Student conceptions of critical thinking and essay writing revealed in this study

As part of what was initially a wider project, Sara first looked at student conceptions of essay writing and critical thinking by analyzing interview and forum data from two of Phil's politics units, including the unit in this study and a first-year unit. Students in both units were disciplinary novices since these were isolated offerings within a business faculty. She interviewed students using open-ended questions and analyzed their online forum posts to discover their preconceptions of essay writing and critical thinking. Sara's analysis of the data was focused on interpretations of essay writing and critical thinking as constructed by the students (Schwandt 1994).

Data were collected from a total of eighteen students over a three-year period in two separate stages, using different collection methods. In the first stage, interview data were collected from students in both units and explicitly raised critical thinking in connection with essay writing. In the second stage, data were collected from students in the second-year unit only, using unsolicited, unprompted posts from online, unit forums. As all students were required to post to forums as part of a participation-type assignment, we were able to analyze a representative range of posts from students enrolled in the unit.

The reason for narrowing data collection to one unit was the removal of the essay as an assessment task in the first-year unit. For the interviews, students were asked open-ended questions, the most relevant of which included:

  • • What do believe an essay assignment is for? What does it require you to do?
  • • What is your technique for essay research and writing?
  • • How do you see the role of an opinion in your essay? Is expressing it easy or hard?
  • • Lecturers talk about critical thinking. What do you think this is?
  • • How do you show critical thinking in your essay?

Sara used a "naturalistic inquiry" approach to the collection and interpretation of student data. From this perspective, "data are, so to speak, the constructions offered by or in the sources" (italics in the original, Lincoln and Guba 1985). She observed that students were providing valuable data on their learning experience within unit online forums with no direct intrusion from her as a researcher. So, in the third year she instead chose to purposively sample online forum exchanges posted by volunteer students before their assessment submission(s). Their exchanges were posted in response to a forum question that asked them to share strategies they were using to complete the assignments. Sara analyzed posts that dealt with conceptions of and approaches to critical thinking and essay writing. Interview and forum data were analyzed to identify any general themes in student responses over the three-year period.

While data were collected from the same students, before and after their completion on assessments, Sara found that there were too many other factors that may have influenced students' practices and conceptions to draw any firm conclusions from the interview data about the impact of Phil's novel essaywriting strategy on their conceptions of either critical thinking or essay writing. For this reason only analyses of first round interviews and forum posts will be discussed here. In any case, the main reason for obtaining the interview and forum data were to examine these participating students' prior conceptions of critical thinking and essay writing to see what impact it might have on the way students normally approached an essay-writing task.

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