What happened to critical thinking in writing?

One professor’s struggles to help move students beyond summarizing what they’ve read to evaluating what they’ve read.

I had a strange experience recently with a writing assignment in my Adolescence course. I typically assign two of what I call Thought-Provoking Assignments (TPA) in which students read and write about the content of the articles. I’ve alternated articles over the years—sometimes it is a rich op-ed piece from the newspaper, an excerpt from a chapter, a popular magazine piece, or a research article. For the first TPA, I have used some articles from The Prevention Researcher. Since the second TPA falls around the time in class around teen sexuality, I try to find something accessible. Students, at this point in the semester, are fairly relaxed with one another and discussing their own experiences as teens. Sex, though, often raises the anxiety level because I think students feel like they may disclose information they don’t want to, have many experiences they want to share, or have few experiences and don’t want to reveal any information. I decided to assign an article from the excellent Decade in Review issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence, entitled Normative sexuality development in adolescence: A decade in review, 2000-2009  by Tolman and McClelland, 2011.

Tolman and McClelland do a great job of summarizing terminology, new findings in adolescent sexual behaviors, gay and lesbian issues, sexual socialization among other emerging trends.The article, as a review article, is not bogged down with statistics that students gloss over and presents the information in a way that is academic and scholarly without sounding arcane.Based on the content, the students were to respond to the ideas presented, and based on what they read, suggest a point of intervention.

What I got was, for the most part, a summary of the article. Yup, students essentially condensed down the findings in the article with no critical analysis of the findings, no reaction to the ideas, and no surprises from the authors’ results. First, I thought that my assignment prompt was vague. Since it was disseminated electronically via course management software, I knew students had to see it. Here’s the prompt:

For TPA #2, read the article provided on adolescent sexuality. Reflect on the ideas presented by the authors. You may note any assertions that stood out for you or ideas that particularly surprised you or resonated for you.

Based on what you read, suggest a potential intervention to improve or enhance adolescent development.

Your essay will be evaluated based on how well you support your assertions, using and/or incorporating ideas from the article. In addition, your writing ability to express your ideas is also being assessed in this assignment.

The outcome should be 2 to 3 pages, double spaced, 1-inch margins, 12 point font.

This inconsistency made for difficult grading. Technically, the writing was typical student writing (i.e., commas were rare, pronoun-antecedent problems, etc.), but the substance had totally missed the boat. I checked the enrollment to see if it was mostly students from one major who were just regurgitating the article. It was not.

I ended up trying not to hold it against the students for demonstrating such poor critical thinking and to look harder at what they did write to pick out the jewels of thought when apparent.

After grading the assignment, I spoke to the class to ask what they thought was the assignment. They understood the assignment, but I think got lost on the way. I will share the blame for not clearly reiterating the parameters of the assignment and assuming that upper-division university students know that critical thinking is required for these kinds of assignments. But, I also fault my colleagues in their previous instruction. Increasingly, I find that many students are not exercising their critical edge in thinking about the material presented—writing assignments or otherwise. Somehow, students have gotten the impression that college is about sucking in as much knowledge as possible and spitting it out in contrived assignments. The message that their learning is making them a better person capable of contributing to the larger society has dissipated in these times of rising tuition (and working more hours) and attacks on the value of higher education. To me, the value of higher education is really in developing critical thinking skills. For the next time, I will be sure to note, for students, how this assignments ties in to the bigger picture.

On a side note, in preparing for class, I stumbled across a video resource I had not known. www.scenariosusa.org is a non-profit that works with teens to produce films about teen problems and teen life in general. The production value is good and the videos can be streamed. I believe Pearson Publishing has incorporated some into their resources, however, others that scenariosusa.org provides may also be useful.