Your assignment: homework help.
This particular student has trouble grasping aspects of an academic subject. S/he is not motivated to do any independent study and any prescribed assignment garners poor marks, either for its incomplete answers or for not being done at all.
Desperate for academic success, this pupil’s caregivers envisage your supervising his/her work, both the accuracy and completeness thereof.
Is there any room for you to do more?
Might you perhaps find time and opportunity, in your weekly sessions with that student, to foster thinking skills? To plumb his/her depth of thought and bring to light previously untapped cognitive skills – skills s/he might not even know s/he possesses?
Should you go beyond what you have been contracted to do – ensuring that homework gets done and is correct?
Whether you are a classroom teacher who moonlights as a tutor or someone who earns a living strictly by providing academic support outside of school, surely you know that encouraging students to think through their assignments rather than just doing them is an essential part of your function as an educator.
Doing so might already be an integral part of your pedagogy.
On the other hand, if you are new to tutoring or are undecided over whether to follow your clients’ wishes to the letter, working in the best interests of your students’ college and career prospects, you might revise your lesson planning and teaching strategies to also impart thinking skills.
Your Superprof now lays out tips, strategies and learning activities that will help you guide your charges to becoming higher-order thinkers.
Marking the Path Toward Higher-Order Thinking
Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day...
The above quote has been variously attributed to Confucius, Maimonides and the English writer Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie; hers being the earliest-known English language version.
From whomever the saying originated, there is substantial truth in the idea that, if you handicap someone by limiting their access – to food, to work or to knowledge, that person will soon hunger again.
However, arming people to provide for themselves, be it in physical sustenance or intellectual curiosity permits them to be self-reliant in achieving their goals.
This ethical reflection makes the case for educators’ efforts at instilling higher order thinking skills in their students.
According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, three interrelated learning domains underpin a learner’s academic career. They are:
- the cognitive domain, which encapsulates knowledge – analysis, synthesis and comprehension of study material
- the affective domain is emotion-based, which triggers the responding to and valuing of information, as well as the characterisation and organisation of such
- the psychomotor domain includes guided response – maybe executing a math function through step by step prompts and complex overt response, such as those needed for 21st century skills.
General education has traditionally only addressed the cognitive domain.
Pretty much since the inception of compulsory education, it has been the foundation upon which learning objectives are set, the curriculum is structured and assessments are conducted.
That means that fully 2/3 of Blooms Taxonomy is not even addressed which, in turn, means that a substantial portion of the student population’s learning needs is not being met.
That leaves ample room for tutors to help their students develop higher level thinking... with a caveat!
As we pointed out in a companion article, it is entirely possible to push students too hard in fostering higher-order thinking abilities.
The net result of doing so could have disastrous consequences for both your mentoring relationship and on your pupil’s academic success.
That is why it is best to start slowly...
Activities That Promote Critical Thinking Skills
Who, what, when, where, why and how.
These types of questions are a great way to start your students on the path to thinking critically - bearing in mind that doing so does not imply that criticism and finding fault are the order of the day.
Of the six questions featured in the 5W+H above, the last W, ‘why’, is perhaps the most critical.
“Why do you think that?” “Why did that happen?” “Why is that answer the right one?” – should you be going over a just-completed multiple choice answer sheet, for instance.
Simply asking ‘why?’ is an easy way to prime your pupils for thinking and it only takes a few times of your doing so for him/her to anticipate your question and have the answer ready.
It is also an excellent way to assure student engagement – both with you and with the subject material.
Once s/he becomes adept at answering those questions, you can take that game to the next level by having them write down all of the steps they took in arriving at their conclusion to a question you pose.
Not only does that address the psychomotor domain outlined by Benjamin Bloom but it also calls for the student to outline any prior knowledge of the topic in question and fosters metacognition – the understanding of one’s own thought processes.
If you are a school teacher, surely you know how limited opportunities such as these are in class!
Once you are assured of your student’s ability to render reasoned conclusions to questions you pose, you might move on to debating: offering up a topic for discussion and allowing time to prepare arguments.
You may perhaps task him/her to compare and contrast aspects of the topic and explain how s/he arrived at the conclusion s/he reached.
Naturally, debating works better with study groups, where there would inevitably be several opinions offered up.
Once assured that your charges are capable of thinking critically, it is time to tackle the second major branch of higher order thinking.
Cultivating Problem Solving Skills
Critical thinking skills are only half of the equation representing higher order thinking. The other half is problem-solving skills, and fostering those requires finesse as well as a bit of educational psychology.
Educational psychology concerns itself with cognitive development, learning methods and student assessment.
Specifically applied to problem solving, cognitive development addresses how your students process information and how creatively they approach ‘problems’.
The problem may be an open-ended question you pose, a word problem in their math homework or a social problem with other students at school.
Yes, even those can impact student learning!
Let’s assume, for the sake of this discussion that you have posed a challenging question that requires some thought. You get to see their critical thinking skills at work!
1. You might suggest s/he ‘play’ with the problem. This encourages him/her to look at the issue from many different perspectives; you could even suggest a few.
2. Break the problem down into component parts. What is involved? Who is involved? Where did it happen? Why? How? You could then guide him/her to determining the biggest aspect of the problem or the aspect easiest to solve.
5W+H is an excellent tool to use in problem solving activities!
3. Get verbal! Reasoning through a problem out loud helps to slow down thought processes so that students don’t feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue.
Perhaps, if your student is a kinesthetic learner (or particularly agitated), you might suggest s/he write down the main components of the problem on sticky-notes as s/he talks. One sticky for each aspect, and then organise them in order of importance.
4. Focus on the process, not the answer: believe it or not, there is more satisfaction to be had by discussion of all that a problem entails than by arriving at a conclusion.
5. If your student is a bit older (or more cognitively developed), you might try giving only pointed suggestions rather than guiding them to the desired response. Guiding is an effective technique if your student is younger or less intellectually mature.
No matter what the outcome of the problem-solving exercise is – whether or not s/he has arrived at a satisfactory conclusion, positive reinforcement is vital to student success.
After all, the point of such exercises is to think more so than to solve, at least at the outset of this phase of intellectual development, right?
Naturally, once s/he has mastered these skills, s/he would actually have to solve problems and come up with workable solutions.
The good news is that, once you’ve helped your students train their minds to think effectively, coming up with answers to higher order thinking questions will be child’s play rather than a stress inducer.
Does cultivating critical thinking and problem-solving skills take a lot of time and effort?
As a part of your initial interview with students and their caregivers, you would naturally form an idea of that pupil’s cognitive abilities (and preferred learning style!) so that you can determine exactly what is needed from you.
Armed with that background knowledge, as you work together you would continuously gauge his/her progress as a thinker through formative assessment.
The insights you glean through these processes will give you an idea of how you should proceed with fostering higher-order thinking skills.
Will that take you beyond the homework help you were hired to give?
That depends on whether your pupil’s caregivers advocate for giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish...
We intuit that you stand firm on the side of teaching.
Join the discussion: is it more vital to be a problem solver or a critical thinker?