Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

April 1, 2013

Making thinking visible

Evidence-based teaching involves making students’ thinking visible to the instructor and to the students themselves, uncovering students’ prior knowledge and assumptions in order to build on them. It also involves making the instructor’s thought process visible to students, modeling how an expert in the discipline thinks through issues and solves problems.

Helping students understand and organize their ideas

“Understanding what students know—or think they know—coming into our courses can help us design our instruction more appropriately. It allows us not only to leverage their accurate knowledge more effectively to promote learning, but also to identify and fill gaps, recognize when students are applying what they know inappropriately, and actively work to correct misconceptions,” write the authors of How Learning Works. They add that activating students’ prior knowledge can help them learn and retain more: “In essence, new knowledge ‘sticks’ better when it has prior knowledge to stick to,” and students may need help to “bring their prior knowledge to bear on new learning situations.”4 A wide range of approaches can help students reveal and organize knowledge and apply it in new contexts, such as concept mapping,5 digital storytelling,6 and “thinking out loud” in discussions and brainstorming sessions held in either face-to-face or online spaces.

UW instructors share some of the ways they help students uncover their prior knowledge and build their understanding of content, concepts, and connections between ideas.

  • Concept mapping: “I have had good luck breaking students into groups and having them create concept maps, using the central theme of the course or a research assignment as the central concept for the maps. Then students trade concept maps and add any missing issues, events, scholars, or theoretical perspectives.” — Amanda Hornby, Undergraduate Instruction Coordinator, Odegaard Undergraduate Library, UW Seattle
  • Free writing7 to build on prior knowledge: “I assign low-stakes, ungraded writing in all my courses, whether undergraduate or graduate. As many writers have commented, writing a draft tells you what you think. Low-stakes writing gives students the opportunity to discover what they think, what they know, and what they don’t know. It also gives them practice writing the way professionals and scholars write.” — Beth Kalikoff, Director, Center for Teaching and Learning, UW Seattle; Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma
  • Creating digital spaces for thinking out loud: “I’ve evolved from using discussion boards on a Learning Management System,8 like Canvas or Blackboard, to having students create their own digital spaces for ‘thinking out loud’: blogs, Twitter, and annotated shared bookmarking9 of resources that students bring to the course. I also create a Google Doc10 with ‘opening questions’ on the first day of class. Students all add their thoughts and ideas to this while it’s projected, so we can watch their combined ‘prior thinking and experiences’ on the screen as the document grows, and then talk about these together. — Jane Van Galen, Professor, Education, UW Bothell
Mapping ideas visually can help students organize and illustrate their thinking. Approaches include mind-mapping and concept-mapping. Students can go low-tech, using whiteboards or pen and paper to map their ideas, or work with software such as (pictured above).

Mapping ideas visually can help students organize and illustrate their thinking. Approaches include mind-mapping and concept-mapping. Students can go low-tech, using whiteboards or pen and paper to map their ideas, or work with software such as (pictured above).

Modeling expert thinking

Uncovering student thinking is important, but making thinking visible also includes sharing the instructor’s thinking process with students. Research shows that novices and experts in a discipline approach problems quite differently. Novices, such as undergraduates, tend to focus on discrete and tangible labels, formulas, and terminology, while experts focus on transferable and generalizable patterns.11 “One big difference between novices and experts is that novices only see the superficial details of a problem while experts see the underlying foundational concept or pattern,” says Mary Pat Wenderoth, Principal Lecturer of Biology at UW Seattle.

Students in Computer Science and Engineering

Students in Computer Science and Engineering

To develop their critical thinking skills, students need exposure to the ways experts think. They benefit from observing how scholars organize knowledge, both in general and within their discipline. Instructors can help by describing their own problem-solving processes and explicitly revealing the norms and knowledge structures of their field.12

Modeling expert thinking can be as straightforward as working through a problem out loud in front of students.

  • Narrating the expert’s thinking process: Assistant Professor A.J. Boydston models his thinking process for students by thinking out loud when working through chemistry problems, both in class and via video answer keys he posts for students to watch as they correct their work at home. He says,“I try to get the students in the mindset of assessing the problem, rather than trying to immediately fit the problem into some memory bank and regurgitate semi-related information as an answer. I sometimes deliberately comment on some possible red herrings and how I snuff those out to get to the best answer. They’ve loved it.” — A.J. Boydston, Assistant Professor, Chemistry, UW Seattle

This approach can be especially powerful when the instructor walks through a novel challenge, one he or she is truly grappling with in real-time, such as in research settings where students observe faculty solving problems first-hand.

In other cases, instructors build development of expert thinking into the whole curriculum, with science instructors repeatedly asking students to connect content to “big ideas,” and history instructors reminding students what counts as evidence in historical analysis. Across disciplines, instructors find it valuable to clearly and regularly identify themes, highlight discipline-specific language, and connect disparate information.

  • Analyzing clues in historical artifacts: “I use a lot of artifacts, like images of paintings and architecture. First, I introduce the historical context of the artifact, then ask students to think like detectives and historians. For example, in court portraiture from the Mughal Empire, I ask students to look at how social hierarchy appears in this art and how that reflects the way the emperor wanted to be perceived by his subjects.” — Purnima Dhavan, Associate Professor, History, UW Seattle
  • Making explicit the expectations of the field: Associate Professor Arnie Berger holds students to professional standards. “I try to set expectations for what is expected of an electrical engineering professional. I also drum into them that anything that they hand in is considered work product and is their intellectual property, and that it should be professionally prepared, because an engineer would never submit a piece of work to their boss that was written in pencil and torn from a notebook. I also teach them how to ask questions in a professional manner. This is tough to do because they are naturally fearful of appearing ignorant.”
  • Berger says students’ ability to think like a professional often crystallizes during capstone courses. “For the first month or so they just tread water; they are still thinking like students, which means that they look at the assignments or exams due that week and make value judgments about how to partition their time so that they can maximize their grade. By the end of the six-month capstone, the students are able to discuss schedules, task specifications, and test plans as if they were engineers doing the same work. They have ‘bought into’ their projects and have a personal stake in their success.” — Arnie Berger, Associate Professor, Chair, Engineering and Mathematics, School of Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics, UW Bothell

Making thinking visible uncovers students’ prior knowledge, helps them build on that knowledge, and shows them how to think like a profession.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how students learn and how technology helps.

Additional resources for teaching with technology.

For a full list of referenced works, click here.