Senior Special Advisor Essential Skills
Dean, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Humber College, as part of a learning outcomes assessment consortium funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), has developed an assessment tool to measure student gains in critical thinking (CT) as expressed through written communication (WC).
In Phase 1 of this project, a cross-disciplinary team of faculty and staff researched and developed a tool to assess students’ CT skills through written coursework. The tool was tested for usability by a variety of faculty and in a variety of learning contexts. Based on this pilot, we revised the tool to focus on two CT dimensions: comprehension and integration of writer’s ideas, within which are six variables: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.
In Phase 2, our key questions were:
- What is the validity and reliability of the assessment tool?
- Where do students experience greater levels of CT skill achievement?
- Are students making gains in learning CT skills over time?
- What is the usability and scalability of the tool?
To answer the first question, we examined the inter-rater reliability of the tool, as well as compared CTWC assessment scores with students’ final grades. We conducted a cross-sectional analysis by comparing diverse CT and WC learning experiences in different contexts, namely our mandatory semester I and II cross-college writing courses, where CTWC skills are taught explicitly and reinforced as course learning outcomes; vocationally-oriented courses in police foundations, where the skills are implicitly embedded as deemed essential by industry; and a critical thinking course in our general arts and sciences programs, where CT is taught as content knowledge.
We also performed a longitudinal analysis by assessing CTWC gains in a cohort of students across two semesters in their mandatory writing courses.
Overall, our tests showed positive results for reliability and validity. Our cross-sectional analysis showed the greatest CT gains in courses where the skill is explicitly taught. Our longitudinal analysis showed only modest gains, indicating that a two-semester span is insufficient for significant improvement to occur.
In terms of usability, faculty agreed that the revised tool was straightforward and easy to apply. However, there was less agreement on the tool’s meaningfulness to students, indicating that further research needs to include student feedback.
- Build faculty buy-in at the outset and recognize workload issues
- Ensure project team members are qualified
- For scalability, align project with other institutional priorities
- Teach CT explicitly and consistently, as a skill, and over time
- Strategically position courses where CT is taught explicitly throughout a program for maximum reinforcement
- Assess and provide feedback on students’ skills at regular intervals
- Implement faculty training to build a common understanding of the importance of essential skills and their assessment
- For the tool to be meaningful, students must understand which skills are being assessed and why
Our project will inform Humber’s new Essential Skills Strategy, which includes the development of an institutional learning outcomes framework and assessment process.
A detailed report, including our assessment tool, will be available through HEQCO in the near future. For further information, please contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com