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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

ABSTRACT:  Critical thinking skills (CTS) are the core learning outcome measures for higher education. Generally, CTS are not extensively developed or practiced during primary and secondary education. As such, early cultivation of CTS is essential for mastery prior to collegiate matriculation. Weekly engagement in 50 min of classroom discussion with student feedback (CDSF) was utilized to develop the CTS of students in an introductory food science course at Purdue Univ. Students' critical thinking ability was assessed longitudinally over a 16-wk semester using the ACT-CAAP™ (Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency) critical thinking test. The ACT-CAAP measures the students' ability to analyze, evaluate, and extend an argument described in a short passage. We hypothesized that the implementation of CDSF for 16 wk would expedite development of CTS for students enrolled in the course. The CDSF intervention significantly increased critical thinking ability for non-native English speaking students as compared to native English speaking students. Students who were classified as sophomore status or above when compared to freshmen and students enrolled as food science majors when compared to other majors also demonstrated increased critical thinking ability. Recitation size also significantly influenced critical thinking ability where students enrolled in a relatively small recitation section had elevated critical thinking when compared to the abilities of those students enrolled in a large recitation. These observations suggest that engaging students in classroom discussions with student-led feedback is a useful instructional technique for developing CTS. Further, the data suggest the development of critical thinking skill among food science majors can be augmented when classroom discussions with student-led feedback are conducted in smaller sized recitations.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

A common learning outcome of baccalaureate degree programs is to ensure that graduates have the ability to think critically and logically. Indeed, the ability to utilize critical thinking skills (CTS) has been deemed so relevant that it is a core competency in the IFT Undergraduate Education Standards for degrees in food science (Hartel 2001). These standards categorize critical thinking as a success skill that includes “critical thinking/problem solving skills (that is, creativity, common sense, resourcefulness, scientific reasoning, analytical thinking, and so on)” (Hartel 2001). Paul and Elder (2006) defined critical thinking as “…the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.” The ability of students to apply CTS to new situations recently was ranked by food industry professionals as the most important success skill for undergraduate food science students (Morgan and others 2006). Further, CTS are perceived to have a very high frequency of use (weekly or more often) by food science professionals (Clark and others 2006). Previous research has shown that CTS can be encouraged and assessed via written assignments specifically related to food science topics (Britten and Iwaoka 1999; Schmidt and others 2002; Iwaoka and Crosetti 2008) or classroom activities in non-food science subjects where discussions require students to formulate conclusions based on context and argument evaluation (Tsui 2002). Furthermore, a combination of classroom discussion and feedback corrective writing assignments has been demonstrated to significantly improve students' CTS (Tsui 1999). Specifically, the Tsui (1999) results imply that when students develop a response to a question/problem, and are asked to challenge or expand the responses of their peers, their CTS will be improved regardless of the subject matter. As CTS are developed over time and improve with repeated exposure, curricula that include early CTS development would afford the most opportunity for skill mastery. Previous studies have shown that CTS can begin to be developed in lower level collegiate courses. One study suggests that problem-based learning that included teamwork over several meetings can be successfully utilized as a method for development of critical thinking within a basic level sophomore food science course (Duffrin 2003). Investigations into the use of student-led verbal feedback to enhance context/argument analysis into an introductory (freshmen level) food science course have yet to be done.

Classroom participation in student-led discussion requires not only that students possess CTS but also that they are motivated to use them. Ismail and Hayes (2005) demonstrated that student motivation can be positively influenced by instructor enthusiasm, positive attitude, and use of humor. Therefore, instructional interventions that effectively develop critical thinking require skill and motivation from both the instructor and the student. It has been suggested that critical thinking can be improved based on instructional delivery and student characteristics/attitudes (Williams 2003), where pairing students based on complementary interests (rather than random paring) improves gains in critical thinking skill (Fishbein 1975).

Gadzella and others (1996) showed that when students engaged in critical evaluation of problems via classroom discussion, their CTS improved over a 14-wk period. While this study was similar to the current research, the findings of Gazella's work are not generalizable due to the wide age range (17 to 60) of student participants. To ensure development of CTS, implementation of instructional activities that provide an opportunity for discussion related to topics, concepts, and intellectual skills are necessary. The primary objective of the current study was to examine the effect of CDSF on CTS of students enrolled in an introductory food science course while a secondary objective was to assess students' attitudes about the CDSF dialogues and course in general.

Materials and Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

Participants

Seventy-four students were enrolled in an introductory course in food science. This course was structured to include three 50-min lectures that all students attended simultaneously and one assigned 50-min recitation per week. Twenty-one students were assigned to a recitation section where the majority of students were majoring in food science, while the remaining 53 students attended a recitation with students from various academic majors (such as education, entomology, and agricultural education). Lectures and recitations were administered by the same faculty member within any given week of the semester and discussion scenarios presented to each recitation section were identical. Of the 74 students, 48 (64% women and 36% men) completed a critical thinking assessment twice during the semester and attended 80% of the recitation sessions. CTS from these 48 students were analyzed and presented here.

Intervention implementation

During their assigned recitation sessions, students were engaged in peer-led feedback (50 min per week for 14 wk). The dialogues were a discussion [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] peer-feedback [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] discussion process with the following 5 general steps:

  • 1
    Instructor presented a discussion scenario that focused on the lecture topic at hand.
  • 2
    During class, students were randomly separated into small groups and the scenario was discussed within the groups.
  • 3
    After about 15 min of discussion, a small group shared their points of discussion with the class.
  • 4
    The remaining student groups were asked to challenge (when they disagreed) or expand upon (when they agreed) the points delivered by the 1st group.
  • 5
    Steps 3 and 4 were repeated until all groups had an opportunity to present their discussion points and evaluate all other groups’ discussion points.

Classroom discussion topics

Discussion topics were purposefully related to the lecture topics at hand. Specific discussion topics included asking the students to identify foods they would bring to a “virtual picnic." Then they were given environmental conditions (sunny, 95 °F) of the day and told how long their chosen food items would be subjected to those conditions. Then the students were asked to identify reasons why or why not a particular food item was safe to consume and share that with the class for further discussion/idea expansion or challenges. Another discussion topic employed was that of a “virtual processing line,” where students were asked to provide a food item and then determine the necessary processing steps for complete manufacture of that product from incoming raw material to shipping. Again, as students presented their ideas, opportunities for idea expansion and challenges were encouraged by the instructor.

Instruments

ACT-CAAP™ Test The ACT-CAAP critical thinking test was anonymously administered to the students during week 2 and week 14 of the 16-wk course. The ACT-CAAP critical thinking test is designed to measure the critical thinking ability of college level sophomores by assessing their reasoning ability after reading a short passage.

Attitude survey Students' responses to open-ended questions regarding what they liked about the course and their suggestions for course improvement were collected mid way through the course. Fifty-seven students completed this task.

Statistical analysis

All statistical tests were assessed as significant when the P values obtained were less than 0.05.

ACT-CAAP Test:  Students' scores on the critical thinking test were analyzed in a repeated measures ANOVA model and post-hoc t-tests were conducted as appropriate. No differences were observed between males and females; as such gender differences were not included in the final ANOVA model. Main effects were assessed from 4 variables (academic major, native language, educational level, and recitation size) each with 2 levels.

Attitudes Survey:  Responses were categorized by 2 independent raters and a chi-square analysis was performed on the number of responses that fell into each category.

Results and Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

Academic major

An assessment of the influence of academic major on CTS showed no significant difference in CTS when comparing food science majors to all other majors (F value = 3.17; P value = 0.0833). This finding was not unexpected as there is no evidence to suggest that a student's choice of major is related to critical thinking skill. Post-hoc t-tests revealed a significant improvement in CTS over the course of the semester from food science majors, while students in other majors showed no improvement (Table 1). Interpretation of this finding is tenuous as 14 of the 17 students in the small recitation were freshmen food scientists. When considering this fact, our findings are consistent with those reported by Fishbein (1975) where grouping students by interest increased CTS development.

Table 1—.  Critical thinking scores (mean ± SD) for student and class-room characteristics.
Main effectNPre testPost-testPost hoc t-test P value
Food science2661.61 ± 5.2563.27 ± 5.430.0107
Other majors2262.84 ± 4.3162.86 ± 5.440.3148
Non-native English 858.25 ± 5.2861.10 ± 4.700.0369
Native English4062.97 ± 4.4063.67 ± 5.460.0962
Freshmen2861.78 ± 4.8562.39 ± 5.060.1622
Other educational levels2062.75 ± 4.8964.45 ± 5.710.0312
Small recitation1762.41 ± 5.9064.47 ± 5.910.0149
Large recitation3162.06 ± 5.2562.06 ± 5.040.2006

Recitation size

Statistical analysis revealed a significant difference in the critical thinking scores of students assigned to small compared with large recitation sections (F value = 9.38; P value = 0.0041). This may be due to a direct relationship to student involvement and class size where students in smaller classes are encouraged to participate more due to a lack of anonymity that is inherent in large class sizes. The current results support the findings of Tsui (1999), where a positive relationship between students' engagement in active learning interventions and growth in CTS was reported. The post hoc t-test of CTS from students in the small recitation confirmed a significant improvement in CTS, while students in the large recitation had no significant improvement (Table 1). However, care should be taken when generalizing the results from small versus large recitation size due to the confounding variable of academic major (as mentioned previously).

Native language

A comparison of student performance on the ACT-CAAP critical thinking test revealed a significant effect due to native language spoken (F value = 17.45, P value = 0.0002). Native English speakers had higher CTS at both the pre- and post-testing periods (Table 1). This was most likely confounded by differences in reading ability between native and non-native English speakers. When comparing non-native English speakers’ pre- and post-test scores, a significant improvement was noted (Table 1). This improvement over time was not seen in CTS of native English speaking students (Table 1). Anecdotal classroom observations of the CDSF suggest that non-native English speakers were less inclined to voluntarily participate in the dialog. This may be a function of comfort level with the English language. However, this minimal participation did not minimize enhancement of CTS in non-native English speakers. We suggest that the act of listening and gaining familiarity with new terminology as well as practicing the CDSF activity aids in the development of CTS of non-native English-speaking students. Furthermore, an exploration of avenues that develop non-native English-speaking students' familiarity and comfort level engaging in scientific dialogues in English are warranted as the benefits beyond listening and occasional participation have not yet been assessed.

Educational level

Educational level achieved at the time of testing significantly influenced CTS (F value = 11.38; P value = 0.0018). Significant improvements were observed when comparing CTS from non freshmen students in post hoc analysis, while no improvements were seen from freshmen (Table 1). A similar result was observed when comparing the critical thinking ability of students enrolled in a 4-year institution such that students' length of exposure to post-secondary education had a significant impact on critical thinking ability (Pascarella 1994). Overall the current intervention resulted in an additional 10% of college freshmen and sophomores achieving a critical thinking score at or above the national average for sophomores (62.7 as provided by ACT-CAAP testing Administration Services). Assessment of additional methodology that improves CTS scores for freshmen in general and food scientists in particular is needed.

Students' perception of CDSF

Students' feedback about the course itself indicates that the majority (72%) liked the use of CDSF during the recitation sections due to the interactions with the professor and learning from their peers via open discussion (Table 2). Evidence from previous studies demonstrates that interactions with the course professor have significant influence on gains in critical thinking ability (Smith 1977, 1981).

Table 2—.  Categorizeda student responses regarding aspects of the course they liked.
Comment categoryNumber of responsesPercent of responsesTest percentChi-square statistic
  1. aStudent responses (N= 57) were categorized by 2 independent raters and merged into 5 categories.

Interaction with professor and learning from others2645.6120DF = 4
Discussion1526.3220chi-square
Learned a variety of real applications 814.0420= 31.1579
Comfortable atmosphere 610.5320P < 0.0001
Hands on activity 2 3.5120 

Students were prompted to provide suggestions for course improvement, and approximately 44% suggested some form of smaller group usage either with peers or with the instructor (Table 3). While 17.5% indicated they wanted more detail on how to complete homework assignments, which were written summaries of the CDSF, suggesting that thinking critically and writing about critical thinking are unfamiliar tasks for students. This coupled with the feedback on what students liked about the course strongly suggests that smaller recitation sizes are preferred by students. Smaller class size facilitates greater participation, which also has been shown to enhance critical thinking ability (Smith 1977, 1981).

Table 3—.  Categorizeda student responses for suggestions to improve the course during the second half of the semester.
Comment categoryNumber of responsesPercent of responsesTest percentChi-square statistic
  1. aStudent responses (N= 57) were categorized by 2 independent raters and merged into 8 categories.

Utilize smaller groups1424.5612.5 
More interaction with professor and each individual group during break out sessions1119.3012.5 
More detailed instructions for homework assignments1017.5412.5DF = 7
Don't change anything 610.5312.5chi-square =
Topics are repetitive/ include “hot topics” 610.5312.516.9649
Provide the food topic for discussion a week in advance 5 8.7712.5P= 0.0176
Show videos 3 5.2612.5 
Learn more about ingredients and processing/ demonstrations 2 3.5112.5 

Overall Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

The utilization of small groups for discussion was an effective tool for developing CTS in all students. The CDSF instructional activity was particularly successful in facilitating the development of CTS in freshmen food science students attending small recitation sections. Engaging students in CDSF in smaller class sizes should be strongly encouraged by those teaching introductory level courses for 2 specific reasons: (1) students in the current study appeared to prefer small class sizes to large sizes due to the enhanced level of interaction with the professor and their peers, and (2) smaller class size was associated with large improvement of critical thinking skill. Critical thinking activities are somewhat new to young students and as such they require more detailed information/guidance on “how to think critically.” A further investigation into the development of CTS as influenced by written versus oral communication and small groups compared with independent self-reflection would clarify the most appropriate methods for cultivation of this essential transferable skill within college courses.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

The authors would like to thank Gwen Shoemaker and Tracy Waltz for categorizing the open-ended student responses.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Materials and Methods
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Overall Conclusions and Recommendations
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References
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