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The focus of the project I worked on in the Institute was improving the way I teach critical thinking skills and the assessments I use to measure them. Most of the progress on this front was achieved in a Master’s course, which implements a structured analysis of three recent papers from diverse fields of biology and group exercises in designing experiments. A critical step that occurred following the institute was recruiting two excellent collaborators: a current Biomedical Sciences PhD student who had TA’d for me and had expressed interest in education research and a faculty from the Dept. of Psychology, who specializes in statistical analysis.


To determine whether this course had measurable effects on students’ critical thinking skills, my collaborators and I designed a pre- and post-quarter test in which students analyze data and evaluate a hypothesis based on two related biological experiments, and design a follow-up experiment. The test was administered in Fall 2012 to 30 Master’s students enrolled in the course. Two similar versions of the test were administered using counterbalanced design, such that half of the students had version A first, and half had version B first. Tests were evaluated by me and the PhD student, where we were blind to both students' identities and to pre/post status of the test. Inter-rater reliability was high for all relevant ratings (Cronbach alphas > 0.90). Statistically significant increases were present for students’ abilities to design a controlled experiment (12% increase, p=0.009) and analyze data in quantitative terms (26% increase, p=0.005). Analysis of anonymous pre- and post-surveys showed statistically significant (p < .0001) increases in students’ self-evaluation of skills in analyzing data from research papers, evaluating authors’ conclusions, and designing experiments (Figure below).


Not less interesting was what students were NOT improving in (at least according to our pre- and post- tests), namely, skills of analysis and evaluation. This Summer, I plan to re-design my instructional approach to increase the analysis and evaluation component of the course. The possibilities I am currently considering are:

a.     Following the CREATE approach (Hoskins et al., 2007), provide students only with the figures, without the text

b.     Select pairs of articles which results are contradict each other. Students will be asked to analyze the strength and weaknesses of the two papers and evaluate the relative strengths of the arguments presented in both papers.


My long-term goal is to introduce more activities that promote critical thinking in my undergraduate courses and develop questions that assess students’ progress in developing critical thinking skills.

Figure: Changes in students’ self-evaluations of skills in various aspects of critical thinking. Average percentage change between the beginning of the quarter and end of the quarter anonymous evaluations of skills in:

Red bar: Interpreting data in a paper outside of my area of research. SEM = 3.7%.

Blue bar: Independently drawing conclusions from data presented in a paper outside of your area of research. SEM = 3%

Green bar: Critically evaluating authors’ conclusions in a paper outside of your area of research. SEM  = 4.4%

Magenta bar: Proposing an experiment, with the appropriate controls, that would follow up on a paper outside of your area of research. SEM = 4.8%


N = 27. *** indicates p > .0001





Coil D, Wenderoth MP, Cunningham M, Dirks C. (2010) Teaching the process of science: faculty perceptions and an effective methodology. CBE Life Sciences Education 9(4): 524-35.


Hoskins SG, Stevens LM, and Nehm RH (2007) Selective Use of the Primary Literature Transforms the Classroom Into a Virtual Laboratory. Genetics 176: 1381–1389

White, B., Stains, M., Escriu-Sune, M., Medaglia, E., Rostamnjad, L., Chinn, C., and Sevian, H. (2011) A Novel Instrument for Assessing Students’ Critical Thinking Abilities. Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 5, p. 102-107.

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