Connecting Critical Thinking to Online Learning

My notes on: Thinking Critically about Assessing Online Learning

Johnson, Daniel. (2008). Thinking Critically about Assessing Online Learning. The International Journal of Learning, Volume 14, Issue 12, pp.125-130. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 487.276KB).


The importance of assessment in education coupled with the relevance of student –centered knowledge construction presents a strong case for critical thinking skills being used in online course assessments.

The reasons for assessment include determining student achievement, modifying instruction, and improving curricula.

Two basic forms of assessment are formative and summative.

  • Summative Assessment – a cumulative exam usually having a major role in determining a course grade.
  • Formative Assessment – learners take quizzes throughout a course to demonstrate his/her course knowledge.

Educational psychologists have had an impact on assessment proposing more responsive forms of assessment such as authentic assessment, alternative assessments, and portfolio-based assessment.

Changes in assessment models led to changes in curricula which in turn led to the development of educational taxonomies such as Bloom’s taxonomy.

Evolution of Online Learning

The evolution of education has included an increasing attention to and expansion of technological resources.

  • One-way technologies – print, audio, radio, television, and computer-based learning
  • Two-way technologies – audio and videoconferencing, online chat, and webinars

The result is more individualized learning with less external discipline.

Constructivism – defined as a paradigm that emphasizes the active role of the learner in building understanding and making sense of information. Constructivism encourages learners to develop their own understanding of the course content and thereby figure things out for themselves. Educators are encouraged to explore critical thinking activities when designing assessment in online learning.

Critical Thinking

With roots extending to the early part of the 20th century, critical thinking is an outgrowth of critical theory, a movement associated with the Frankfurt School founded in 1923.

Critical thinking includes thinking for one’s self, using inductive and deductive reasoning skills (Bloom, 1956; Ennis, 1962; Sternberg, 1985) and is “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do [with newly acquired information].

In Dimensions of Thinking: A Framework of Curriculum Instruction (1988), Marzano addressed the concern that high school graduates were not sufficiently prepared to use higher-order thinking skills independently. The authors identified one goal of education as the development of competent thinkers who can learn and make use of knowledge independently.

In the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), Bloom proposed six levels of thought:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

In 2001, Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom’s taxonomy and published Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning. The authors modified the levels of the original taxonomy, added a knowledge dimension, and facilitated the process of student assessment using the taxonomy. The revised taxonomy lists these six levels of thought:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

The new dimension of knowledge compromises four levels of increasingly more complex order:

  • Factual Knowledge
  • Conceptual Knowledge
  • Procedural Knowledge
  • Metacognitive Knowledge

From constructivist paradigms to educational interventions, critical thinking can be understood as a movement based both on theory and applied techniques. Among the goals of this movement is the responsibility to educate independent thinkers and autonomous learners (Paul, 1993).

Norris (1985) highlights several points regarding critical thinking:

  • Critical thinking is an educational ideal
  • Teachers should look for reasoning behind students’ conclusions
  • Having a critical spirit is as important as thinking critically

Online learning often utilizes lower-level cognitive forms of assessment. These include multiple-choice, true-false, and matching items. While not inherently ineffective, these items do not fully address the complexity of higher-order thinking outcomes. They also do not take advantage of the networking possibilities that online education offers.

Using chat rooms, discussion boards, and live chat, students and instructors can collaborate to develop ideas and consider ideas from alternative prospective.

Gunawaredena, Lowe, and Anderson (1997) articulated several components of online discussions including: sharing and comparing information; discovering and exploring conflicts; negotiating meaning and collaborative knowledge construction; testing and modifying proposals; and applying originally constructed meanings (cited in Sigla, 2005).