Exploring and situating the experience of learning to think critically : a case study highlighting the student voice
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A 2003 review of the literature shows a lack of formal institutional research focusing on the development of critical thinking as a situated experience--occurring in a specific context with a complex set of dynamics. Rather, much of the emphasis has been on learning outcomes as measured by various psychometric-approaches or an instructor's assignment, exam, or course grade. The problem with sole reliance on numerical data is that in it sheds little light on why or how a student performed the way her or she did in class, on an exam, or a standardized test in the first place. The purpose of this case study is to explore the experiences of students as they are situated in a first-year seminar that focuses on the development of their ability to think critically. Thus the author constructed a study that attended to both the content (critical thinking) and the context (the learning environment) in a way that presents students subjective experiences, and for the most part, articulated in their own words. The students were participants in a college success program, which requires that they take a first-year seminar in critical thinking. Constructed as a two-phase, sequential mixed methods design, statistical results from the College Classroom Environment Scales (CCES) are primarily used for descriptive purposes. Administered at the end of the semester, the CCES includes the following six constructs: cathectic learning climate, professorial concern, inimical ambiance, academic rigor, affiliation, and structure. The content and structure of the questions, however, were primarily used to guide the second phase of the research. During this qualitative phase, the researcher conducted personal interviews to probe deeper into students' experiences. After reconstructing the three classroom environments, the researcher focuses on students' preferences for and challenges in learning to think critically through discussion and the instructor's role in mediating safe, comfortable discursive environments conducive to risk-taking through public reasoning. Data interpretation is guided by work in discourse analysis as well as theoretical work in rhetoric and philosophy. Framed within a social, political, and ethics approach, the dissertation is largely influenced by American philosopher and education theorist John Dewey. Detailed recommendations for instruction and future research close the dissertation.