Strategies for Teaching Thinking and Promoting Intellectual Development in Online Classes

By William Peirce © 2001

Latest revision August 2001

An expanded and revised version has been printed as “Strategies for Teaching Thinking and Promoting Intellectual Development in Online Classes,” in Electronic Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices. Ed. Sorel Reisman. U.S. Distance Learning Association. Information Age Publishing, 2003.


I. Online Strategies for Teaching Thinking

II. Online Strategies for Promoting Interactivity

III. Transforming Students’ Minds: Promoting Intellectual development


Can analytical and critical thinking be taught well online?

Can the reasoning and problem solving required to be a disciplinary practitioner be taught well asynchronously?

Can students in online classes grow intellectually?

    *                        *                        *                        *                        *                        *

My answer to the these questions is a definite "Yes, very well."

In an online course teachers can employ many of the same active learning strategies they use in their classrooms to encourage good thinking, engage students in the course content, and promote their intellectual development.  Sections I and II discuss some strategies that work well in online classes.  Section III deals with an issue bothering many teachers:  Can online students be transformed intellectually? That is, can we move them to higher stages of intellectual development without the physical presence of a good classroom teacher and spontaneous discussion?  My answer is that these transformations can also occur in online students.

I. Online Strategies for Teaching Thinking

Many classroom strategies for teaching students to think about course content can be used just as effectively online. Some are good for public postings in conference threads or bulletin board forums; some are more effective as private homework responses from students. Here’s a list of recommended strategies, which I’ll discuss separately.

  1. Design self-testing quizzes and tutorials on basic chapter content.
  2. Apply the concepts of the textbook chapters to cases or issues every week.
  3. Pose well-designed questions for asynchronous discussion.
  4. Ask students to reflect on their responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals.
  5. Create cognitive dissonance: provoke discomfort, unsettle confirmed notions, uncover misconceptions, inspire curiosity, pose problems.
  6. Conduct opinion polls/surveys as pre-reading activities before assigned readings and to arouse interest in issues or topics.
  7. Present activities that require considering opposing views.
  8. Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides.

1. Design self-testing quizzes and tutorials on basic chapter content.

In a web course the usual sources of course content are a textbook and teacher-written text, so it’s important for students to test their understanding of their reading. Most web course delivery systems include forms to write self-testing quizzes and tutorials to help students test their understanding of the basic content of the textbook chapter or lectures. Some textbook publishers provide self-testing quizzes and tutorials at their websites. The University of Glasgow assesses knowledge of baseline philosophy concepts through its web-based "assessment engine" (Stuart, 1999).

How does a factual recall quiz improve thinking? It doesn't, but an instructor can make passing a quiz on an assigned reading the gateway to discussing it in the conference. Make it a rule that students can't respond to a conference topic until they have passed the quiz on the textbook chapter or assigned article. Discussions are richer when students are prepared.

Tutorials and quizzes can also be used to teach concepts. The easiest way to provide self-testing quizzes to students is to ask questions on one file and write sample answers on another. The students read the questions, write their answers, then compare their answers with the models of good and poor answers provided online by the instructor (with commentary). I use this approach in my argument and persuasion classes to model good and bad explanations of logical fallacies. An online tutorial for critical thinking (chiefly informal logic) is Mission: Critical at San Jose State University (

2. Apply the concepts of the textbook chapters to cases or issues every week.

Asking students to apply course concepts in informal writing tasks as homework assignments is probably the most obvious and frequently used approach.  These tasks can be posted on a conference or bulletin board, stored in the student’s assignment portfolio, or e-mailed to the instructor. Responses can be written by groups or individuals, depending on what the instructor has in mind.

Asking 25 students to respond individually to one scenario or topic in a conference will result in thoughtful responses from the first three responders and "I think so too" from the remaining 22. To avoid boring repetition, an instructor can pose variations of a generic scenario to a smaller population of 3-4 students.  For example, in my business writing class, I assign scenario no. 1 to names beginning A-C, scenario no. 2 to D-G, etc.  In small groups where students prepare a single written response to teacher-posed problems, their thinking is clarified as they consider several perspectives and negotiate the language to articulate their response.

Grading each student’s homework every week is probably more work than many instructors have time for.  One way to lighten the workload is to store the students’ work in a folder in the course website or on the instructor’s computer and read it once every four weeks, grading the total collection of a student’s assignments holistically (one grade for the total collection) according to criteria such as timeliness, thoroughness, and responsiveness to the instructions.  A second way to shorten the time is to grade only a representative sample of a student's homework assignments (after informing students of the sampling procedure).

Writing about cases is only one example of the kinds of thinking tasks to give students.  Teachers at universities with writing across the curriculum programs might be familiar with writing-to-learn tasks that can be assigned as weekly homework, exchanged among students, or collected in a course portfolio. Colleges and universities with writing across the curriculum programs are likely to have a rich collection of examples available through their teaching and learning center.  The Clearinghouse for Resources on Academic Writing at Colorado State ( lists resources including web links, bibliographies, articles, and programs at other colleges and universities.  If your college has no teaching and learning center, plenty can be found at Online Resources for Higher Education: University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence (  Another useful source is the Web resources for teaching online and other uses of electronic communication across the curriculum maintained by Donna Reiss at

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. Jossey-Bass, 1996; Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993; and Tracey E. Sutherland and Charles C. Bonwell (eds.) Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

In formal writing assignments, students fully develop their ideas, use topic sentences, and pay attention to sentence structure and grammar. These tasks can range from one-paragraph microthemes to semester-long research papers. Have students support a thesis that responds to an instructor-posed problem or ask them to select their own thesis.  

Exploratory writing is unedited, rapid, informal writing that resembles inner speech. Informal writing tasks on course-based topics are an especially good device for promoting course-based thinking.  Tasks can range from simple ones that ask for ten minutes of instant speculation, application of chapter concepts to simple or complex cases, complex problem solving, summaries or responses to assigned readings, analytical evaluations of assigned readings, introspective connections of the course concepts to personal life and experience. Students can place private, personal applications in their assignment folders; less personal topics can be posted in a public conference. For example, I ask my critical thinking students to respond to a question about whether the government should ban liquor ads on television; then a week later I ask them how their response demonstrated the characteristics of a good thinker as described on one of the pages of the course guide. This potentially embarrassing self-disclosure is posted in their assignment folder that only I read. An example of a public personal response is one where I ask my business writing students to explain in a public conference whether their assignments in college courses have prepared them well for workplace writing. Some say yes, some say no, but the question and varied responses provoke an analysis of context and audience and the generalizability of writing experiences. Asking for personal responses and applications is especially useful if developing students' attitudes and values is important to the course. 

When small groups prepare written responses to problems, students' thinking is clarified as they consider, negotiate, and evaluate several perspectives.  Open-ended questions with no single right answer work especially well. Some examples of short, one-two week small-group projects are  


Some problems can prompt students to explore the full complexity of an issue.  Examples:


Useful for systematic, follow-up probing to lead students to an increasingly complex discussion. See item 3, below, for sample questions.

Practice and feedback on representative essay questions.

Other rich sources of disciplinary thinking tasks are collections of cooperative learning tasks published by the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment ( Pearson Education (Longman) now publishes the Short Guide to Writing series (art, film, chemistry), A Guide to Scientific Writing, How to Write about Biology, and How to Write about the Social Sciences. Houghton Mifflin now publishes the Writer’s Guide series (history, life sciences, political science, psychology). Bedford/StMartins publishes Thinking and Writing about Philosophy, Thinking and Writing about Literature, and Writing in the Sciences.

Another well-known source of ideas for classroom activities that apply course concepts and a source of strategies for informally assessing students’ work on them is Thomas D. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd. edition, published by Jossey-Bass. A few teachers have described their experience with these informal assessment techniques in computer-mediated classes: Gandolfo & Carver (1995); Creed (1998); additional material can be found in the "Virtual Companion" to Creed's article.

The Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University publishes excellent resources for teaching thinking.

3.  Pose well-designed questions for asynchronous discussion.

These discussions can take place in threaded conferences, study groups, chat sessions, or e-mail discussion lists. There are several approaches to asking good questions. Here is the ubiquitous Bloom higher order thinking taxonomy and some typical questions in those categories.

Knowledge: Identification and recall of information

Who, what, when, where, how______________?

Comprehension: Organization and selection of facts and ideas

Retell___________________in your own words.
What is the main idea of___________________?

Application: Use of facts, rules, principles

How is________an example of______________?
How is________related to__________________?
Why is_________________________significant?

Analysis: Separation of a whole into component parts

What are the parts or features of______________?
Classify_________according to______________?
How does_______compare/contrast with_______?
What evidence can you present for____________?

Synthesis: Combination of ideas to form a new whole

What would you predict/infer from___________?
What ideas can you add to__________________?
How would you create/design a new__________?
What might happen if you combined_____ with ____?
What solutions would you suggest for_________?

Evaluation: Development of opinions, judgments, or decisions

Do you agree____________________________?
What do you think about___________________?
What is the most important_________________?
Prioritize_______according to_______________.
How would you decide about________________?
What criteria would you use to assess_________?

Source: Maryland State Department of Education flyer

Richard Paul suggests an equally helpful list of questions (below, 1993b). His questions are useful in probing and extending student thinking in Socratic fashion (see also Paul, 1993c).



How did you come to think this?
Can you remember the circumstances in which you formed this belief?


Why do you believe this?
Do you have evidence for this?
What are some of the reasons why people believe this?
In believing this, aren't you assuming that such and such is true?
Is that a sound assumption do you think?

Conflict with Other thoughts

Some people might object to your position by saying . . . How would you answer them?
What do you think of this contrasting view?
How would you answer the objection that . . . ?

Implications and Consequences

What are the practical consequences of believing this?
What would we have to do to put it into action?
What follows from the view that . . . ?
Wouldn't we also have to believe that . . . in order to be consistent?
Are you implying that . . . ?

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4. 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. Metacognition is thinking about thinking. "Metacognition is being aware of our thinking as we perform specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what we are doing" (Marzano et al., 1988). Metacognition helps students transfer knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired in one context to other contexts. To increase their metacognitive abilities, students need to possess three kinds of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and conditional. Declarative knowledge is the factual information that students know; it can be declaredspoken or written. Procedural knowledge is their knowledge of how to do something, of how to perform the steps in a process. For example, procedural knowledge is possessed when it is understood how a sentence can be revised to transform a passive verb into active. Conditional knowledge is knowledge about when to use a procedure, skill, or strategy (and when not to use it); why a procedure works and under what conditions; and why one procedure is better than another.

Metacognitive knowledge requires awareness of all three kinds of knowledge, and it is best developed by having students reflect on their thinking processes. Cognitive scientists believe that improving students’ metacognitive abilities is crucial to improving their thinking. And educators believe that reflecting on one’s learning processes is crucial to becoming a better learner. Students can move towards both goals by writing self-reflective responses to the course content and on their learning processes in private journals. Most web course delivery systems have private assignment areas accessible only the student and the professor; they serve as useful depositories for such tasks. I grade course journals holistically at the end of the semester on the criteria of thoroughness and responsiveness to my questions.

Self-reflective responses can also accompany formal writing assignments.  In an online analytical reading and writing course I teach for University of Maryland University College, each student's graded formal writing assignment is accompanied by informal writing tasks in which students to reflect on their thinking and learning processes. For example, the longest assignment is a researched persuasive argument; three different informal writing tasks ask students to reflect on their learning and write  self-assessments:

A similar example from a business writing class is provided by Robert W. McEachern (1999), who has students write two papers in response to a case: one following the instructions for the case study, the other describing how they dealt with each component of the textbook's advice for analyzing the case. The metacognitive reflection helps students increase much-needed abilities and helps the instructor give students useful feedback on their thinking process as well as their written product.

An essential component of metacognition is self-assessing and then self-regulating in response to the self-assessment. Experts internalize their declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge by frequently applying it. Beginners should be consciously aware at first of their metacognitive knowledge as they apply each piece of information at each step, consciously making decisions and knowing the reasons for their decisions. Automatic application soon follows.

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. Accompanying a disorienting intellectual situation is a wish to resolve it. Students who experience a gap in their knowledge will seek to fill it. Students who see that an incorrect or misapplied procedure won’t solve a problem will want to learn a procedure that will. To create cognitive dissonance, the instructor can design a task that uses using students’ prior learning but also requires factual information or procedures that the students do not know. Students become aware of a gap between the task's goal and what they need to know or to do to meet it (Beyer, 1987). Creating in students the need to know is a basic strategy underlying inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

Socratic questioning is a variation on this theme. The basic structure of Socratic questioning begins with inquiry, leads to perplexity, and ends with enlightenment (Morse, 1998).

Other ways of creating cognitive dissonance are to first present a theory, concept, or principle and the examples that confirm it; then follow by presenting discrepant examples that do not match the theory. Ask for an explanation of why the example does not fit. Because the students’ engagement was initially inspired by cognitive dissonance, their investigation and resolution of anomalies is more likely to lead to deep learning. On a historical scale, according to Thomas Kuhn (1970), this is the process that leads to paradigm shifts within disciplines.

Students enter college with many misconceptions. Their high school experience has provided a mistaken schema of what learning is (acquiring and memorizing teacher-told facts) and of what research is (acquiring and reporting information on a topic) (Nist, 1993). They sometimes enter disciplinary studies with misconceptions of the research methods of that field (for example, believing that the scientific method is the enemy of faith or that the purpose of critical thinking is to attack opponents). It sometimes takes a disorienting experience to change their inaccurate schemata.

6. Conduct opinion polls/surveys as pre-reading activities before assigned readings and to arouse interest in issues or topics.

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 to take a survey before they are assigned of students’ opinions on the issue or pre-test their knowledge of the facts presented in the reading. For example, one of my assignments in an argument and persuasion class is to analyze and evaluate opposing views; students choose from a list of paired arguments in the textbook. Before their choice, students respond to a poll listing all the options and asking them which of the two paired theses they agree with. For example, on the two environmental arguments, they are asked whether they agree with A or B, which restate the main claims of the two articles:

____A. The real environmental issue is not saving a few forests but adopting a philosophy of living in nature that contradicts the rationale of industrial capitalism.

____B. Radical environmentalists strangle innovation that could improve our economy.

A pre-reading variation of the poll-taking strategy is to ask students which data/facts are true and which inaccurate, listing data/facts from the assigned readings mixed with wrong data/facts invented by the instructor.

This strategy is useful for interesting students in issues and assigned readings but doesn't improve their thinking unless they are asked to analyze and evaluate the evidence and reasons provided in the readings.

7.  Present activities that require considering opposing views.

In asynchronous discussions or as formal or informal assignments, instructors 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 students’ minds, challenge their previously held beliefs, promote openmindedness, defer the rush to judgment, and move them to higher intellectual stages. Discussing opposing points of view requires knowledge, reasoned judgment, and intellectual criteria to adopt a position and explain why it’s better than the alternative (Paul, 1993b). Richard Paul (1994) writes that considering opposing views is crucial to developing critical thinking "in the strong sense." Critical thinking in the strong sense goes beyond merely applying technical thinking skills and becomes a way that "frees one from dominance by the views, the frames of reference, the worldviews" that one is exploring (p. 182).

Academic Controversy by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith (1997) outlines a five-step procedure for structured four-student group projects that engage students in exploring opposing views on an issue. Two pairs of students in each group are assigned the pro or con position; each pair begins by exploring the assigned position.

Step 1. Each pair researches its assigned position and plans how to develop an argument presenting the evidence and reasons that support its assigned position.

Step 2. Each pair presents its well-developed argument to the other pair. Each side listens attentively, taking notes and seeking to understand the other's position.

Step 3. Students engage in free discussion, persuasively supporting their position and refuting the opposing position by criticizing its weaknesses.

Step 4. Each pair reverse its positions and sincerely presents the best case possible for the opposite side, using notes from their step 3 discussion and additional information. Both sides try to understand both positions equally well.

Step 5. Students abandon advocacy of their assigned position to formulate a position all four students can support. This requires a synthesis of both perspectives into a new position that incorporates the best evidence and reasoning of both sides. The students finish by writing a single group report supporting the new consensus position.

The five-step group procedure encourages a group to look honestly at both sides of a controversy, but individual students often have trouble overcoming their prejudices and misconceptions. When thinking about controversial issues, students can delude themselves by cultural and ego-serving barriers that block a clear and honest consideration. Peter Elbow (1973, 1986) recommends a method that individual students use when they want to deal in a ruthlessly honest way with a difficult emotional and intellectual issue. Elbow calls his method playing the believing game and the doubting game; it asks the student to consider both sides of an issue with full sympathy for both sides, to take a dialectical approach to opposing views. To play the believing game, students must imagine that they genuinely believe everything they read in a text and fully sympathize with the values that support it. They need to identify with people like the text's author whose experience has taught them that this point of view is right, honorable, and logically consistent. This deliberate, empathetic identification is easy with views students already hold, but it is difficult with viewpoints with which they disagree. The benefits for students in playing the believing game with ideas they already agree with are (1) they can write a better, more accurate summary of the text, (2) they can identify connections with other values and ideas that are not in the text and therefore expand their understanding, and (3) with this fuller understanding they can explain their positions more clearly and forcefully.

But what about the benefits of imagining that they identify with viewpoints that they disagree with? Answer: They get the same benefits. They can (1) write a better summary, (2) they can more fully understand a position and the values, experience, and evidence that support it by identifying with it, and (3) they can explain their own position better. Better yet, the effort of understanding a position that they disagree with develops their reasoning process and maybe even their compassion and ability to empathize with their fellow human beings.

The doubting game has similar benefits. The doubting game is a search for the errors and limitations of the thinking and values that support a position. Discovering logical fallacies, identifying invalid or weak evidence, and uncovering shallow or self-serving values in an argument can result from playing the doubting gamewhether it is the students' own position they are pretending to doubt or opposing views to which they genuinely object. By discovering the limitations of the other side, students can have more confidence in the validity of their views. By discovering by ruthless examination the weaknesses of their own position, they can find better evidence, better reasoning, and more significant values to support it.

In actual practice, the believing and doubting games take written form in three ways: margin annotations, notes, and nonstop freewriting. Here are the instructions:

Write page annotations and notes, reading the text as a believer, agreeing with everything you read. Understand the line of reasoning, seek out the evidence, appreciate the values that support the position. Underline them, identify them in the margins, transfer the annotations to your notebook.

Then read as a doubter, challenging the reasoning and evidence. Look for weaknesses and gaps; reject the values that support the position; come up with problems that the author does not deal with well; think of examples from your experience or reading that counter what the author is saying. Note these objections in the margins; transfer them to your notebook.

As a final step, do two nonstop freewritings of 10-30 minutes each: once as a believer, then for the same length of time as a doubter. Play the roles well; identify with people who hold those beliefs and doubts. Respond to the text and your notes. Use the fast, free-associating, noncensoring process of nonstop, controlled, focused freewriting to promote an emotional and intellectual connection with both sides of the issue.

Many textbook publishers offer anthologies containing opposing views. At least two publishers, Greenhaven Press and Dushkin of McGraw Hill, offer a series of paperback anthologies of opposing views.

8. Assign a mediatory argument promoting a resolution acceptable to both sides.

Whether groups employ the Academic Controversy approach (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2000, 1997) or individuals play the believing-doubting game (Elbow, 1973, 1986), students can be asked to propose a solution acceptable to both sides of an issue. I first learned of the mediatory argument in one of the textbooks I use: The Aims of Argument, 3rd ed. (2000) by Timothy W. Crusius and Carolyn E. Channell; published by Mayfield. As far as I know, it is the only college argument textbook that teaches how to write an argument to mediate or negotiate. All the other textbooks I’ve examined teach how to write and analyze a position paper or persuasive argument, and until I discovered Aims of Argument, they were the only kinds of argument I taught. The purpose of the argument to negotiate, according to Crusius and Channell, is to seek consensus within an audience polarized by differences in a context where there is a need to cooperate and preserve relations.

Like other forms of argument, the mediatory argument requires reasons and evidence and a clear understanding of opposing views. But unlike the argument to support a position or to persuade, the mediatory argument seeks to persuade opposing sides to resolve the matter in a way that satisfies both sides. This approach can extend students’ thinking beyond their simply supporting one side of a dichotomy. Johnson et al. (2000) report that students using their approach in cooperative contexts are better at understanding perspectives other than their own initial position on an issue.

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II. Online Strategies for Promoting Interactivity

All the active-learning strategies for teaching thinking described in section I 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.

Some of the strategies already presented in section I for teaching thinking also promote student-student and student-teacher interaction. The following list of common strategies is gleaned from faculty training sessions and articles on online teaching.

  1. Make clear very early that an online course takes as much time as a classroom course.
  2. Establish guidelines for responses (netiquette).
  3. Create instructor- or student-initiated public discussion topics and make responding part of the course grade.
  4. Create a virtual lounge/cyber café for discussing topics that are peripheral to the other topics or simply for socializing (discussing local sports teams, exchanging interesting websites, giving away kittens).
  5. Send a weekly email message to the class telling them where they should be in the syllabus, announcing new discussion topics, and reminding them of looming assignments.
  6. Remind nonparticipants to get active.
  7. Use chat sessions and study groups, with and without the instructor.
  8. Use collaborative learning techniques for group projects.

To shorten the length of this article, I will forego any commentary about these strategies. A longer list than these eight tips can be found in 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online: Essentials for Web-Based Education by Donald E. Hanna, Michelle Glowacki-Dudka, and Simone Conceição-Runlee, published by Atwood (2000). The website of Electronic Communication across the Curriculum lists many resources for online teaching, including ways to promote interaction. Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom by Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt, published by Jossey-Bass (1999) is another good source. An article in the June 2000 issue of Syllabus magazine offers 12 tips for the new online instructor (Knowlton et al, 2000).

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III. Transforming Students’ Minds

The ideal online students are the stage 3 or 4 self-directed students in the Staged Self-Directed Learning Model (Grow, 1991). They will reach any intellectual transformation the textbook and online teacher persuade them to attain if the textbook and teacher provide strategies for attaining it. Gerald O. Grow's model describes four stages of learners, according to their degree of self-direction.

Stage 1. Dependent learners with low self-direction. These students regard their teacher as the expert authority; they respond well to informative lectures and prefer clear instructions and specific tasks. Being a stage 1 learner is not necessarily a bad state; they can be very disciplined and productive as students and learn a subject well.


Stage 2. Interested learners with moderate self-direction. These students respond well to inspirational lectures and other motivational techniques. They learn from interaction with the teacher and are easily inspired by enthusiastic and charismatic teachers.

Stage 3. Involved learners with intermediate self-direction. Students at this stage see their instructor as a facilitator and themselves as participants in the educational process. They can learn a great deal from open-ended structured group projects. An online course is an ideal environment for them unless they have difficulty with new ways of disciplinary thinking.

Stage 4. Self-directed learners. These students set their own goals and standards; they are autonomous and independent learners. An online course is an ideal environment for them.

Stage 1 and 2 learners can benefit from online classes. Potential online benefits include responding more thoughtfully and thoroughly to teacher-posed questions, becoming more deeply engaged in the issues discussed because of their own and their classmates' thorough and thoughtful responses, and feeling freed from shyness. But potential online losses include becoming bored because of the lack of direct social contact with instructor and other students, learning with difficulty without immediate instructor feedback, and staying intellectually stuck. Stage 1 and 2 learners might learn new ways to think better in a face-to-face classroom, especially if they are having difficulty.

Many teachers would like their students to make these intellectual transformations:

These are changes in attitudes and values and require special effort by both students and professors to achieve.

Promoting 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. Robert Ennis's (1987) list of critical thinking dispositions has guided teachers of critical thinking for many years:

Source: Robert H. Ennis. "A Taxonomy of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities" in Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice; eds. Joan Boykoff Baron and Robert J. Sternberg, p. 12. Freeman, 1987.

Barry K. Beyer (1987) recommends four teaching strategies for teaching these dispositions. All four can be employed online:

1. Model behaviors that demonstrate the desired dispositions.
2. Insist on student behavior that reflects the dispositions sought.
3. Engage students in repeated activities that require use of these dispositions.
4. Reinforce behaviors that demonstrate the appropriate dispositions. (pp. 211-213)

In a later book (1997), Beyer amplifies these recommendations and adds additional strategies such as acknowledging ambiguity and the impossibility or difficulty of achieving certainty on most problems or topics (pp. 78-79).  Dealing with uncertainty is difficult for students at early stages of intellectual development.

Moving 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 two stages in the Perry scheme of cognitive and ethical development (Perry, 1981). A somewhat similar description of the lower two stages of women's intellectual development has been devised by Mary F. Belenky (1986) and her colleagues. In both Perry’s and Belenky’s models, students reach a higher stage when they rely on reasoned judgment to choose their beliefs. If students start the online course merely motivated by obtaining three credits, they can acquire critical thinking competencies but not intellectual transformation. Asking students to consider opposing views and alternative approaches is the best way to move students beyond the first two stages of intellectual growth as described in the Perry and Belenky models.  In the online classroom, students can be inspired to reach higher intellectual stages by the teacher's and the textbook's persuasive strategies and by tasks employing active learning strategieseven if the students don’t start the course motivated by a wish to grow intellectually but just want the three credits.

Both the Perry and Belenky models of intellectual growth present as a final position the mature thinker who seeks to understand the full context of an issue in order to make up his or her own mind. Richard Paul, one of the leaders in promoting critical thinking in education, introduces one more dimension to intellectual growth: fair-mindedness. Paul's (1993a) 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, is primarily concerned with winning arguments--not 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.

In both the asynchronous and face-to-face class, the teacher can exhort the students to fair-mindedness and find in student discussions examples of all three kinds of thinkers. But a face-to-face classroom teacher is likely to find more teachable moments over the 15-week semester that transform the first two kinds of thinkers into the fair-minded thinker.

Understanding Students’ Difficulties in Thinking

Perry’s research (1970) disclosed that some students resisted intellectual development by temporizing, escaping, or regressing. Since Perry’s work in the 1960s, a good deal of research in a variety of fields help us understand why some students will have difficulty not only growing intellectually but learning and applying the reasoning methods in our disciplines. If you employ strategies that promote thinking, these are the kinds of students who will have difficulty handling them:

Some of that research is summarized in Peirce, W. (1998) Understanding students' difficulties in reasoning; part one: Perspectives from several fields; and in Peirce, W. (2000) Understanding students' difficulties in reasoning; part two: The perspective from research in learning styles and cognitive styles.  By using the strategies recommended in this article, a teacher can be as effective online as in the traditional classroom in helping students with difficulties.

Promoting Critical Consciousness

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 discipline. 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 (Giroux, 1994), promoting conformity rather than independent critical examination of the political perspectives that support the concepts (Kaplan, 1994). The theory of conscientization in Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) presents a process of transformation ending in critical consciousness. Freire and those he has inspired see this transformation happening because of classroom dialogue (Stage, Muller, Kinzie, & Simmons, 1998). The democratic, authority-undermining student-teacher dialogue and student-student interaction that promotes critical consciousness might be even more successful  asynchronously than face to face because of the absence of traditional symbols such as podiums and desks facing reverently forward.

Instructors' questions can lead students to consider whether the methods of investigation in their field promote one approach over another. In psychology, for example, does the reigning methodology favor behavioral or pharmacological therapy over analytical therapy? Do research funding sources or procedures privilege some methods or goals over others? Do racial, ethnic, gender, political, economic groups, or corporations gain by some methods of investigation more than others?

Even critical thinking has its challenges: Is the argumentative paper a western, male-dominated, authoritarian, adversarial genre that puts women at a disadvantage, as Huber (1989) has argued?  Academic discourse emphasizes a disguise of objectivity that separates the inquirer from the object of knowing, and it emphasizes that the arguer's goal is dominance over skeptics or rival claims (Ong, 1981). Does the adversarial argument encourage premature closure in student thinking? Do critical thinking courses undermine religious belief? Do they serve liberal or conservative agendas on their campuses?

Does the Physical Presence of the Teacher Make a Difference?

In an article in Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, John Miller (1999) disputes claims made by proponents of computer-mediated communication that asynchronous discussion promotes critical thinking by its very nature. The proponents’ basic claim is that asynchronous discussion “combines the dialogic form of discussion with the greater precision and thoughtfulness allowed by writing” (Miller’s words, citing Harasim, 1989).  Miller notes three advantages claimed by proponents of asynchronous discussion:  (1) the relative anonymity promotes participation by the socially inhibited, (2) participation can be required and monitored by the instructor, and (3) the discussion is more thoughtful than spontaneous face-to-face responses.

But Miller argues that the thoughtful, reflective, composed nature of responses in asynchronous discussion is its chief disadvantage for the teacher of critical thinking. The basic liability of thoughtful asynchronous discussion is that it does not model the messy quality of face-to-face spontaneous oral discussion as an instructor coaxes the critical thinking process of bringing evidence and sound reasoning into the discussion.

Miller explains four reasons why asynchronous discussion undermines the efforts of the instructor of critical thinking:

1. In asynchronous discussions students cannot observe uncritical thought as it is being formed, clarified, and refined by critical thinking processes brought into the ongoing discussion. The first comments made in an oral face-to-face discussion tend to be emotional and prejudiced.  Miller explains, “Such unedited, unconsidered reactions are valuable in revealing the emotions, prejudices, ignorance, and simplifications that underlie unexamined opinions on issues.  A well-managed discussion can demonstrate how to move from these initial reactions to a more thoughtful assessment of an issue” (p. 23).

2. Likewise, asynchronous discussion does not model the process of clarifying a thought as a student or group struggles with the task of finding exactly the precise words to articulate ideas.

3. The advantage claimed by requiring a response in asynchronous discussion is actually a disadvantage in that many required asynchronous  responses are redundant and motivated by the need to fulfill a course requirement, not to further the group’s understanding of an issue. Often asynchronous discussion responders do not “listen” to each other, and many students” comments go unacknowledgeda rude silence that does not occur in the face-to-face classroom.

4. The inefficiency of threaded discussions (especially when they are “open-mike sessions for airing thoughts on the subject”) makes them very hard to manage in a way that teaches the process of critical thinking.  Too often online discussion managers do not take the time or lack the talent to weave disorganized threads together. (Miller acknowledges that this is a talent an online teacher can acquire.)

I understand Miller’s reservations from personal experience.  Miller identifies some of the benefits I derive from teaching in face-to-face classrooms, which I don’t get online. Certainly there are plenty of opportunities in my face-to-face classes for students to reveal their prejudices and oversimplifications and for me to intervene with Socratic questioning that introduces the critical thinking process.  But such responses also turn up in asynchronous discussions (although not as often) where some online students do indeed spontaneously type their unedited, emotional, and prejudiced comments.  In my online class I ask students late in the course to consider in their journals when their earlier asynchronous responses show them applying impulsive emotional thinking and when their responses show evidence and sound reasoning. The advantage in my online class is that the students can review exactly what they wrote and in what context, whereas the face-to-face students have no record of their earlier class discussions.  The self-examination that promotes intellectual growth might be even more likely to occur in the online course.


Analytical and critical thinking can be taught very well online. The reasoning and problem solving required to be a disciplinary practitioner can be taught very well asynchronously.  And teachers should aim higher than just teaching competency at thinking tasks. Teachers should promote intellectual growth and encourage students to question the favored approaches and methodologies that dominate the discipline. Teachers who have perfected face-to-face classroom strategies to engage students and promote their intellectual growth will find they work just as well online.

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