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Jan 1999 Vol. 3   No. 1

........   STUDENT ASSESSMENT  ........
Comprehension, Critical Thinking & Creative Thinking:
A Tricriterial Approach To Student Assessment
By Dr Arun Balasubramaniam
Department of Philosophy
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences

The Three Cs

In assessing students for philosophical skills I generally consider three criteria – comprehension, critical ability and creative insight. These constitute what I characterise as the three Cs of evaluation. I suspect my approach is applicable to most subjects in the humanities and, to an extent, can also be extended to scientific disciplines.


Comprehension involves the ability of a student to faithfully present an argument or a philosophical position . However, comprehension should not be confused with regurgitation. Regurgitation reproduces without understanding and can easily be eliminated by properly designed questions in which scope for such imitation is disallowed. By contrast, comprehension indicates the student’s mastery of an established body of knowledge and, being central to the proper deployment of other skills like critical and creative thinking, it has to be an important criterion of assessment.

Moreover, comprehension itself can be exhibited in two different ways. Deep comprehension occurs when a student is able to focus on the central principles of a position without conflating them with other peripheral assumptions required to articulate a particular version of it. Students with shallow comprehension tend to confuse central and peripheral assumptions. Without deep comprehension a student cannot engage in effective critical thinking because criticism tends to focus on the limitations of auxiliary assumptions built into a particular version of a position – assumptions which can be easily modified or relinquished without serious threat to the position being criticised. This brings us to the assessment of student critical skills.

Critical Thinking

Here the student is judged on the ability to identify both the scope and the limits of the position being entertained. What is important is not the position taken but the arguments deployed by the student. Indeed the student may display critical skills by extending the range of application of a given theory in new directions. Such constructive critical thinking can occur only if the student comprehends the position concerned with sufficient depth to separate its deep and shallow assumptions.

Critical skill can also be displayed through exposing the limits of a position. Such deconstructive critical thinking also requires deep comprehension. Weaker students who cannot distinguish peripheral and central assumptions tend to criticise the former. Their overall critical strategy often fails because the position attacked is easily defended by amending its less central claims. By contrast, students with deep comprehension are more likely to make adequate deconstructions. This would often motivate them to proceed to the third stage of thinking – creative thinking.

Creative Thinking

Just as good critical skills depend on deep comprehension, so do good creative skills depend on deconstructive critical thinking. In addition creative thinking requires highly developed imaginative skills to generate a new viewpoint. Since such a viewpoint often emerges through trial and error in which different alternative positions have been tested it requires the interplay of both imaginative and critical powers.

As with critical thinking there are two types of creativity – combinatorial creativity and de novo creativity. In the former students combine insights from two different positions so as to articulate and defend a new synthetic position. More rare is de novo creativity which occurs when a student arrives at a completely novel, but defensible, position. Such de novo creativity can be threatening to teachers since it may tend to subvert their own laboriously elaborated positions. This imposes a moral burden on teachers who are required to both welcome and reward such innovations commensurately.


The tricriterial approach I have proposed assumes that thinking – especially philosophical thinking – moves through three successive stages. The first involves comprehension – either shallow or deep. Deep comprehension opens the arena to constructive and deconstructive critical thinking. Deconstructive critical thinking motivates either combinatorial or de novo creative thinking. In evaluating students’ capacity for philosophical thinking – and possibly thinking in general – we should attend both to the level they have reached and the degree of knowledge and skill they display therein.





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