Evaluation of the Process of Learning: an educational programme engaging first year college students in critically reflecting upon how they learn

Fitzgerald, David (2001). Evaluation of the Process of Learning: an educational programme engaging first year college students in critically reflecting upon how they learn. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000dc93


This thesis evaluates the effectiveness of having students reflect upon their experiences of learning and use of critical thinking in their first year of study at University. Specifically, it responds to the debate on whether teaching a general course on critical thinking skills constitutes a 'syntax or semantic' for the students. McPeck (1990) initiated this debate, claiming that teaching general courses on critical thinking skills do not improve students' processes of reasoning. He believes that such courses are not meaningful to students and their learning, stating that the thinking skills the students require, must instead be derived directly from the subjects that they are studying. Educators such as Paul (1991; Siegel 1990) disagree with McPeck and argue that these courses improve students' reasoning processes at University level.

In responding to this debate, I designed an introductory critical thinking skills course entitled the Process of Learning. This course was implemented with first year students enrolled on a design and media management course at a University in the United Kingdom. This case study was evaluated using an action research methodology. The findings of this research are discussed within the framework of student learning theory and the learning environment. The data includes student and staff interviews conducted over 18 months, triangulated findings from the course sessions and analysis of related assignments.

This research found that students can benefit from first year introductory critical thinking courses in several ways. Students become sensitised or aware of the critical thinking skills that they use in first year. The subsequent application of these skills can lead to improvement in learning quality outcomes in subsequent studies. Students with a higher level of competency discuss these thinking skills more coherently and recognise their personal responsibility in learning. Students achieve insights into their own personal perception of learning and begin to assess objectively the implications of what they have learnt from this. Wide ranging feedback from students discussing critical thinking skills and learning activities can provide a medium for staff committed to improving both pedagogy and the curriculum. Better understanding of critical thinking skills can improve the students' confidence in learning.

Further insights are presented in this research that help us to further understand the nature of `confidence' in learning. Students identified a number of difficulties with the Process of Learning. This would appear initially to support McPeck's belief that such courses arc not helpful to students in the first year of study. However, four key findings are presented in this thesis which explain why these difficulties arose. Consequently, this research supports educators who advocate the teaching of general critical thinking skills courses in higher education, due to the benefits for students and staff. It concludes that the 'syntax versus semantic' dichotomy is an oversimplification of the debate and explains why this is so. Finally, suggestions are made for future research directed at integrating critical thinking skills courses across the degree level at University.

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