflection, leading to more integrated, personally meaningful learning. Moreover, the benefits do not accrue only to students. Professors who successfully integrate writing and other critical thinking activities into their courses often report a satisfying increase in their teaching pleasure: students are better prepared for class, discussions are richer, and student performance improves.
But the use of writing and critical thinking activities to promote learning does not happen through serendipity. Teachers must plan for it and foster it throughout the course. This chapter suggests a sequence of steps that teachers can take to integrate writing and critical thinking into their courses. It then addresses four negative beliefs that often discourage teachers from taking these steps—the beliefs that integrating writing into a course will take time away from content, that writing assignments are not appropriate for some disciplines or courses, that assigning writing will bury a teacher in paper grading, and that assigning writing requires specialized expertise. Because these beliefs raise important concerns, I seek to supply reassuring responses at the outset.
This chapter provides, in effect, a brief overview of the whole book; subsequent chapters treat in depth each of the suggestions or issues introduced briefly here.
Steps for Integrating Writing and Critical Thinking Activities into a Course
This section surveys eight steps teachers can take to integrate writing and critical thinking activities into a course.
Step 1: Become Familiar with Some of the General Principles Linking Writing to Learning and Critical Thinking
To appreciate how writing is linked to learning and critical thinking, we can begin with a brief discussion of how we might define critical thinking.
Critical Thinking Rooted in Problems
Although definitions in the pedagogical literature vary in detail, in their broad outlines they are largely elaborations, extensions, and refinements of the progressive views of John Dewey (1916), who rooted critical thinking in the students’ engagement with a problem. Problems, for Dewey, evoke students’ natural curiosity and stimulate both learning and critical thought. “Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does [the student] think” (p. 188).
Part of the difficulty of teaching critical thinking, therefore, is awakening students to the existence of problems all around them. Meyers (1986), who agrees with Dewey that problems are naturally motivating, argues that teachers ought to begin every class with “something that is a problem or a cause for wonder” (p. 44). Meyers quotes philosopher and chemist Michael Polanyi, who claims that “as far down the scale of life as worms and even perhaps amoebas, we meet a general alertness of animals, not directed towards any specific satisfaction, but merely exploring what is there: an urge to achieve intellectual control over the situations confronting [them]” (p. 41).
Presenting students with problems, then, taps into something natural and self-fulfilling in our beings. In his fifteen-year study of what the best college professors do, Ken Bain (2004) shows that highly effective teachers confront students with “intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality” (p. 18). Set at the appropriate level of difficulty, such “beautiful problems” create a “natural critical learning environment” that engages students as active and deep learners. Similarly, Brookfield (1987) claims that critical thinking is “a productive and positive” activity. “Critical thinkers are actively engaged with life” (p. 5). This belief in the natural, healthy, and motivating pleasure of problems—and in the power of well-designed problems to awaken and stimulate the passive and unmotivated student—is one of the underlying premises of this book.
Disciplinary Versus Generic Domains for Critical Thinking
Not all problems, however, are academic problems of the kind that we typically present to students in our classrooms or that we pose for ourselves in doing scholarly research. Academic problems are typically rooted within a disciplinary conversation: to a large extent, these problems are discipline-specific, as each discipline poses its own kinds of questions and conducts inquiries, uses data, and makes arguments in its own characteristic fashion. As Anne Beaufort (2007) has shown, to think and write like a disciplinary professional, students must draw not only on subject matter knowledge, but also on knowledge about the discipline’s genre conventions, its methods of argument, its typical kinds of evidence, its ways of referencing other researchers, and its typical rhetorical contexts and audiences. Chapter Thirteen on teaching undergraduate research addresses Beaufort’s novice-to-expert schema in more detail.
But certain underlying features of critical thinking are generic across all domains. According to Brookfield (1987), two “central activities” define critical thinking: “identifying and challenging assumptions and exploring alternative ways of thinking and acting” (p. 71). Joanne Kurfiss (1988) likewise believes that critical thinkers pose problems by questioning assumptions and aggressively seeking alternative views. For her, the prototypical academic problem is “ill-structured”; that is, it is an open-ended question that does not have a clear right answer and therefore must be responded to with a proposition justified by reasons and evidence. “In critical thinking,” says Kurfiss, “all assumptions are open to question, divergent views are aggressively sought, and the inquiry is not biased in favor of a particular outcome” (p. 2).
The Link Between Writing and Critical Thinking
Given this view of critical thinking, what is its connection with writing? Quite simply, writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking. As I show in Chapter Two, writing instruction goes sour whenever writing is conceived primarily as a “communication skill” rather than as a process and product of critical thought. If writing is merely a communication skill, then we primarily ask of it, “Is the writing clear?” But if writing is critical thinking, we ask, “Is the writing interesting? Does it show a mind actively engaged with a problem? Does it bring something new to readers? Does it make an argument?” As Chapters Two and Three explain, experienced writers begin by posing two kinds of problems—what we might call subject matter problems and rhetorical problems. Subject matter problems drive the writer’s inquiry. The writer’s thesis statement is a tentative response to a subject matter problem; it poses a contestable “answer” or “solution” that must be supported with the kinds of reasons and evidence that are valued in the discipline. But writers also think critically about rhetorical problems: Who is my audience? What genre should I employ and what are its features and conventions? How much do my readers already know about and care about my subject matter problem? How do I want to change my audience’s views? What alternative views must I consider? Writers produce multiple drafts because the act of writing is itself an act of problem solving. Behind the scenes of a finished product is a messy process of exploratory writing, conversation, and discarded drafts. Chapters Two and Three deal with these issues in depth.
Step 2: Design Your Course with Critical Thinking Objectives in Mind
Once teachers are convinced of the value of critical thinking, the next step is to design a course that nurtures it. What is such a course like? In her comprehensive review of the literature on critical thinking, Kurfiss (1988) examined a wide range of successful disciplinary courses devoted to the teaching of both subject matter and critical thinking. In each case, she explains, “the professor establishes an agenda that includes learning to think about subject matter. Students are active, involved, consulting and arguing with each other, and responsible for their own learning” (p. 88). From this review, she derives eight principles for designing a disciplinary course that supports critical thinking:
1. Critical thinking is a learnable skill; the instructor and peers are resources in developing critical thinking skills.
2. Problems, questions, or issues are the point of entry into the subject and a source of motivation for sustained inquiry.
3. Successful courses balance challenges to think critically with support tailored to students’ developmental needs.
4. Courses are assignment centered rather than text and lecture centered. Goals, methods, and evaluation emphasize using content rather than simply acquiring it.
5. Students are required to formulate and justify their ideas in writing or other appropriate modes.
6. Students collaborate to learn and to stretch their thinking, for example, in pair problem solving and small group work.
7. Several courses, particularly those that teach problem-solving skills, nurture students’ metacognitive abilities.
8. The developmental needs of students are acknowledged and used as information in the design of the course. Teachers in these courses make standards explicit and then help students learn how to achieve them [pp. 88–89].
This book aims to help teachers develop courses that follow these guidelines. Of key importance are Kurfiss’s principles 2, 4, and 5: a good critical thinking course presents students with “problems, questions, [or] issues” that make a course “assignment centered rather than text [or] lecture centered” and holds students responsible for formulating and justifying their solutions orally or in writing. This book particularly emphasizes writing assignments because they are perhaps the most flexible and most intensive way to integrate critical thinking tasks into a course and because the writing process itself entails complex critical thinking. But much attention is also given to class discussions, small group activities, and other teaching strategies that encourage students to work collaboratively to expand, develop, and deepen their thinking. Attention is also given throughout to the design of problems at appropriate levels of difficulty, to the developmental needs of students, and to the importance of making expectations and criteria clear (principles 1, 3, and 8).
Step 3: Design Critical Thinking Tasks for Students to Address
A crucial step in teaching critical thinking is to develop good problems for students to think about. Tasks can range from enduring disciplinary problems to narrowly specific questions about the significance of a graph or the interpretation of a key passage in a course reading. The kinds of questions you develop for students will depend on their level of expertise, their current degree of engagement with the subject matter, and the nature of question asking in your own discipline.
When I conduct workshops in writing across the curriculum, I like to emphasize a disciplinary, content-driven view of critical thinking by asking faculty to write out one or two final examination essay questions for one of their courses—questions that they think require both subject matter knowledge and critical thinking. We then discuss the kinds of critical thinking needed and the relative difficulty of each question, sometimes offering suggestions on ways to improve questions to elicit the kinds and levels of critical thinking the teacher seeks. When we have appreciated the value of these questions for promoting critical thinking, I suggest that it is a shame to waste them on a timed exam, where students spend only an hour or so on task. Such questions and dozens more like them can be integrated into the fabric of a course, where they can stimulate curiosity, drive inquiry, and promote learning. Chapters Six, Seven, and Nine focus specifically on the design of critical thinking tasks to serve as formal or informal writing assignments or as starting points for other critical thinking activities.
Step 4: Develop a Repertoire of Ways to Give Critical Thinking Tasks to Students
Once you have developed a stockpile of critical thinking problems based on your course’s subject matter, you can choose from dozens of ways to integrate them into your course. This book presents numerous options for giving critical thinking problems to students. These include the following:
1. Problems as formal writing assignments. Formal writing assignments, which require revision and multiple drafts, keep students on task for extended periods and are among our most powerful tools for teaching critical thinking. They can range in length from one-paragraph “microthemes” (see Chapter Six) to major research projects within a disciplinary genre (see Chapter Thirteen). As these chapters show, effective academic assignments usually require that the student formulate and support a thesis (or test a hypothesis) in response to a problem. Such problem-centered assignments, which are primarily argumentative or analytical, are more effective for developing critical thinking than topic-centered assignments, which students often interpret as asking for information (“Write a research paper on one of the following topics”).
2. Problems as thought-provokers for exploratory writing. Although students normally write only a few formal papers for a course, they can do behind-the-scenes exploratory writing on a daily basis. Chapters Two and Seven provide a rationale for this kind of low-stakes writing, which is a seedbed for generating and growing ideas. Exploratory writing records the actual process of critical thinking while simultaneously driving it forward. Perhaps more than any other instructional tool, exploratory writing transforms the way students study for a course because it can make active critical thinking about course subject matter part of each day’s homework. Chapters Seven and Eight give numerous suggestions for integrating exploratory writing into a course, ranging from various kinds of journals or “thinking pieces” to postings on an electronic discussion board.
3. Problems as small group tasks. Disciplinary problems make powerful collaborative learning tasks. Small groups can be given a set time to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem or to seek a best solution by arriving at a consensus or a reasoned “agreement to disagree.” In a plenary session, groups report their solutions and present their justifying arguments using appropriate reasons and evidence. The instructor usually critiques the groups’ solutions and often explains how experts in the discipline (for whom the teacher is spokesperson) might tackle the same problem. During plenary sessions, the instructor both models and coaches disciplinary ways of making arguments, also attending to the generic critical thinking skills of looking at the available evidence and considering alternative views. Chapter Ten focuses on the uses of small groups to promote critical thinking.
4. Problems as starters for class discussions. Discussion classes can begin with one or two critical thinking problems written on the chalkboard or posted in advance on an electronic discussion board as “questions of the day.” The teacher guides the discussion, encouraging students to appreciate and manage complexity. (If students have addressed these questions the night before in an exploratory thinking piece, they will be both eager and prepared for class discussion.) Other ways to get students actively addressing critical thinking problems include classroom debates, panel discussions, and fishbowls. See Chapter Eleven for suggestions on bringing more critical thinking into lectures and class discussions.
5. Problems as practice exam questions. Chapter Twelve suggests ways to coax more student learning and critical thinking out of essay exams. One of the best approaches is to give practice exams that students write for homework on a self-timed basis. Feedback is provided through in-class discussion of representative essays.
The point of all these strategies is to model for students a view of knowledge in which inquirers must develop and support provisional answers to disciplinary problems. By actively using new concepts and information, students engage course material on a deeper level.
Step 5: Develop Strategies to Include Exploratory Writing, Talking, and Reflection in Your Courses
Good writing, I like to tell my students, grows out of good talking—either talking with classmates or talking dialogically with oneself through exploratory writing. A key observation among teachers of critical thinking is that students, when given a critical thinking problem, tend to reach closure too quickly. They do not suspend judgment, question assumptions, evaluate evidence, imagine alternative answers, play with data, enter into the spirit of opposing views, and just plain linger over questions. As a result, they often write truncated and underdeveloped papers. To deepen students’ thinking, teachers need to build into their courses time, space, tools, and motivation for exploratory thinking. Closely connected to exploratory tasks are reflective tasks aimed at encouraging students to think metacognitively about their own thinking processes, to connect learning in one course to other courses or to their own lives, to transfer skills from one setting to another, and to integrate their learning. Chapters Seven through Twelve suggest numerous ways to make exploratory writing, talking, and reflection a habit of students in your courses.
Step 6: Develop Strategies for Teaching How Your Discipline Uses Evidence to Support Claims
To grow as critical thinkers, students need to learn how different disciplines use evidence to support arguments. According to Richard Light (2001), “A surprising number of undergraduates describe learning how to use evidence to resolve controversies in their field, whatever their field, as a breakthrough idea” (p. 122). Light describes the bafflement of first-year students as they shift from discipline to discipline, encountering different ways that disciplines gather and use evidence to address problems. Some disciplines derive their evidence from observations of natural or cultural phenomena, sometimes converted to numbers, subjected to statistical analysis, and displayed in graphs and tables. Other disciplines use qualitative data from ethnographic observations, focus group transcripts, or interviews. Still others analyze aural, visual, or verbal texts housed in libraries, historical archives, art galleries, museums, popular media archives, or websites.
What new students don’t see is how these different kinds of data function as evidence in support of a claim. Teachers can accelerate students’ understanding of a field by designing assignments that teach disciplinary use of evidence or that help students analyze the thinking moves within an evidence-based argument. Closely related to disciplinary use of evidence is use of disciplinary genres such as experimental reports, ethnographies, design proposals, or disciplinary papers suitable for presentation at an undergraduate research conference. Part Two of this book (particularly Chapter Thirteen on teaching undergraduate research) treats the use of disciplinary evidence and genres in more detail.
Step 7: Develop Effective Strategies for Coaching Students in Critical Thinking
Besides giving students good problems to think about, teachers need to critique students’ performances and to model the kinds of critical thinking they want students to develop. According to Meyers (1986), teachers of critical thinking will often spend much of their class time as “referees, coaches, and mentors rather than as lecturers and purveyors of the truth … For most of us,” he continues, “this is a worthwhile but difficult shift” (p. 39). This book suggests numerous ways that teachers can coach critical thinking, including guiding discussions, critiquing solutions developed by small groups, writing comments on student drafts, holding conferences, sharing autobiographical accounts of their own thinking and writing processes, discussing strengths and weaknesses of sample papers, breaking long assignments into stages, and stressing revision and multiple drafts. An equally important aspect of coaching is providing a supportive, open classroom that values the worth and dignity of students. Suggestions for coaching writing and critical thinking are integrated throughout the book but occur especially in Chapters Ten and Fifteen. Chapter Nine focuses specifically on coaching students as critical readers of academic texts, and Chapter Sixteen focuses entirely on ways to comment on student papers to promote critical thinking.
Step 8: When Assigning Formal Writing, Treat Writing as a Process
In most kinds of courses, the student “product” that most clearly exhibits the results of critical thinking is a piece of formal writing addressing an open-ended problem. Too often, however, what the student submits as a finished product is in an unrevised draft, the result of an undeveloped and often truncated thinking process that doesn’t adequately confront all the available evidence, consider alternative views, examine assumptions, or imagine the needs of a new reader. Much of the thinking promoted by writing occurs during the messy process of revision when the writer’s ideas gradually become focused and clarified. No matter how much we exhort students to write several drafts and to collaborate with peers, most of our students will continue to write their papers on the night before they are due unless we structure our courses to promote writing as a process.
Teachers can get better final products, therefore, if they design their courses from the outset to combat last-minute writing, to promote exploratory writing and talking, and to encourage substantive revision. Promoting such exploration is one of the functions of progressive writing centers, where experienced tutors or consultants can help students understand the demands of an assignment, brainstorm ideas, and revise their papers through multiple drafts. On many campuses the director of the writing center is one of an instructor’s most important resources for developing ways to incorporate writing into a course. Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen offer many suggestions for encouraging students to deepen and extend their writing processes.
Four Discouraging Beliefs and Some Encouraging Responses
The steps just described can help teachers integrate writing and critical thinking activities into their courses. However, many teachers who are tempted to do so may be held back by negative beliefs or misconceptions about what happens when a teacher begins developing a pedagogy using writing and critical thinking. It will be helpful, therefore, to address these beliefs at the outset. Based on discussions with faculty from across the disciplines, I find the following four misconceptions the most pervasive and potentially discouraging.
Misconception 1: Emphasizing Writing and Critical Thinking in My Courses Will Take Time Away from Content
Many faculty, understandably concerned about coverage of material, do not want to shift class time away from content. In addressing this conundrum, one must first distinguish between how much a teacher “covers” in a given course and how much students actually learn in a meaningful and usable way. Much of the literature on best pedagogical practices suggests that less is more. For example, Robert Zemsky (2009), founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, argues that “no one has sufficient time or gray matter to master a knowledge base that is growing exponentially every decade or so.” Rather than focus exhaustively on content coverage, Zemsky urges educators to prioritize content, focusing on high-priority material while simultaneously teaching the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to acquire and apply new knowledge:
Discussions of the changing nature of knowledge often morph into what a successful learning outcome would be if detailed content were actually becoming less important than a well-executed learning process. The former is static; the latter is dynamic in the sense that learning processes change as the learner seeks new knowledge and tackles new problems.
In my experience, integrating writing and critical thinking components into a course can increase the amount of subject matter that students actually learn. My assertion may seem counterintuitive until one realizes that these assignments can restructure the way students study outside of class. Critical thinking tasks—which require students to use
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