October 02, 2013

Jeanette Grider

Critical Thinking Assignments Broaden Student Perspectives

When Mark Ferris, Ph.D., a professor at the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University, stands before students in his statistics classes, he is truly encountering faces and perspectives from across the country and around the world.

Mark Ferris, Ph.D.

Ferris, an associate professor in the department of operations management and ITM, says teaching his students critical thinking skills isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition.

"While some life experiences are universal for the students, their exposure to news and information as well as the way their home political and community structures operate, can mean each person has their own unique interpretation of some of the material," Ferris said. "I try and change their mindset through the dataset. I believe philosopher John Dewey said it well. ‘The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment.'"

With that philosophy in mind, Ferris set out to create some new and innovative assignments and discussion topics that would help students not only gather and interpret statistics but also help them learn to effectively communicate their findings to an audience from a broad range of backgrounds - much as they will when they leave their academic years and enter the workforce.

As part of his spring Intro to Statistics course, Ferris asked students to read an evidentiary book chosen from a list of 10 titles ranging from "Freakonomics" to "Thinking, Fast and Slow" to "Moneyball." Next they were asked to write a 500-word review where they would critically assess the book's contents. The project's next step was preparing a 10-minute Power Point presentation using only seven slides to share with the class.

On presentation day, the students met in the Anheuser-Busch Auditorium and broke into groups of three with each giving round robin presentations with the other two on their teams coming up with questions for a follow-up Q&A. After the group presentation, two students were randomly chosen to give their presentations on stage to the entire class.

Ferris said one of his main goals is for students to become better critical thinkers and the assignment called on them to engage in critical thinking in a number of different ways, and resulted in some interesting outcomes.

"I was somewhat surprised at how popular the assignment was - especially among the Chinese students," Ferris said. "This could be pretty scary stuff for someone who is not a native speaker but I found that not only was there an overall positive reaction from the Chinese students, they were also fearless in tackling some of the most difficult and challenging books."

He was equally surprised by some of the student feedback about the assignment with comments about improving their reading skills and analysis, learning to trust statistics and not just what the "experts" tell them and communicating their analysis to a larger group.

In the broader picture each student, whether international or American, benefits from their shared interactions and collaboration as well as their individual observations - a result that will make any professor happy.

And what new class project is in the innovation pipeline for Ferris?

"This semester, as part of the SLU Mission, we are studying statistical issues surrounding income inequality and poverty in the U.S. and world through the use of Twitter. Every student has to sign up for Twitter and come up with seven new statistical tweets a week, with one of them focusing on differing aspect of poverty.

Last week it was the relationship between obesity and poverty, and this week it is infant mortality rates. We focus mostly on the statistical aspects, and not so much on policy. So far it's working well, but there are always ways to improve. I'll be reassessing this new strain of homework at the end of the semester." Follow on Twitter @ferristician.

For more information, contact Professor Ferris at markeferris@gmail.com. Click here to learn about a previous critical thinking project.

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