Utilizing structured online discussion to promote critical thinking in higher education




Zhou, Hong

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Rapid advances in digital technologies change not only work and personal spaces, but also increasingly change the face of higher education. Considering the important role critical thinking plays in higher education, it is reasonable to apply computer-mediated tools in attempts to teach critical thinking. In order to have a better understanding of the potential impact such tools have on critical thinking, empirical studies must inform the field.

The purpose of this study was to explore the impact structured online discussions have on the development of the participants’ critical thinking practices. Participants in this quasi-experimental design study were enrolled in concurrent sections of an undergraduate course; one section served as treatment group, the other as control group. A mixed-method approach was used to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data. The conclusions include the following:

• The students’ perception of critical thinking and their enacted critical thinking were improved over time via practice;

• The students receiving highly specific guidelines improved to a great extent on their perceptions of critical thinking relative to skills and disposition but not relative to knowledge;

• The students receiving highly specific guidelines maintained a relatively stable demonstration of critical thinking at low and moderate level, while the students receiving general guidelines demonstrated an increase in low level critical thinking and a decrease in moderate level;

• The students’ higher level critical thinking could be affected by more factors than the specificity of guidelines, such as topic of discussion and role in the team.

This study contributes to multiple theories and practices including the Technology-Performance Chain model, the Community of Inquiry framework, and the teaching of critical thinking in general, as well as to the practice of teaching and learning in higher education setting.


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Critical thinking, higher education, instruction, online discussion, quasi-experimental



Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching