Learning to think, thinking to learn

UQ researchers are working with students to help them learn how to think critically – a program that is improving their school results and inspiring them to become lifelong learners in the process.

Being able to reason and think critically is a vital skill in a time when anyone can publish their opinion online, the way people communicate in person and online is changing every day, and the difference between fact and fake news is increasingly difficult to detect.

The ability to think critically is particularly important for young people, who have grown up in a world where these changes are the new normal.

UQ’s Professor Deborah Brown, Dr Dominic Hyde and Peter Ellerton founded the UQ Critical Thinking Project (UQCTP) in 2012 to connect with students and give them the tools to effectively and creatively think, reason and communicate.

Official data show that the UQCTP is helping students achieve better argumentation, reading, numerical and writing skills, with higher relative gains in students of low socioeconomic status.

“We train schools to teach critical and creative thinking to their students. The students then come to campus to see how those skills are applied in the kind of research carried out at university,” UQCTP Director Professor Deborah Brown explains.

“What’s special about this project is our focus on building academic aspiration by building academic capacity.”

Critical thinking is intimately connected to the capacity for innovation. It is involved in a myriad of practices, from using an upturned egg box as an egg cup to changing the way the brain processes information.

By making explicit what good reasoning is and applying it to how people learn, the UQCTP is empowering students at a disadvantage – such as those in remote communities, from Indigenous backgrounds or from families where they are the first to consider tertiary study – to make their dreams of getting a university degree a reality.

Think smarter, not harder

Teaching critical and creative thinking is about transformative change, according to program founder Peter Ellerton.

“It’s about cognitive change that persists way beyond the lifetime of any particular program,” he says.

“It’s kind of like a switch that when you flick it, it always stays on.”

The UQCTP team works with educational institutions, families and communities to support the project’s goals.

Since the project began, 8600 students from 600 Queensland schools have taken online extension courses, and up to 1000 students participate in University Experience Days each year – where primary and high school students can experience first-hand how critical thinking is applied across all disciplines.

With more than 35 academic disciplines involved in Immersion Days, UQCTP is UQ’s most extensive outreach collaboration.

“Critical Thinking is awesome. Before I started, I was unable to hold an argument. Thank you for picking me from this small town.”
(Primary school student from Longreach)

UQCTP also offers a five-day intensive module, WRIT1999: Effective Thinking and Writing, for students about to commence Year 12 and attending an eligible school or identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Scheduled during the summer school holidays, the module is offered free of charge as part of UQ’s Enhanced Studies Program.

The module aims to impart critical reading skills required for undergraduate study, improve academic writing and presentation skills, and maximise the relationship between thinking and writing to improve both.

“During WRIT1999, the Effective Thinking and Writing summer course, students entering year 12 attend lectures on topics like deductive and inductive reasoning, evaluating arguments, using analogies, and persuasion, and then complete research assignments using these skills,” says Dr Dominic Hyde, an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Philosophy.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive

“Academically, I learnt many skills that enhanced my year 12 studies, while socially I was able to participate in a range of activities that weren’t readily available at my high school.”
(Tess Sweeney, UQ Bachelor of Arts student)

“Our project gives students an inside view of [higher] education,” Dr Hyde says.

To date, more than 90 per cent of participants have expressed greater confidence in their thinking and writing skills, and greater readiness for their future studies. In 2018, more than 50 per cent of the low socioeconomic students in WRIT1999 transitioned to UQ – compared to only 8.7 per cent of students to Group of Eight universities nationally.

As well as the one-week intensive course, two-hour workshops are also available for some UQ students, covering argument mapping; textual analysis; and addressing assessment criteria relating to critical thinking, clarity, and argumentational precision.

In 2018, UQCTP joined the Summer Research Program to enable UQ undergraduate students to gain research experience alongside UQ researchers. Their research is focused on the importance of teaching for thinking in Indigenous Education, the role of critical thinking in science education, and how training in critical thinking can help overcome barriers to tertiary education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Aspiring Thinkers Network is a forum for professional teacher training via workshops, webinars, masterclasses and online learning communities.

UQCTP also provides a consultancy service for schools and other organisations to embed critical thinking in their classroom practice and curriculum design.

“We have trained 200 academics, and roughly 10,000 teachers since 2012, along with the 81,600 enrollees in our Massive Open Online Course, META101x: Philosophy and Critical Thinking,” Dr Ellerton says.

Critical thinking delivers results

A new partnership with the IMPACT Centre, UCLA, Pepperdine University and Simon Fraser University recently saw the program extend across the Pacific, and has so far reached 17 schools and teacher associations in Canada and California.

And UQCTP's success is set to continue, with the program and its 'life hack' for learning already achieving many positive results.

"Thousands of students and their teachers are already benefiting from the program," Dr Ellerton says.

“Students from the Cavendish Road Academy of Ideas who participated in the Critical Thinking Program showed a 12.5 per cent improvement in the A–B range across the curriculum.

“NAPLAN results also improved by up to one band on the range of 6–10, after as few as 11–12 hours of instruction.

“We are delighted that UQCTP is helping improve these students’ lives, and look forward to diversifying the program to reach even more learners in future.”

The story so far:

2012: UQ Critical Thinking Project (UQCTP) is launched.

2013: Solid Pathways, a university pathway program for high-achieving Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students is launched in collaboration with the Queensland Department of Education.

2014: UQCTP assists Cavendish Road SHS in establishing the Academy of Ideas, the first Philosophy Academy in Queensland

2014: UQCTP-IMPACT Centre Critical Thinking online courses reach 1250 students annually.

2015: UQCTP launches Australia’s first Critical Thinking MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).

2016: UQCTP wins a UQ Award for Programs that Enhance Learning (Widening Participation category).

2016: Solid Pathways reaches all Queensland educational regions.

2017: UQCTP receives a Teaching Innovation Grant from UQ’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation for its project, Integrating Digital Argument Mapping into Contemporary Pedagogies.

2017: The Queensland Department of Education confirms NAPLAN relative gains between 0.3 and 0.55 standard deviations in all test areas for students who completed UQCTP-IMPACT Centre Critical Thinking online modules.

2017: UQCTP and the IMPACT Centre launch the Aspiring Thinkers professional development network.

2018: ‘Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors’ by UQCTP’s Peter Ellerton and Dave Kinkead get worldwide media attention, reaching the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric.

2019: The Aspiring Thinkers Network expands in North America with nodes in California and British Columbia.

Contact details:

Professor Deborah Brown

Professor Deborah Brown, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Email: deborah.brown@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 3365 2804
Web: hapi.uq.edu.au/profile/433/deborah-brown

Dr Peter Ellerton

Dr Peter Ellerton, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Email: peter.ellerton@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 3365 3165
Web: https://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/2238

This article was last updated on 18 March 2019.

Read more about how UQ researchers are making an impact.

Professor Deborah Brown

Professor Deborah Brown

Professor Deborah Brown

Dr Peter Ellerton

Dr Peter Ellerton

Dr Peter Ellerton