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).

Assessments: Moving From Information to Interaction

I was reading this post today by Bill Ferriter – What If Schools Created a Culture of “Do” INSTEAD of a Culture of “Know?” and it reminded me of something that I had written on authentic assessment as part of my dissertation.

Assessment is an important part of learning. Authentic assessment, which often includes a project or performance, is not just a fun and engaging activity; it is a true test of a student’s abilities. Performances can be individual projects or groups of students working together toward a common goal. The performance gives students the chance to show what they have learned and for the teacher to assess their abilities (Furger, 2002). Authentic assessment broadens the kind of information that is collected about students and the way that information is used in the evaluation of learning. Authentic assessment is not the random recall of previously covered material, but instead scaffolds the knowledge each student brings to the learning situation.


Standardized tests, made up of mostly true-false and multiple-choice questions, test basic knowledge and skills rather than encouraging creative, critical thinking, the type of learning that will prepare students for the 21st century (Corbett & Wilson, 1991; Shepard & Smith, 1988; Smith & Cohen, 1991). Standardized tests encourage instruction of less important skills and passive learning. Lawmakers and parents argue that assessing minimum levels of proficiency is no longer sufficient in a competitive, global world. Schools should focus on developing students skills and competencies in real-life, “authentic” situations, and graduate students who can demonstrate these abilities. Authentic assessments are better than standardized tests at matching the skills students learn in school with the skills they will need upon leaving school (Winking & Bond, 1995).

The term Web 2.0 signified the shift from the Information Age to the Age of Interaction; from one-way communication to two-way interaction encouraging communities instead of consumers or customers. The web shifted from a medium in which information was mostly transmitted and consumed to a platform in which content was created, shared, remixed, repurposed, and passed along.

Young people today, sometimes called “Generation Y,” “Millenials,” or “Echo Boomers,” are being described by researchers as individuals whose lives have been shaped by the Internet and the constant introduction of new electronic devices. They integrate the latest technologies into the way they work, relax and socialize. For them, email is old school; “Millennials” relish the speed and mobility of text messaging.

Past generations made do with the telephone and television, today’s generation has access to those devices plus video games, the Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, and videos and music that can be downloaded in an instant. The “Net Generation” has grown up in a wired world and they are digital, connected, experiential, and social (Oblinger, 2005) and we should consider that when we formulate our assessment strategies.

Benefits of Using ePortfolios for Authentic Assessment

Some of my notes on ePortfolios from “Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning.”

There are 5 Essential Elements of a Personalized Learning System

  1. Flexible, Anytime/Everywhere Learning
  2. Redefine Teacher Role and Expand “Teacher”
  3. Project-Based/Authentic Learning Opportunities
  4. Student Driven Learning Path
  5. Mastery/Competency-Based Progression/Pace

ePortfolios are a collection of digital resources that:

  • provide evidence of an individual’s progress and achievements •
  • are drawn from both formal and informal learning activities •
  • are personally managed and owned by the learner •
  • can be used for review, reflection and personal development planning •
  • can be selectively accessed by other interested parties.

According to Graham Attwell, an e-portfolio has seven functions which can be mapped against different pedagogic processes:

  • recognizing,
  • recording,
  • reflecting,
  • validating,
  • presenting,
  • planning, and
  • assessing learning.

Many different types of evidence can be used in an e-portfolio and include:

  • samples of writing
  • photographs
  • video
  • research projects
  • observations by supervisors, assessors or mentors
  • reflective thinking about all these.

An e-portfolio may contain examples of the following types of content:

  • coursework
  • assessment work
  • achievement of individual learning outcomes
  • aggregated credit towards awards
  • evidence of achievement for assessment
  • planning and reflection
  • statements about other entries
  • skills and competences
  • outcomes of appraisals or interviews
  • links between entries
  • entries shared with peers, trainers or mentors
  • feedback from peers
  • other pieces of work or personal material.


  • can be transferred between employers and between learning providers
  • may more effectively assist learners with disabilities in recording evidence
  • make contact with learners easier and more efficient
  • allow for better information sharing
  • enable the learner to continue with study in a work-based environment
  • can be shared with interested parties
  • are flexible – learners choose when they work on their e-portfolio
  • can be used to create individual learning plans
  • can be used both for assessing and recording personal thinking and listening skills
  • promote creativity by encouraging learners to populate an empty repository with artifacts created in a variety of formats
  • can help learners organise their work requirements, resources and time • can help learners gather together assets from non-formal learning.