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One that seems to be working: asking undergraduates to conduct actual scientific research.It may seem implausible or impractical to expect college students to carry out authentic experiments—as opposed to “cookbook” lab exercises with a preordained result.“The discovery-based, unpredictable nature” of the antibiotics research, the authors speculate, “might engage student attention and curiosity more than standard labs, which may have contributed” to the positive result.
of a p53 student-research project conducted by biologists at Stanford University found that the experience helped shift undergraduates’ conceptions of what it means to “think like a scientist,” from novice to more expert-like.
Using a set of open-ended written prompts, the authors found that by the end of the course, students identified experimental repetition, data analysis and collaboration as important elements of thinking like a scientist.
Meanwhile, students’ performance on course exams demonstrated gains in their ability to analyze and interpret data.
Comments collected from undergraduate participants confirm the researchers’ conclusions: “Before, I would have been more prone to quickly accept the results from science experiments as being always correct,” said one student.
“But because this course taught us to question our results and look for possible sources of errors, I developed a more critical eye when interpreting experimental results.” Remarked another student: “I am happy that errors occurred in the process, because troubleshooting them really helped me develop greater critical thinking skills, instead of just following the protocol.” conducted at Florida Atlantic University, where undergraduates were challenged to discover new antibiotics produced by soil bacteria that the students isolated from local habitats.
Researchers at the university gave participating students a critical-thinking test before and after they worked on identifying novel antibiotics (an undertaking that, not incidentally, addresses a worldwide health threat: the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics).The test required students to analyze and interpret information; to draw accurate and warranted inferences; and to evaluate inferences and explain why they represent strong reasoning or weak reasoning.Although other types of interventions have generated little or no improvement in student scores on this test, the Florida Atlantic researchers found that taking part in the antibiotic-finding CURE did significantly increase students’ critical-thinking scores—while the scores of students who were enrolled in a traditional cookbook-style lab stayed the same or actually declined.To my surprise, that turned out not to be the case.Several readers took me to task for being “cold” and “emotionless,” suggesting that my understanding of critical thinking, which I had always taken to be almost universal, was mistaken.It means being “analytical,” breaking an issue down into its component parts and examining each in relation to the whole.Above all, it means “dispassionate,” recognizing when and how emotions influence judgment and having the mental discipline to distinguish between subjective feelings and objective reason—then prioritizing the latter over the former.But that’s exactly what Generally understood, CUREs have five defining characteristics.First, they contain an element of discovery: the student scientists are bringing brand-new data to light.I wrote about all this in a recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, mostly as background for a larger point I was trying to make.I assumed that virtually all the readers would agree with this definition of critical thinking—the definition I was taught as a student in the 1980s and which I continue to use with my own students.