The goal of Georgia State University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), Critical Thinking through Writing, is to increase our baccalaureate students’ performance on two of the University’s general education learning outcomes – critical thinking and written communication – as evidenced in their academic major. One of the primary aims of undergraduate education is to develop citizens who are able to engage in critical thinking and clear writing, and major degree programs play a critical role in the development of these abilities. Georgia State University, as an institution, stresses the importance of general education learning outcomes in the core and in the major. Incorporating writing as the conduit for the expression of critical thinking, emerges from our experiences with existing student-centered learning initiatives, such as Writing across the Curriculum, the Writing Studio, and Supplemental Instruction. In addition, review of information on student learning outcomes for undergraduate programs and other university-wide assessments support a focus on critical thinking and writing. Recent results from the 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement indicated that our seniors judged their own critical and analytical abilities to be lower than their peers. They also reported writing fewer short papers than their peers. Surveys of our students about their levels of competence on writing indicate that they perceive their abilities to write to be lower when they graduate compared to when they entered. Finally, critical thinking was the most common general education learning outcome assessed in the major by academic departments, and it was identified as the most important student learning outcome in both surveys and interviews with department chairs and faculty.
Enhancement of critical thinking and writing will be accomplished by implementing a university-wide graduation requirement (effective for students entering in fall 2009 and thereafter) that undergraduates pass two critical thinking through writing (CTW) courses in their major. Each course, designed by the major department and approved by the General Education Assessment Subcommittee of the University Senate’s Committee on Academic Programs, will contain multiple writing-to-learn activities and assignments that address issues relevant to that major. CTW activities and assignments will be structured to permit frequent feedback to students and opportunities for revision. Course assignments will align with the University’s definition of critical thinking: a “wide range of cognitive skills and intellectual dispositions needed to effectively identify, analyze, evaluate arguments and truth claims; to discover and overcome personal prejudices; to formulate and present convincing reasons in support of conclusions; and to make reasonable, intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do”(Bassham, Irwin, Nardone & Wallace, 2005, p. 1). The student to instructor ratio in CTW courses may not exceed 25:1, thus creating an environment conducive to active learning.
Implementation of CTW will continue to be guided by the faculty. The General Education Assessment Subcommittee of CAP, with representatives from all constituents of the university (students, staff, faculty, department chairs, and university administrators), is charged with approval of departmental CTW plans, review of assessment reports prepared by departments, and re-design of the elements of CTW based on what is learned from feedback and assessment reports. The University Senate endorsed a “train the trainer” model that requires departments to select one or more CTW Ambassadors for each of our 54 majors who have been trained in workshops coordinated by CTW Coordinators. The CTW Coordinators consist of five faculty members, two of whom have specific expertise in critical thinking and writing and three of whom have relevant disciplinary experience. CTW Ambassadors will be required to attend at least one workshop each academic year and participate in an annual Spring Forum where they will share with each other the experiences of implementing CTW in their respective disciplines. CTW Ambassadors are responsible for training instructors assigned to CTW courses, in accordance with their departmental plan for such training. Additional faculty development and instructional support will be supported through existing resources, such as the Center for Teaching and Learning and Writing across the Curriculum.
Having emerged primarily from conversations with faculty and students, and from our knowledge of how our students are currently performing in the areas of critical thinking and writing, the CTW initiative is nested within each academic department, where the CTW Ambassador serves as a linchpin for our success. In this role, the Ambassador implements both the instruction and the assessment aspects of the plan by preparing instructors for CTW courses and also assuring that assessment of student learning is conducted and reported. As their title implies, CTW Ambassadors will play a key role in building relationships with others and representing their fields/disciplines as we engage in campus-wide conversations about what constitutes critical thinking and writing in our baccalaureate degree programs.
Critical Thinking through Writing will be assessed directly through department’s annual reports of student learning outcomes for the major, through a variety of surveys of instructors and students, and through written reports from Ambassadors, as well as indirectly through use of NSSE Benchmark items and exit surveys of graduating seniors. Additional questions added to alumni surveys, currently conducted when academic units undergo Academic Program Review, will provide further useful information on the impact of CTW on student learning.
Over the next six years, the University plans to spend over $6 million to enhance the critical thinking and writing skills in the discipline for undergraduate students in five of our six colleges, where all undergraduate majors reside. Management of the CTW initiative as a whole is the responsibility of the QEP Leadership Team, comprised of faculty and administrators. However, close collaboration across all levels (course, department, college, and institution) is key to both successful implementation and performance outcomes. We believe that the goals of our Quality Enhancement Plan, to enhance critical thinking and writing throughout baccalaureate education at Georgia State University, are ambitious, imperative, and sustainable.