Cultivating critical thinking skills among conservation biology and ecology students
To be effective in conservation, students need to develop sophisticated understandings of conservation problems and problem-solving approaches, which derive from advanced critical thinking skills. Rarely, however, is the effectiveness of content-specific critical thinking instruction assessed. Here, we present results of an experimental study investigating the effectiveness of conservation biology and ecology instruction in improving students’ critical thinking skills and comprehension of complex conservation issues. Faculty from eight institutions, led by investigators from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, designed a multi-year experiment that applied novel instructional and assessment materials under two different instruction modalities, individual reflection and intensive classroom discussion. Our goal was to create instructional materials that promote development of critical thinking skills in conservation science courses, to assess changes in several dimensions of students’ critical thinking during a single course, and to develop best practices in the teaching of critical thinking in conservation science.
We are in the second year of a two-year data collection process. To this point, with results from eight courses and 154 students, our data show that students taught using the new instructional materials developed as part of this study improved in both content-area knowledge and in two dimensions of critical thinking, ability to select and use evidence in constructing arguments, and understanding the influence of context and assumptions on conclusions drawn from evidence. Two other dimensions of critical thinking did not show significant improvement in our current sample. Students’ self-reported confidence in their own critical thinking abilities also did not increase. We are currently assessing whether instructional modality influenced the level of student gains in critical thinking. Our results show that both content-area knowledge and critical thinking skills can be improved within a single course through use of strategic instructional materials and techniques across a wide range of institutions and classroom settings.