Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Critical Thinking and the Web Lesson Plan Analysis

(I am posting this as en example of a reflective analysis paper for teaching as an example for students in my course. If others find it helpful or weird, so be it. Not like this blog gets tons of traffic.)

On October 25th, 2006 I taught a class for EAD 680 at Central Michigan University. The topic of the session was critical thinking. Although I was not feeling well, I believe the class was successful and that students learned. Looking back at the class, I believe I did exhibit one of the five Pratt teaching perspectives. Further, I think I have an understanding of what I did well and some of the areas I might be able to improve upon in the future.

The Lesson Plan

I divided the lesson into three distinct parts. This included an introductory lecture based on the 19th century Cardiff Giant, class discussion based on two articles, and a web evaluation exercise I called “Hoax or Just Strange? A Web Evaluation Exercise.” The entire lesson was supposed to last an hour but it wound up going for an hour and fifteen minutes. I believe I know the reason for this and it is one of the points I will be addressing when I look at weaknesses in the lesson plan.

I began with the Cardiff Giant story. This was a straight lecture for about five minutes which related a story from 19th century America that helps to emphasize the importance of critical thinking. I usually start each section of my LIB 197 class off with this story before I even hand out the syllabus. My delivery was off a bit and I had to backtrack some but I think I was successful in relating the story and then connecting it back to the topic of critical thinking.

The second part of the lesson had the class discussing two articles from the assigned readings. This included “Teaching for critical thinking” by Diane Halpern and "Writing and thinking" by John Bean. I created a list of questions in advance to ask about each article. The students were slow to respond and I may have spoken to soon in response. However, as people started talking, I had less need to facilitate as the students became engaged in the topic. In fact, I needed to cut off the conversation so that there would be time to complete the entire lesson.

I had a small class (8 students) and I passed each a website address to examine and evaluate. Each website was accompanied by a set of four questions.

These were:

1. What is this site about? For what purpose was it created?

2. What evidence do you see that would indicate this is a valid site for information?

3. What evidence do you see that would indicate that this might not be a good site for finding valid information?

4. In your opinion, is this a hoax site? If not, would it be a good site to use for information even if you think the site is strange or out of the mainstream?

Each student got a different site. Sites used included:

Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus - (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/)

Texas Independence Movement - (http://www.texasrepublic.com/)

Southern Lake Michigan - Where You Will Meet The Whales and Dolphins! (http://www.lakemichiganwhales.com/)

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement - (http://www.vhemt.org/)

A Concise Grammar of Feorran -(http://www.lib.montana.edu/~bcoon/feorran.html)

The First Human Male Pregnancy - (http://www.malepregnancy.com/)

Shards O'Glass - (http://www.shardsoglass.com/)

Dominion of British West Florida - (http://dbwf.net/)

Before I passed out the exercise, I went over with the class what to look for when evaluating a site. I used Five Criteria for Evaluating Web Pages from Cornell (http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/webcrit.html) as a guide. The students offered suggestion and I wrote these on the board as well.

The students had mixed success. They correctly identified the whale watching, shards of glass, male pregnancy, and tree octopus sites as being hoaxes. They correctly identified the Texas independence and the human extinction movement as real. They mistakenly labeled West Florida independence site a hoax. They also believed the Feorran site was real.

After the results were shared, I again (briefly) went over criteria for web evaluation and how the points could be used in looking at the sites. The students agreed that they were helpful when looking at these sites and that even the real sites would not be good sources for unbiased information. For example, the Texas independence site would be good for getting information on Texas separatists but it would not be a good source for Texas history due to political bias.

As a side note, I wrote up the web evaluation exercise and posted it on my information literacy blog last week. I did change the circumstances of the class a little though. Over the weekend, a major news website (Ars Technica) included the post in a story about information literacy posting. I have attached both the blog post and the article to the end of this paper.

Pratt Teaching Perspective

Looking at the Pratt teaching perspectives, I can see my teaching in this session to be reflective of several perspectives including transmission, apprenticeship, and developmental. For example, the Cardiff Giant lecture I started with is clearly a transmission approach. However, I think the dominant teaching perspective was a developmental one. Both the open discussion about the two articles and the web evaluation exercise were primarily developmental in tone.

There are several advantages to a developmental approach. The goal of this approach is to help students develop more complex cognitive structures for understanding content. If questions and exercises are structured well, students can move from simple thinking on a topic to more in-depth critical thinking skills on the subject. Also, the questions and exercises can also help the students relate the content to their prior learning if the lesson can bridge the content to prior student knowledge.

There are some disadvantages to this approach. For one, well crafted lessons incorporating a developmental perspective take time. It takes longer to present the session this way in contrast to transmission approach based on lecture. Less content can be covered in the same amount of time. This was very clear to me. The open discussion and the web evaluation exercise took much longer to get through than I thought it would. This was my biggest surprise of the session.

In addition, some students resist the developmental approach as they have grown used to or just prefer another perspective such as transmission. If a student likes lectures, he may be angry that a teacher is using discussion or group exercises to teach. If the teach is the expert, why is he note telling me what he knows? This can cause a problem for a teacher using a developmental model.


I brought several assumptions into this session. To begin, this is a class composed of graduate students. I assumed there would be big differences between them and the undergraduates I normally teach. At one level, this was true. The students were more motivated to contribute to a discussion. In addition, I assumed the students would perform better at the web evaluation exercise. This was true as well.

However, one student failed to identify her site as a hoax. This was directly related to technology I believe. I am used to students who can operate a mouse and find and navigate web pages. This student was older and she had difficulty with this task. As she never really had a good chance to evaluate the site in question, she just guessed. Clearly, my assumptions about the abilities of the students in regards to technology were wrong for one student in this session.

As mentioned previously, I was surprised by the amount of time my session took. I had believed that an hour would have been sufficient. This assumption was incorrect. Both the discussion and web evaluation exercise portions of the lesson expanded beyond what I intended.


Overall, I think this was a successful teaching experience. I believe I lead the discussion and the web evaluation exercise well and the students gained a better understanding of critical thinking and one way which the skill could be taught in an active learning format. However, as I have noted, there are some areas I can improve.

Things I think went well:

1. I believe the brief Cardiff Giant lecture peaked the interest of the students as was an appropriate lead into a class that would actually have little lecture. This allowed me to engage students with a differing teaching perspective than I used later.

2. The discussion questions I asked were appropriate for the readings and lead to some good conversation on critical thinking.

3. I was good at allowing students to speak what they thought about the articles and the web sites. However, I also used good judgment in moving the conversation forward when discussion was taking up too much time one a single point.

4. The web evaluation exercise was very hands on and appropriate for the topic of critical thinking. Students were engaged with it and I believe many will remember this exercise later when they themselves are thinking about how to teach about the web or critical thinking.

Things I would change:

1. The two articles I picked for discussion may not have been the best for teaching about critical thinking. In particular, “Teaching for critical thinking” by Diane Halpern was not well received by me or the students. I would use a different article next time.

2. I would ask fewer questions in the discussion of the articles to leave more time for the web evaluation exercise.

3. If possible, I would team students up to evaluate web sites. This would reduce the chances that a student would not have the technical skills to find and navigate a web site. With a small class, this was difficult. Perhaps when I noticed the student in difficulty I should have stayed with the student and helped with the page navigation?

Final Conclusion

Despite being ill, I enjoyed this experience. One thing I have learned about myself in my time in academia is that I enjoy getting up and teaching. I have had to work to get beyond just lecturing (which is my preference) to get to a more active learning approach. I think as time has gone by, I have definitely developed a more developmental perspective on my teaching even though I still like to go back to the lecture transmission perspective. I think this class session has shown my growth in this area.

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