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First Year Experience Seminar Online Textbook

This is the main textbook for FYE Seminar to be used beginning Summer 2017

4.2.1 Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Albert Einstein

“I studied for the test, I thought I knew the material, but I made a 70% on it! I don’t know what happened!”  This student comment is not an unusual one to hear in the hallways of college classrooms.  Most likely the student did “know” the information; that is, she could recall precisely the words from the textbook or her lecture notes, but that was all she could do with the information for the test. 

To understand what happens when we are tested on material and don’t do well, we first have to examine thinking itself.  Thinking is divided into levels that require different processes within the thought cycle. The student who was surprised by poor performance on the test knew  the information, but in college, knowing  is step one, and there are five other mental processes we need to develop and practice. 

To understand the levels of thinking, an analysis of Bloom’s Taxonomy is required, and in this case we’ll look at the Revised Taxonomy:


picture of Blooms Taxonomy

The level called remembering means that we know information well enough to identify it when we see it, or we can recite the information to someone else. This level is the most basic stage of thinking, requiring nothing more than knowledge of the topic. An example of remembering for an exam may be to memorize a stack of flashcards with terms and definitions on them, such as naming and defining the six levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. The next level, understanding, requires a deeper connection with basic information; at this point we should be able to explain the knowledge in our own words and interpret its meaning in the context of other information. For example, a student who has studied mathematical equations can explain the process used to work through the problem and interpret the action for each step of the process. 

 The level applying contains part of the thinking process in its name: apply the new knowledge, process, or concept to the real world and transfer its use to various situations or scenarios. If a math student learned to figure the area of a rectangle, the student could use that formula to estimate the square footage in an apartment he was checking out to rent.  Using formulas, concepts, and processes in our everyday lives is one of the main reasons students become proficient in mathematics, reading, and writing.  These are skills used in everyday activities to be successful in nearly any professional job, as well as in our personal lives. We use math to balance a checkbook, prepare a monthly budget, and figure the interest we’re paying on a car or home loan.     

As the level of thinking moves up the ladder, the thinking process becomes more complex. The level analyzing requires us to examine each part or component of a larger process or concept to understand how each segment relates to and affects the whole.  For instance, in a composition course, students analyze the parts of an argumentative essay: the introduction contains the thesis, background information, and an interesting opening to engage the reader; body paragraphs present smaller premises related to the topic and provide evidence and explanations of the evidence to support the argument; and the conclusion reviews the points made in the argument and drives home a persuasive summary of the argument.  Students spend much time in a composition course analyzing argumentative essays written by writers to understand the techniques used by the author to build an argument and to judge whether or not the argument is effective.  That brings us to the level of evaluating, which isn’t just an opinion of whether something is good or bad but an informed judgment based on evidence and support for our decision.  Saying that the movie I saw last night was a great movie because I like science fiction movies is not an evaluation; saying I like the movies because the cinematography was inventive and helped establish the tone in the movie, the actors were three-dimensional and I cared about them, and the plot was complex and unpredictable is an informed opinion backed by evidence; this evaluation will go much further to convince my friends to see the movie and decide for themselves.

The final and highest level of thinking is called creating, and the reason this level is highest should be evident.  Yes, it is difficult to understand or analyze the structure of an argumentative essay or to evaluate whether or not it is a good argument, but it is much more difficult to create an argumentative essay of our own, building not only the premises and gathering the evidence to support our claims but writing it in such a way that the reader understands our viewpoint and support and is possibly swayed to think as we want them to think by the essay’s conclusion.


Now we can analyze why the student who reread lecture notes, memorized flashcards, and read the highlighting in the chapters didn’t do well on the exam.  Which levels of thinking was the student practicing for the exam? (Take a guess) 

4.2.2 Remembering

 Critical Thinking picture

The student was using levels of remembering and understanding to study, and likely 70% or more of the college-level exam required the student to perform applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating during the exam.  For instance, many students don’t do well when they must figure out a word problem or a specific scenario and choose the concept or process at work in the example.  These questions are usually application questions, and a “right” answer won’t be found in the textbook.  The student must use reason and think through the problem to discover the correct concept at work in the example, or in other words, the student must know how to use  the concept in real life situations. 


Test your understanding of and skill at applying Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy in these assignments or test questions:


1.       A history student must explain the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg to the rest of the class.


2.      A student must construct an example of using conflict resolution skills to resolve a specific problem.


3.      Composition students must choose a topic for a descriptive essay assignment. 


4.      A nursing student must administer a vaccination to a cat.


5.      The students in a speech class must prepare a debate.


6.      Students are assigned paintings to critique for Art Appreciation.


7.      Students are asked to compare sets of data in their Statistics course.   


To better prepare for class discussions, exams, and projects in classes, consider using these techniques:

Comprehending reading assignments 

  • Try to connect meaning to your own life when skimming subheadings and topic sentences.  See if you can ask questions of the text that pertain to your own life or that make you curious to read the material.

  • At the end of each paragraph or two, stop and say in your own words your interpretation of the text.  If you can’t say it without looking at it again, you don’t really understand the information and you need to reread it.

  • At the end of each page, write a summary statement of the page’s key points.

  • Place a question mark by any part of the reading you don’t understand and ask for clarification of the point during the next class.

  • Look up words you do not understand and make flashcards for them.

  • Take notes during your reading in a separate notebook, or write them on sticky-notes and clip them to each page.

  • Meet with a classmate for lunch and discuss the reading before the class discusses it. Talking it over with another person will allow you to view the material from a different perspective.


 Preparing for class discussions in literature, humanities, and history courses:

  • Read the end of chapter discussion questions before reading the chapter or assignment, and try to answer the questions as you read.

  • Make marginal notes in your textbook, highlighting keywords and underscoring and numbering discussion points you want to bring up during class.

  • Write a reflective paragraph about your initial reaction to the reading right after you finish it.

 Preparing for exams:

  • If provided a study guide, first write out the answers in complete and detailed sentences, and then make outlines of the keywords for each question to help encode that information in long-term memory.

  • Write examples of all major concepts and processes that are covered on the test.

  • Write scenarios or word problems (especially for psychology and sociology), share them with a study group, and answer each other’s word problems. 

  • Create potential test questions and write the answers to them.

  • Review four or five time for an hour or so rather than once for four hours.

4.2.3 Using Creative and Critical Thinking to Solve A Problem

SELF-REFLECTION: Typically, when you attack a problem, how long do you think about possible solutions? How many solutions do you consider before deciding on one plan?  Do you analyze each situation before making a decision? Do you consider the impact and possible consequences of your solution before implementing a plan? Do you use resources outside yourself? Take a few moments and jot down your response to these questions.



When resolving problems, the first step is to clearly define the problem.  Too often we rush to find a solution to something we believe to be a problem when in fact, the problem we identified does not reach the root of the problem.  For example, in my Strategies classes, I ask my students to define obstacles to being successful in school.  One young woman I’ll call Sally replied, “I’m lazy, so I procrastinate.”  Is laziness the root of Sally’s problem? As we dug deeper into Sally’s problem and analyzed it, Sally hit on the real problem she needed to solve:  “I just don’t see the point of these assignments.” Eureka!  Sally isn’t a lazy person, a trait I can recognize easily in most students, but until she talked out the problems she was experiencing, she didn’t identify the real obstacle to her educational success.  Once the problem was correctly identified, Sally was able to create short term goals to help her overcome the obstacle.  Here is her list:

  • I will connect each assignment to the bigger picture and realize that the skill I’m practicing is one I’ll need in work when I am a professional.
  • I will start each assignment the minute I get it while I’m still a little excited about it and believe I can do it.   I’ll be more likely to come back to it and finish it if I start it day one—especially essays or long assignments.
  • I will set a time to work on specific assignments in my day planner each week, allowing myself enough time to finish it at least 24 hours before it’s due.

Once Sally identified the correct problem to solve, she quickly found workable solutions that will help her overcome this obstacle and feel self-satisfaction each time she takes a step toward resolving the problem with homework assignments.



When we reach for a solution to an identified problem, the first answers we grasp at the surface of thought are often not the best answers to our problem.  Spend some time playing with the problem and looking at it from different angles.  Consider these techniques for brainstorming:

  • Write down every idea that comes to mind without judgment.  Sometimes we think of an awful idea, that leads to yet another awful idea, that makes of think of something that pretty good, and then we think of a solution that is great.  This process of free-association is a powerful tool of right-brain function.  Our right brain is creative, inventive, and broad in scope when looking at a problem, but to work well, it needs time to play with ideas. 
  • Use other people as sounding boards when trying to think of solutions.  Other people will give you another perspective and bring to the table a whole set of experiences different from your own past experiences. 
  • Sleep on it.  Taking the puzzle to bed with you and thinking just before you fall asleep, I’m going to think about a great solution tonight, often leads to waking up with the answer right in the forefront of your thoughts. The subconscious helps us work on issues when we aren’t consciously thinking about them, but to do this effectively, the subconscious needs time to let the ideas ferment and form into patterns. 
  • Free-write about the topic, letting your pen move across the page so quickly that you can’t take time to stop and think.  This quick writing outruns the logical brain that is already trying to make an outline of a solution that doesn’t yet exist.



Consider using your own brain as a search engine on a computer.  Gather research concerning the possible solutions, including discussions with mentors or intelligent friends and listen to their input.  Also, make a pros-and-cons list, comparing the benefits with the disadvantages to weigh the risk involved with each solution. 


Action without careful deliberation and planning often leads to the creation of more problems than we’ve solved.  Use analysis to think through each step of a solution’s plan.


WEIGH the IMPACTS (Consequences)

Acting without weighing the impact of risks can often make a problem worse rather than better.  If we complete an accurate and objective analysis, we should be able to then evaluate the potential effectiveness (or negative consequences) of each plan and measure the risks.

Use comparison charts to help you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of possible solutions or action plans. In the model below, college student Jeff Sparks weighs the advantages and disadvantages of two ideas for spring break.



Going to see my cousin in Florida and stay at her beach house:

  • See family members
  • Spend some time in the sun and surf
  • Decompress from the semester
  • Have fun!!!

Going to see my cousin in Florida and stay at her beach house:

  • Travel time takes 2 full days
  • An airplane ticket costs $636
  • Lose money ($120) from job
  • Won’t have time to work on research paper due 1 week after I return



Stay home and spend a long weekend at Grand Lake with friends:

  • Hang out with good friends
  • Spend some time in the sun if it’s warm enough
  • Decompress from the semester
  • Have a little fun
  • Won’t miss any work or lose money
  • Can spend 2 days on research paper due 1 week after I return

Stay home and spend a long weekend at Grand Lake with friends:

  • Travel  time is 3 hours round trip
  • Expenses at lake total $150
  • Weather may be bad and we’d have to stay inside hotel or not go to lake


When Jeff analyzes his two options, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both, he discovers that going to Florida would be more fun, but the expenses, lost wages, and time spent traveling and playing are too big a price to pay for fun.  He opts to go the local lake with friends instead.

4.2.4 EXERCISE: Practice Your Critical Thinking Skills

Using the mind map (access using the link above), pick an obstacle that you are struggling with this semester in college.  It may be a personal problem, such as controlling time spent with family and friends, or it may be a school problem, such as having too many deficiencies in computer skills. Using the map, complete the following steps:


  • Choose a challenge or problem and place it in the pink box in the center of the circle
  • List possible solutions in the yellow boxes
  • Describe all the various impacts for each solution in the green boxes
  • Analyze the findings, and prioritize the best solutions by numbering the yellow boxes.
  • Do a final check and choose one 


Consider using a mapping method with all four steps of the critical thinking process as you work through challenges in school, work, or home-life. 


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