Exploring Assessment of Critical Thinking Learning Outcomes in Online Higher Education

Exploring Assessment of Critical Thinking Learning Outcomes in Online Higher Education

Bernice Bain
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch089
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Online education has grown to more than 6 million students with an average age of 33 years old (Kolowich, 2012; Selingo, 2012; Sheehy, 2012). Research indicates online programs are part of many institutions' strategic planning initiatives. Institutions are undergoing increased scrutiny from accrediting bodies, employers, and adult learners. To remain competitive and valid in this changing environment, a significant issue for leaders of online higher education institutions is how to effectively assess online cognitive learning outcomes, such as critical thinking. Adding to the challenge of online assessment of critical thinking is the contextual nature of critical thinking and two differing approaches to assessment. Leaders of online higher education institutions should seek a critical thinking assessment that is based on a theoretical framework of Transformative Learning and Adult Learning Theories. This is explored in this chapter.
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Adult education is a transformative learning process, in which the learner is engaged throughout. Therefore, effective assessment of cognitive learning in online adult education requires an understanding of adult learning, its principles and Transformative Learning Theory. Before considering how to assess the cognitive learning outcomes of critical thinking, adult education leaders should understand transformative education and adult learning.

Transformative Learning Theory, advanced by Mezirow (1991), describes the complexity of how learners transform presuppositions and mental habits to include other perspectives; thereby changing mental schemes and reformulating meaning from their experiences (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007; Cranton, 1994). In this process, adult learners challenge existing assumptions and thinking strategies by openly considering other viewpoints. As they consider alternative ideas and ways of thinking, they systematically change their thought paradigm. This process involves the learner’s engagement throughout. The six principles of adult learning should be integrated to create an ideal environment for transformative learning to take place.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cognitive Skills: In this context, cognitive skills refer to those abilities that involve mental processes. Measuring cognitive skills involves evaluating thoughts, thought processes, thinking paradigms and mental models.

Adult Learners: Anyone who falls into one of two classifications of adult—social and psychological. The social classification refers to individuals who are performing adult duties including professional roles, parenting roles and the like. Second, when individuals begin to see themselves as responsible for their own lives, they are considered psychologically an adult ( Knowles et al., 1998 ). An adult falling under either category has significant life experiences that will enhance learning as well as presuppositions that will shape thinking. In the context of this chapter an adult learner is a social or psychological adult who is a student in an online higher education program.

Competency Based Learning: This type of learning is different than traditional models of learning. Instead of being enrolled in classes, led by a professor, learners progress through modules independently. Once the learner demonstrates mastery of the skill he or she can advance to the next learning segment.

Andragogy: Andragogy is the theory of adult learning. It identifies six learning principles specific to adult learners: Learners need to know; self-concept of the learner; prior experience of the learner; readiness to learn; orientation to learning; and motivation to learn ( Knowles et al., 1998 ).

Online Learning: Online learning often refers to further knowledge from or through use of an academic source. In this context online learning refers to programs offered through an accredited higher education institution using an online learning management system.

Critical Thinking: Critical Thinking refers to a four step process that includes: identifying or uncovering assumptions, testing the validity of assumptions, considering different perspectives and making informed decisions ( Brookfield, 1987 , 1995 , 1997 , 2012 ).

Assessments: Tools used by leaders of online higher education institutions to measure cognitive learning outcomes (critical thinking) in online learning.

Hunting Assumptions: Hunting assumptions is another term for the first step of the critical thinking process. It is the process of uncovering one of the three types of assumptions—causal, prescriptive, or paradigmatic.

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