Developing critical thinking in a first-year university chemistry course

Author: Yetunde Kolajo

Kolajo, Yetunde, 2020 Developing critical thinking in a first-year university chemistry course, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Critical thinking is a key quality in learning first-year university chemistry. And therefore, teaching critical thinking enables students to take a stance on scientific issues, to logically rationalise the issue under discussion, to detect fallacies in arguments, or to suspend making of a decision when there is insufficient proof to trace and sustain a conclusion. The aim of this thesis is to examine the perceptions of university lecturers towards the integration of critical thinking into their teaching and how they develop critical thinking in their students. The literature has limited research on teaching strategies and activities that foster critical thinking in first-year university chemistry students in New Zealand, a shortcoming this thesis addresses. The thesis asks how critical thinking is planned, enacted and assessed. Using a case study of lecturers, their perceptions about critical thinking and perceived barriers to promoting critical thinking are described.

Universities have a responsibility, with the support of lecturers, to develop teaching models of best practice to enable students starting from their first year of university to develop critical thinking skills. As such, the descriptive method to case study was carefully chosen, as it permits data to be collected from several sources as are considered suitable to provide in-depth evidence. The research was conducted through an interpretivist approach with the use of the research questions. It utilised both qualitative methods, which included lecture observations, interviews, and document analysis to address research questions and, quantitative methods, which included the use of surveys. The research explored what students thought about the critical thinking experiences they received through a focus group with the students.

In West University, nine university lecturers and approximately 740 students from a New Zealand university in an urban centre, was the target population. Data were collected from voluntary student participants in first-year chemistry enrolled in 2015/2016 academic sessions, and there were nine lecturers involved in teaching at this level. Findings were derived from the data collection. Eight case studies were formed from data analysis of lecturers’ interviews, surveys and observations of their teaching, and feedback was generated from the students.

Not only can the findings of this study be transferred to other contexts where chemistry is taught in universities, but it can also be transferred to other subjects as well. The findings highlight that:

• Lecturers are moderately involved in supporting students to develop critical thinking in CEM1880 and CEM1881, but they do not plan to include critical thinking specifically.

• There was a misalignment between the planned curriculum and the assessed curriculum, and critical thinking was not explicitly assessed.

• The contribution of the first-year chemistry course to the achievement of the university’s graduate attribute of critical thinking is minimal at best.

The discussion highlights:

• The assumption that critical thinking teaching strategies were practised in first-year chemistry classes at West University was false.

• Lecturers’ lack of knowledge of how to teach critical thinking explicitly within the context of this study; and

• Critical thinking was not deliberately included in the planning, nor was it explicitly enacted and assessed in the first-year chemistry course that was the focus of this study.

The thesis shows the importance of infusing critical thinking into teaching and learning in chemistry education. The significance of this study is that it prompted a commitment to change assessment items and created an awareness and immediate impact of integrating critical thinking into teaching practices.

Keywords: critical thinking, chemistry, higher education, university, teaching practices, teaching strategies, learning, university, first-year students, first year course, memorisation, rote-learning, examination, curriculum

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Lindsey Conner