|dc.description.abstract||Despite critical thinking being an avowed aim of higher education, we currently have little understanding of how students develop as critical thinkers.
This qualitative study focused on the in-depth learning experiences of twenty-seven zoology students as they developed as critical thinkers. Data were obtained through annual semi-structured interviews, course documents, my own diary entries, and personal correspondence with the participants. In addition, a technique known as Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR) was used to stimulate the recall and the tacit thinking of four students during a 3rd year tutorial session. The guiding research questions focussed on students, their teachers, the environment, and the zoology curriculum.
In this thesis I take the position that the development of critical thinking does not occur in isolation; it happens within a community of learners. Therefore, I used Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory and his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) model as a theoretical lens to help me understand these students’ experiences.
Vygotsky claimed that all learning is social in origin and that social interactions potentially transform the way people think. He advocated that rather than concentrating on what an individual can already achieve, we should emphasise their potential in co-operative activity. His ZPD model represents the limits of development, at a moment in time, with the assistance of a more capable peer. Vygotsky died before he was able to explore fully the determinants of his model, and to my knowledge no empirical studies in higher education have used Vygotsky’s theory to examine critical thinking development. In addition, the longitudinal aspect of this study offers something new; other research tends to report on critical thinking development over the course of one semester or a year, rather than an entire undergraduate degree programme.
The development of students as critical thinkers took time and was associated with some key curriculum and social experiences. Main findings from the study were as follows:
• Group project work was reported as challenging and rewarding. These projects facilitated the development of an evaluative judgement necessary for critical thinking.
• Curriculum experiences that involved writing and talking were important for structuring the thought processes required for critical thinking.
• The development of students as critical thinkers was facilitated by students gaining the confidence to ask questions of each other and their teachers.
• Despite students recognising and valuing the social aspect of learning there was little opportunity to do so in the large first year classes. There was also little opportunity to challenge or question information and student learning was largely reported as learning facts.
Vygotsky’s ZPD model can help teachers focus on individual students rather than thinking about students as a homogenous group. It can also help teachers think about the most appropriate activities to create a ZPD for critical thinking and in doing so, develop students as critical thinkers. The challenge is to assist learners to reach their ZPD potential and question whether a curriculum meets this need.||