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by Bill Peirce
(Coordinator, Reasoning Across the Curriculum)                                       


This is a 4-page summary of my 46-page chapter included in Electronic Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices (edited by Sorel Reisman, published by Information Age Publishing for the U.S. Distance Learning Association, 2003, pages 301-347). More information about the book is at (I get no royalties from sales of the book.) A shorter and older version of the chapter (20 pages, 2001) is available at

 The chapter reviews research that demonstrates that thinking can indeed be taught in online classes, provides fifteen strategies for teaching thinking and promoting intellectual development, and incorporates extensive resources for online teachers.

 Professors who are good at getting students to think in their face-to-face classrooms wonder if they can be as good online. According to at least sixteen different research articles describing successful experiences teaching higher order thinking in online courses, yes, they can. In their case studies, the authors directly assessed the students' thinking before reaching the conclusion that the course was successful in teaching thinking. All of them emphasize that interaction among students and with their professor was crucial to their seeing evidence of student thinking. Only with designed interaction among students can one expect to find evidence that online courses facilitate thinking.


Many face-to-face classroom strategies for teaching students to think about course content can be used just as effectively online. Some are best suited for student responses as public postings in conference threads and bulletin board forums; some are more effective as private homework or formal writing assignments. Here are the recommended strategies:

 1.   Conduct Opinion Polls/Surveys Before Assigned Readings to Arouse Interest in Topics
       and to Assess and Employ Students' Prior Knowledge
       Students, like everyone else, seem to have opinions on any issue whether they are well informed or not. A way to generate interest in assigned readings is, before they are read, to take a survey of studentsí opinions on the issue or to pre-test their knowledge of the information presented in the readings. This strategy is useful for getting students interested in issues and assigned readings but doesn't improve their thinking unless the next step is to analyze and evaluate the evidence and reasons provided in the readings.

2.   Design Self-Testing Quizzes and Tutorials to Prepare Students for Well-Grounded
In a Web course, the usual sources of course content are a textbook and teacher-written text,  so itís important for students to test their understanding of their reading. How does a factual-recall quiz improve thinking? It doesn't, but a professor can make passing a quiz on an assigned reading the gateway to discussing it in the conference. Discussions are richer when students are prepared.

 3.   Conduct Interactive Asynchronous Discussions
       The active-learning strategies for teaching thinking described in this article can be used with individual students learning alone. However, students interacting with other students has some benefits that should not be passed up. A sense of being in a safe community helps some students take intellectual risks, helps people-oriented learners acquire the course content, exposes students to other perspectives, and provides additional student-generated ideas and information to think about. All the researchers who claim success at teaching critical thinking online attribute it to their use of discussion forums.

 4.   Pose Well-Designed Questions for Asynchronous Discussion
       Asynchronous discussions can take place in threaded conferences, study groups, and chat sessions. The URL cited at the top of this article has several approaches to asking good questions.

 5.   Create Cognitive Dissonance: Provoke Discomfort, Unsettle Confirmed Notions,
       Uncover Misconceptions, Inspire Curiosity, Pose Problems
       The point here is not to befuddle students but to dispel complacency by creating cognitive dissonance. To create cognitive dissonance, the teacher can design a task that uses studentsí prior learning but also requires factual information or procedures that the students do not know. Creating in students the need to know is a basic strategy underlying inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

 6.   Assign Writing-to-Learn Tasks as Homework and/or Discussion
       That writing shapes thinking has both a theoretical and a research base. The following list of potential writing-to-learn tasks comes from several fine books on teaching disciplinary thinking in face-to-face classes: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (1996); Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the Classroom (1993); and Tracey E. Sutherland and Charles C. Bonwell (eds.), Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty (1996). 

  • Formal Writing Assignments
  • Informal Exploratory Writing
  • Apply the Concepts of the Textbook Chapters to Cases or Issues Every Week
  • Tasks for Small-Group Problem Solving and Inquiry-Based Discussions
  • Questions for Socratic dialogue
  • Practice Exam Questions

 7.   Present Activities That Require Considering Opposing Views
       Professors can ask students to consider opposing views, methods, data, principles, concepts, definitions, interpretations, and conclusions. Dialectical thinking (sometimes called dialogical thinking) is one of the best ways to engage studentsí minds, challenge their previously held beliefs, promote open-mindedness, defer the rush to judgment, and move them to higher intellectual stages.

 8.   Assign a Mediatory Argument Promoting a Resolution Acceptable to Both Sides
       The purpose of the argument to negotiate is to seek consensus within an audience polarized by differences in a context where there is a need to cooperate and preserve relations. Such an argument requires students to understand the implications of their position and to understand how their proposal may affect others.

 9.   Adopt Collaborative and Cooperative Learning Techniques, Simulations, and
       Role-Plays to Online Uses
       Collaborative and cooperative learning techniques go beyond simply having students talk about the course content in asynchronous discussions. Professors can ask teams to collaborate on formal or informal writing-to-learn tasks, which can range from formal reports to the professor or informal briefings to the rest of the class.

 10.   Ask Students to Evaluate Internet Resources
         Evaluating Internet resources requires critical thinking appropriate for any online course. 

 11.   Ask Students to Reflect on Their Responses to the Course Content and on Their
         Learning Processes in Private Journals
         Writing self-reflective responses improves students' metacognitive abilities, promotes personal holistic engagement in learning, and promotes intellectual development. The effectiveness of using journals and logs has been established for many years, and they are standard writing assignments in schools and colleges with writing across the curriculum programs.

 12.   Develop Critical Thinking Dispositions
         It is not enough to teach students to perform thinking operations and tasks. They should also be disposed to carrying them out on their own, unasked. Richard Paul, one of the leaders in promoting critical thinking in education, introduces one more dimension to critical thinking: fair-mindedness. Paul's experience as a college professor showed him three kinds of thinkers:

  1. The uncritical thinker who sees or searches for one correct answer and whose views are acquired from the thinking of others (parents, teachers, peers)
  2. The self-serving critical thinker who finds confirmation of egocentric prejudices, is good at finding fallacies in others' arguments, and is primarily concerned with winning argumentsónot with accuracy, fairness, and understanding other views
  3. The fair-minded critical thinker who values reason as the path to belief, genuinely considers the other side, and genuinely wrestles with dilemmas.

 13.   Promote Critical Consciousness
Professors can do more than teach thinking. Educators in the critical pedagogy movement are concerned that teaching the accepted patterns and formulas of disciplinary logic is a limited approach because it merely produces in students the technical competencies they need to function in their disciplines. Students are often taught disciplinary facts, theories, and methods as if these disciplinary concepts were value-free, producing in students an uncritical acceptance of the status quo, promoting conformity rather than independent critical examination of the perspectives that support the concepts.

14.   Move Students to Higher Stages of Intellectual Development
        Students often begin college at an intellectual stage of development where they uncritically believe anything that authorities tell them or they regard all points of view as having equal validity. These are the first stages in three different models of intellectual development widely used to describe the stages of intellectual growth through which college students evolve. Two older models of intellectual development are described by William G. Perry, Jr. (1970) in Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme and Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill MMattuck Tarule (1986) in Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Patricia M. King and Karen Strohm Kitchener (1994) describe a more recent model of intellectual growth in Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. The three models differ in details, but all three describe paths that start with the belief that knowledge is certain and knowable and end with the belief that knowledge is uncertain but validated by one's own assessment of the supporting reasons and evidence.

 15.   Understand Students' Levels of Self-Directedness
         The ideal online students are highly self-directed students; they will reach any intellectual transformation their textbook and their online teacher persuade them to attain if the textbook and teacher provide strategies for attaining it. Although online courses might not be a good match for less self-directed learners, these learners can become better thinkers by responding thoughtfully and thoroughly to strategies employed by their professors.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 3

Spring 2004