As one of the major goals of higher education, developing students’ critical thinking skills is a top priority among educators in NUS and it is aligned with the University’s mission, which emphasises the importance of nurturing “thinking individuals”. NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan also highlighted the importance of educating thinking individuals in his speech delivered at this year’s University Awards in May 2010. He urged faculty members to nurture students who possess “a questioning mind capable of critical thinking, zest for knowledge and discovery, effectiveness in cross-cultural and cross disciplinary settings, a spirit of enterprise and good communication skills” (Tan, 2010). He correctly suggested that collectively, and as individuals, teachers should have “a true and deep commitment to such an educational philosophy and outcome” and to “challenge our students, to take them out of their “comfort zone” both intellectually and as individuals” (Tan, 2010). It is indeed true that the University needs to provide students with more opportunities to develop their critical thinking from various angles.
Among various assignments we give our students, the writing exercise provides the best opportunity for students to develop their critical thinking skills. It promotes inquiry-based, proactive learning in which students must identify problems and organise information to support their arguments. To achieve this goal, I have restructured the writing assignment in my modules so that students could become more involved in the thinking process. Merely giving them a writing assignment does not maximise our students’ opportunities to develop their critical thinking. One has to remember that the University also contributes to our students’ intellectual development, which is occurring rapidly at this stage of their lives. There are two essential elements of this process where the University can help directly: the collection and ordering of relevant information, and the ability to analyse and reflect on the content. These elements are related to ability and can be developed, or learnt, by every student at the University if the academic staff also play their part and “lead by example”.
However, directed interaction between the students themselves can also contribute towards the goals outlined by the President. Institutionalising a peer review process in which students get feedback from other students as well as their course instructor provides more opportunities for them to re-examine the research agenda and reconstruct their arguments. The central questions we must consider are:
• To what extent does a peer review exercise motivates students to work on their essays; and
• How and to what extent does individual consultation, together with students’ feedback, help their revision process?
In my seminar-style module JS3223 “Japan and the Asia-Pacific Region”, students are instructed to take on a writing assignment. Within this project, student self-development is enhanced by getting them to do a structured analysis of the writing assignment in a systematic way.
Students need to:
1) submit a research proposal including the title and the assignment’s objective, research question(s) and relevant literature (subject to course instructor’s approval) in Week 3;
2) draft an essay and submit it by Week 6;
3) write a feedback paper on the essay(s) the course instructor has allocated to each student in Week 7;
4) discuss the content of the feedback on their own essays with a course instructor in Week 8;
5) revise their essay carefully;
6) submit the final essay in Week 12, together with a note on the revisions they made.