4 Tips to Encourage Your Students to be Critical Thinkers

This blog post is based off of an online course called “Critical Thinking” that was created for Atomic Learning by Valeria Becker. She is a Learning Specialist/Tutor Coordinator at the University of North Dakota. Learn more about her. 

Critical thinking is a valuable skill for college, career, and beyond. Whether you are a faculty member or student, being able to showcase your abilities as a critical thinker is important.

If you are wondering, "What exactly does 'critical thinking' mean?" Don’t worry. Commonly referred to as 'problem-solving', critical thinking involves not being content with the first solution to a problem, but instead thinking more deeply to determine if it is the best solution to the problem. Knowing, understanding, analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating an idea or problem are all activities that occur during critical thinking.

To encourage these activities and get your students thinking critically, here are four characteristics of a critical thinking to consider:

  1. See Problems as Challenges
    If you think about it, everything around us started out as a problem. One person (or a group) decided to look at something considered status quo as a challenge, and then invented or discovered something new to change things. Inventions such as phones, light fixtures, computers, and machines of all kinds were created to solve a problem most people didn't realize they had. Inventors of the past did this all the time with physical issues. Even non-physical problems, like the desire to connect with others and needing to be more active, can be viewed as a challenge and solved. Social media has taken off like crazy to help people connect with others, and technologies like Fitbits are being created to keep people motivated and healthy.
  2. Use Evidence to Make Judgements
    When listening to other people’s ideas, keeping an open mind and open ear will help you gain a wealth of knowledge to make future decisions. With that in mind, never stop asking questions. Even if you don't ask them outloud, be sure to write them down so you can find the answers to your questions later. Learning starts with questions.
  3. Observing, Thinking, and Asking Questions
    The next time you are approached to sign a petition or join a cause of some sort, take a minute before jumping into action. Ask yourself (or them) questions before signing, joining, or doing anything. For example: What if someone came up to you and asked you to join them in banning Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)? It sounds like a terrible chemical, right? Based on an assumptiong, you may agree with them at first glance. However, when you stop, observe, and think about the name DHMO for a minute, and ask the right questions, you'd likely have a different reation. Dihydrogen monoxide is also known as H2O... meaning water.
  4. Make Educated Decisions
    Asking the right questions can help you to making educated decisions. These are the decisions that we make that are based on facts, but even facts need to viewed with a skeptical eye. Always try to get a good understanding of the facts at hand, at look at various perspectives of the issue at hand. Educated decisions come about from having knowledge in a variety of areas and making use of available resources.

3 Strategies for Decreasing Drop/Fail/Withdraw Rates

A DFW rate is the rate at which college students receive D-grades, F-grades, or Withdraws from courses. Some colleges and universities are now using this data in regards to budget and performance reviews. Now, more than ever before, these rates are being looked at, and unfortunately, these rates are also on the rise.

Although there are many reasons why students withdraw from courses, faculty members can really only control their side of the story. For those looking to make a positive shift, here are three strategies for decreasing DFW rates and increasing student retention:

  1. Assessing
    Try assessing students’ knowledge of the required information at the beginning of the semester or start of a course. This allows aculty members to get a feel for which students may need more dedicated attention, and which students will probably be fine on their own. This pre-test can also help gauge which portions of the curriculum instructors might need to spend more time on.

    While there is no perfect solution, taking the time to measure and understand students' level of knowledge can make learning easier for everyone.

    Assessing students doesn’t need to be time consuming. With Atomic Learning’s skills assessments, faculty members can easily assign an assessment to a particular groups of individuals.

  2. Preparing
    Make it as easy as possible for students to know the basics. Not all students come into a course with the same knowledge or skill set, and changing your curriculum to go over basics for a smaller segment of students isn’t always an option. Not only would that slow down the course, but also hinder those students who would otherwise excel. By providing students that are struggling with tailored coursework, those students can more easily advance to the same level as their peers.

    Give students access to the specific resources they need, including items like MLA Research Paper Basics, Avoiding Plagiarism, Effective Note Taking, and more. Such resources can also help keep class time focused on the core content you are trying to teach. 

2 Insights for Leaders on Connecting with the Campus Community

This blog post is based off on an upcoming online course called “Connecting Through Vulnerability” by Dr. Matthew Arau, that will soon be available on Atomic Learning. Dr. Arau is an Assistant Professor at Lawrence University and has a background in student leadership. (More about Dr. Arau)

Have you had an instructor in the past that was a wealth of knowledge, but seemed unable to connect to his or her students? Because of that lack of connection, the students in that course were most likely disengaged or mentally checked out. On the flip side, there are those instructors that are able to effectively communicate what they know with their students and engage them in the learning process.

We all have had those teachers or instructors from the past that fit both scenarios. But, what’s the difference between those instructors? That is what Dr. Matthew Arau calls “the missing link”, and he believes that this link is often connection and, with that, vulnerability.

Why Connecting?

In his online course, Dr. Arau tells a story from when he teaching high school several years ago. Specifically, how he was able to easily develop friendships with his students, and had no problems having great conversations with them. However, the moment he took the podium, that connection seems to dissipate.

It wasn’t until a colleague mentioned how differently he carried himself when he was up in front of the class that he realized he was trying to be someone he wasn’t, and it was negatively effecting his connection with the students.

The solution: He simply needed to be himself and be authentic.

That realization helped him understand the importance of connection.  When we connect, we can both increase learning and enjoyment of that learning.

Dr. Arau’s story could also be true of campus leaders, administrators, and staff members. By being authentic and yourself, you can help create connections that will build and strengthen a campus community.

Why Vulnerability?

Have you ever noticed that when you share a personal story–maybe even something slightly embarrassing– it opens a connection with the person you were speaking with? By sharing, you open the door for others to feel welcome to share about themselves.

The more vulnerable you are, the more connected you can feel with your audience. Sharing personal stories of struggles and real life can have a profound effect. When we as humans see somebody being vulnerable and speaking about their fears, hopes, or frustrations, we see them as being courageous.  

The more vulnerable you are with your intended audience, the greater the connection.

Some Strategies to Try:

While these things may sound overly simple, or perhaps even silly, they can have a big impact on first impressions and connections. Whether you are connecting with faculty members, students, parents, or stakeholders, be aware of the following:

  • When someone walks into your office or room, greet them at the door and learn their name as fast as possible. Everyone wants to be acknowledged by name.

1 Staggering Statistic: 33% of College Freshmen Drop Out

While working with colleges and universities across the country on a daily basis, we often hear many of the same challenges over and over—specifically concerns centered around student success and retention. 

Even though the populations, initiatives, and programs can vary drastically, on a national level there are some staggering statistics. In fact, a U.S. News article stated that “As many as 1 in 3 first-year students won't make it back for sophomore year.”

This is a statistic that colleges simply can’t ignore, and leaves many wondering what causes so many students to cut their college experience short. Colleges need to take a hard look at what can be done to turn the statistic around, and to do that, it’s necessary to look at WHY students are dropping out. While there can be a variety of factors involved, here’s a few that seem to come up regularly:

Emotional Readiness
A recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education provides several insights on the challenges that many students face during their freshman year of college. Although each student’s experience can be very different, there are emotional readiness factors that seem to overlap.

"Several factors can contribute to "emotional readiness," including students’ ability to adapt to new environments, handle negative emotions in constructive ways, and forge healthy relationships. The survey found that the more prepared a student is for the emotional challenges of college — and for the anxieties that might come with it, such as covering expenses, making friends, and dealing with increased independence — the better and more successful that student’s college experience is."

According to the article, these factors can be the difference between a student feeling confident and excelling in their classes or a student falling behind and dropping out entirely.

Related resources:
Transitioning from High School to College
How Do I Keep Myself Socially and Emotionally Healthy?

Key Takeaways from OLC Accelerate 2016

Guest blog post from Deb Meester, Senior Director of Sales and Service at Atomic Learning.

I’ve been attending higher education conferences for almost 9 years now. In that time, I’ve attended close to 100 conferences. While we all know conferences are a great place to learn and collaborate with others, at every conference I’ve attended, including OLC Accelerate this year, I heard a number of people say that one of the main reasons they come is to visit the exhibit hall.  They want to connect with their existing vendor partners, but they also want to learn about other resources that can help.  On my flight home from Orlando to Minnesota, rather than concentrating on the 6 plus inches of freshly fallen snow that I was going to be flying into, I thought about the conference and what we heard in the exhibit hall.   

One thing I’ve noticed in my years in the exhibit hall is that attendees at the booth will “tell you how it is”. It’s not uncommon for us to hear “yeah, our university doesn’t do that, but we should” or “we aren’t that efficient” or “our faculty don’t do that” and more.  And this year at OLC was no exception. There were some consistent themes or concerns I heard throughout many of our conversations:

5 Awesome New Courses

Atomic Learning is constantly adding new learning resources focused on helping colleges and universities tackle common challenges found in education today.  Recently, we connected with Sarah Holder, Product Owner (aka eLearning Guru) here at Atomic Learning, for her top five new courses.

Without further ado, here’s her picks:

  1. Learning Styles
    Learning Styles can be a great building block to developing a study strategy. To help you get started, will dive into the benefits of styles, the characteristics of each, and determine which Learning Style works for you. Additionally, we'll provide some study techniques for each style, along with some tools that might be useful. 
  2. Critical Thinking
    Provide students the opportunity to build and apply critical thinking skills, as well as critically evaluate circumstances and performance. During this course, students will practice questioning and evaluating to form judgments and make decisions, as well as learn how to interpret alternative viewpoints and reflect on their own biases and assumptions. 

“My 16-Year-Old is in College!?!” – Insights on the High School to College Transition

Guest blog post by Lisa Barnett (@atomic_lisa), parent and CEO of Atomic Learning and Versifit Technologies.

I am the parent of a new college student.  That in and of itself is a big deal for a number of reasons.  But in this case, said college student is also only 16.  Yes, she's a sharp kid, but not some prodigy.  

Our state has an amazing post-secondary enrollment option that allows high school juniors and seniors to attend college full-time and complete dual degrees, funded through the state.  So essentially, when she graduates from high school, she should also have her AA degree.

My daughter has not been a huge fan of the high school experience—she found the drama to be exhausting and she was regularly disengaged in her academics.  While she was a high performing student, she found classes focused on rote memorization to be a game that she knew how to play, but didn't feel she was actually getting any type of academic enrichment from. Partially through her sophomore year, she decided to pursue the PSEO option with our family’s support.  

Fast forward to four weeks ago; she started her first day as a junior is high school and freshman in college.

Why College Students Need Atomic Learning

Here is a quick video on how students can benefit from Atomic Learning. With the new LearnIt. DoIt. ShareIt. ProveIt. format of our content, students are able to not only learn from best practices, but apply that learning to their lives. They can see how others would approach it, and even document their learning to see how much they've retained. Check it out!

If you campus is not already using the Atomic Learning solution, you need to be. Request more information to learn more.

#realitycheck - Guest Blog Post

Guest blog post by Atomic Learning customer Judy Yi, a Professor at Dallas Baptist University in Texas. You can see more great posts from Judy and others at DBU's ProfHelp Blog.

Several years ago, I read an article in the New York Times that placed Apple Inc. on the same level as a religion.  With its fanatic fans camping outside for days to purchase the newly released device and the devotion they show with Apple products, it’s not too surprising. But what is it about Apple that makes people “hypnotized” to it?
Just last month, I had the opportunity to visit Apple Inc. (the America Operations Center) in Austin with my Ed.D. K-12 cohort, and our speaker, Jon Landis, the Development Executive for educational mobility deployment in higher education and K-12 schools, shed some light on Apple’s secret formula.
Here’s a recap:

Back-to-Campus: Tips College Students NEED to Know

Tip #1: Balancing it All

Not only are you trying to balance classes, study time, group work, and tests, but there is the social aspect of college life to fit in as well. On- and off-campus activities, including everything from hanging out with friends to intermural sports, make up a big part of the college experience. While managing your time can be tricky, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Try using an agenda or planner. There are plenty of apps out there, or you can even utilize the calendar on your smart phone. (There is also nothing wrong with pen and paper planner.) Utilizing such tools can help you manage your time and keep it all straight.

Additional Resources:


Tip #2: Where and How Long to Study

You know you best. Whether you study better in your dorm room with your headphones and your favorite music or in a quite space in the library, find something that works for you. Once you find your sweet spot, break up your studying into time blocks. Try studying for 30-50 minutes and then allowing yourself a quick break in between those studying times. This approach can help you stay energized and focused.

Additional resources: