Getting the Timing Right: Critical Thinking Online

If we want students to remember what we teach–and, what teacher doesn’t?–we’ve got a vital strategy: spread practice out over time.

We’ve got scads of research showing that the same number of practice problems results in a lot more learning if those problems are spread out over days and weeks, compared to being done all at once.

We call this the spacing effect, and it’s as solid a finding as we’ve got in the field of educational psychology.

As teachers interested in psychology research, we should always be asking: “yes, but does that work in my specific context.”

For instance: if research shows that college students learn stoichiometry better in a flipped-classroom model, that doesn’t necessarily mean that my 3rd graders will learn spelling better that way.

In the language of psychology research, we’re looking for “boundary conditions.” What are the limits of any particular technique?

The Spacing Effect Meets Critical Thinking

Researchers in Canada wanted to know: does the spacing effect apply to the teaching of critical thinking?

Of course, we want our students to be effective critical thinkers. But, there’s heated debate about the best way to teach this skill.

Lots of people doubt that critical thinking can be taught as a free-standing skill. Instead, they believe it should be nested in a specific curriculum.

That is: we can be critical thinkers about sonnets, or about football play-calling strategy, or about the design of bridges. But, we can’t learn to think critically in an abstract way.

The Canadian researchers start with that perspective, and so they teach critical thinking about a specific topic: the reliability of websites. And, they go further to ask: will the spacing effect help students be better critical thinkers?

In other words: if we spread out practice in critical thinking, will students ultimately practice their critical craft more effectively?

The Research; The Results

To answer this question, researchers used a 3-lesson curriculum exploring the credibility of websites. This curriculum asked 17 questions within 4 categories: the authority of the website’s authors, the quality of the content, the professionalism of the design, and so forth.

Half of the 4th-6th graders in this study learned this curriculum over 3 days. The other half learned it over 3 weeks.

Did this spacing matter? Were those who spread their practice out more proficient critical website thinkers than those who bunched their practice together?

In a word: yup.

When tested a month later, students who spread practice out were much likelier to use all four categories when analyzing websites’ reliability. And, they used more of the 17 questions to explore those four categories.

To Sum Up

This research leads us to two encouraging, and practical, conclusions.

First: we can help our students be better critical thinkers when they analyze websites. (Heaven knows that will be a useful skill throughout their lives.)

Second: we can improve their ability by relying on the spacing effect. As with so many kinds of learning, we get better at critical thinking when we practice over relatively long periods of time.

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