Davina Mill

A. Introduction: Writing and Critical Thinking in Psychology

The Writing in the Disciplines experience was extremely helpful for me at this stage of my teaching career. Like most teachers, I wanted my students engaged with the course material, thinking more critically, and I didn’t want to spend more time correcting than I had to. Meeting with my fellow WIDsters to discuss Bean’s (2001) “Engaging Ideas” was really inspiring and is affecting the way I teach. The experience was an eye opener for me on a number of issues.

What does “critical thinking” mean in Psychology?

As one of our first writing tasks, we were asked to write about what critical thinking meant in our disciplines. I am not sure what the right answer is, or if there is a right answer. I suspect what it means in psychology is not dramatically different from most other disciplines, though perhaps I am mistaken. Some themes we often return to include:

  • What assertions (arguments, claims, conclusions) are being made?
  • What evidence is given to support these assertions?
  • What assumptions might have been made along the way?
  • Are there other ways of explaining the evidence?
  • What additional evidence might be needed to decide what to believe?
  • Ultimately, what should we believe? What conclusion stands the best chance of being right?
  • How can we use (apply) what we have learned?

In Psychology, we try to get students to appreciate that some sources of information (e.g., primary sources, peer-reviewed journals) are more trustworthy than other sources (secondary sources, common sense, popular media, even textbooks), as peer-reviewed work is more likely to address the issues noted above. Ideally, we want students to apply healthy skepticism to their own observations and interpretations, to recognize that the heuristics they instinctively use when evaluating information can lead them astray, and to transfer a critical approach to thinking in nonacademic arenas. In the psychology department, I think we have found a good balance between teaching students the content of psychology while encouraging critical mindedness about the field. We want students to appreciate the strengths and limitations of different research designs (e.g., why are correlation studies less equipped to address causality compared to experimental studies?), to identify missing control procedures / confounds (e.g., double blind? random assignment?), to evaluate sampling procedures (e.g., adequate size? representative of the population?), to assess the validity and reliability of the measurement of the variables, to understand how statistical analyses can inform and misinform (e.g., why does significant not equal meaningful? how can graphs be misleading?), and to request this process be repeated using different samples and measures. Students are taught to appreciate that knowledge in our field is constantly evolving. As such, they ultimately need to recognize the limitations of their knowledge by qualifying their conclusions and keeping an open mind to future developments in the field.

B.On Grammar and Correctness

Some of the techniques in Bean convinced me I could reduce my workload while actually getting students to learn more. As you can imagine, this realization was very exciting. For example, I used to think that I had to continually edit students’ papers in order to make them aware of their grammar and spelling errors. After all, students needed to know what standards awaited them in university, right? After reading Bean, it turns out that this nit-picky editing is not only time consuming for the teacher, but more importantly counter productive to good writing. At first I was skeptical, but Bean provided compelling, well-researched arguments that were quite convincing. I am now trying to provide more general feedback regarding quality and flow of ideas on early drafts (much less time consuming for me to do). I am also permitting some opportunity for revision, at which stage the students (read: not me!) can find and then fix the grammatical and spelling errors they couldn’t focus on when grappling with more complex ideas. Though it’s a bit early to tell, my preliminary impression is that Bean has got it right.

C. Scaffolding and Assignment Design

I am using more scaffolding techniques for major term papers. Breaking down these heftier papers in smaller chunks is making the task easier for most students, and the final projects are ultimately of higher quality, again reducing my correcting load. It is also gratifying to read better thought-out papers. For example, this term I revised a project I had been assigning for the past couple years in my Abnormal Psychology class (see Movie Assignment.doc). Borrowing from the same format I use as a clinical psychologist when writing psychological reports, this assignment not only requires students to research a specific mental illness, but gives them a taste of the detective work and sensitivity required to do a good assessment and treatment plan for a client. As it is unethical to use a real client, we borrow clients from movies and literature. This semester, I made this assignment more integrated into my course lectures, which has also enhanced students’ sense that lecture material is relevant.

Movie Assignment Mill

D. Peer Review

I have woven into my class-time more opportunity for peer review of written work, again a correction time saver for me. I know students learn by seeing other students’ work, and by actively using my grading criteria rubric which is woven into this exercise. However, I am struggling a bit how to make this peer review assignment more profitable to the student who wrote the paper. I will include an example of a peer review sheets (see Draft 1.doc and Draft 2.doc, which I am using in Integrative Seminar), and if anyone has suggestions for improvement, I’d appreciate the feedback.

Peer Review Mill

Peer Review Draft 2 Mill

E. Informal Writing

Bean’s basic premise is that all significant learning starts with students’ engagement with problems, with an emphasis on the benefits of writing as a tool to achieve deeper level processing of information. In this spirit, after an interesting in-class discussion has occurred, I sometimes direct students to take 3-5 minutes of class time to simply write down their own thoughts regarding what we had been discussing. This pause helps them collect their thoughts on paper and identify if something is confusing them. The writing pause is also useful as a way to avoid overloading the auditory channel and to calm down any especially heated discussion. Sometimes, if class time is at a premium, I’ll assign a 5-10 minute freewrite homework assignment. Again, students submit these “freewrites” for automatically awarded participation marks. Some topics examples:

  • “So, you say that though stress and cancer are correlated, that does not mean that stress causes cancer. Why not? Take a few minutes to write out your argument.”
  • “Based on what you have learned about pedophilia in class, will incidents of child sexual abuse be reduced if the Catholic Church allows its priests to marry? “

Because topics are usually a bit more interesting and the students don’t need to worry about syntax or spelling, freewriting is liberating; students often put their hearts into these freewrites, even for a measly mark or two (note: the first time I assigned freewrites, I didn’t realize how hard they would be to grade. My fellow WIDsters suggested I award just a mark or two, and that has turned out to be good advice). These freewrites are helpful to the students to help them think through more challenging issues, they are fascinating for me to read, and they help me see where there have been misunderstandings which I can clarify in the subsequent classes. To further motivate students, I sometimes tell students that this question will be on the exam, or that it will be discussed in small peer groups in the next class, which students often like to do and don’t want to look uninformed when doing.

More examples from Abnormal Psychology: I recently assigned two slightly more formalized freewrites. In both cases, students were told to read a few newspaper articles from the Globe and Mail. One had to do with stigmatization of mental illness (see Stigma1 doc) and students were then asked “If you had bipolar disorder, would you be honest on the job application if asked if you have a mental illness?” The second freewrite assignment was to get them familiar with the autism and vaccines fiasco (see the well-known articles from The Lancet, and my Vaccine doc), and then have them write down all the errors they found in the original research study done by Wakefield and have them make suggestions how they would better test if vaccines cause autism.

Editorial Stigma 1

Vaccine Feature Mill

Examples from Interaction and Communication:

  • Read the first two pages (Inclusion Phase) of Schutz, W, C (1958). A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behaviour. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, NY. Take notes while reading. Based on this reading and any other impressions you had, reflect on how this first day with your group went. Focus on feelings you might have, and try to relate them, if you can, to specific incidents. Include any questions or concerns you might have.
  • Using what you learned from today’s class on public speaking, what did you like and dislike about Zimbardo’s presentation and why? Any techniques he used that you’d want to consider using yourself in future presentations?
  • Put down your thoughts and feelings about how well each member of your team listens (include yourself!). Based on what evidence? Is there anyone on your team you’d like to be more like when it comes to listening? Why?
  • Choose one of the two: a) Choose something that you learned in today’s class on conflict (lecture notes, class discussions, group activities) that made a special impression on you and write about it. If absolutely nothing impressed you today (it happens), then spend some time exploring your own way of behaving in conflicts. Or b) Call to mind a devastating relationship event you’ve experienced. In what ways, if any, did your communication contribute to what happened? What consequences did you suffer? How have you overcome them?

F. Writing to a Specific Audience

Another new technique I took from Bean is to have students write for an audience who knows less about the topic than the writer (e.g., Describe to your grandmother…” or “Address your essay to others in the class who are interested in …” ). I targeted my IS Reflection assignment after Lisa Steffen suggested this “audience” approach might work well here. She was right! It should also be noted that my original Reflection assignment was quite wordy and overwhelming, so I followed Bean’s suggestion to ask a single focusing question, rather than providing a whole series of interrelated questions. This approach was clearer. Here is what I asked: “Write a 750 word essay (2-3 pages, typed, double spaced, 1 inch margins) on this reflection: Due to your experiences at Dawson, you have learned more about the world and about yourself. Highlight the events that most impacted on you during your time in the social science program, and reflect on your accomplishments and regrets and what this means for your future. You can simply write a “normal” essay, or you can choose from these four “audience” options (choose just one): a) Write an advice letter to your younger brother or sister or friend who is planning to go to Dawson. b) Imagine next year, you have been invited back to Dawson to give a talk to incoming CEGEP students c) Dear Diary… d) Write an open letter to be published in the school newspaper to Dawson teachers: Some feedback regarding what worked well at Dawson and what needs improving. Regardless what option you choose, your writing style, grammar, spelling, and the logical flow of your essay will be taken into account during grading. I will also be looking for evidence that time and thought went into your reflections. Elaborate, explain, try to provide examples to back up your points.

G. Final Reflections

I am grateful to have been given the change to participate in WID in 2010. Bean’s book is terrific and chock full of ideas. Also helpful was having other teachers available to bounce around ideas. For me, I chose to make quite a lot of revisions to my courses. I am curious to see how these changes will be received by the students. So far, so good. I am spending less time correcting (yeah!), students are grasping more challenging material (double yeah!), and I am enjoying my courses more (the trifecta).

Last Modified: October 25, 2011