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Editor’s Note
: Murchú and Muirhead have related key theories to best practices in teaching and learning. Critical thinking is crucial to facilitate higher levels of learning. It goes broader and deeper than problem solving, and “often requires reflecting on information from several academic disciplines or knowledge domains.”

Insights into Promoting Critical Thinking
in Online Classes

Daithí Ó Murchú and Brent Muirhead


At the beginning of the 21st. Century, all educators and all educational institutions, at all levels of education provision, are faced with the greatest time of possibility for change and evolution or stagnation and regression. Barker, 1978 in New York, stated that “action with vision can change the world” and the authors, based on their many years of experience working in both traditional and managed or virtual, E-Learning, lifelong-learning environments contend that the promotion of critical thinking is a key element in meaningful, responsible and soulful learning. Our ‘raison d’être’ as educators is to prepare our students for the society which does not yet exist and in doing so, provide them with opportunities to critically assess and transform their experiences into authentic learning experiences (Ó Murchú, 2005). This article explores the thought processes, realities and perceptions of the authors’ on-going experiences in on-line classes and gives their insights into promoting critical thinking in these Managed Learning Environments (MLEs).

Importance of Critical Thinking

Today’s traditional higher education institutions are coming under greater public scrutiny as people wonder about their ability to deliver their educational promises. Smith (2004) notes that “all too often our colleges and universities treasure tradition at the expense of today’s knowledge, research, and needs. We practice an outdated model of education. Its effectiveness is limited. And it’s time for a change” (p. xxii).

Courts and McInerney (1993) conducted an extensive investigation on student perceptions of their college instruction and students were disappointed with a heavy reliance upon lectures and lack of meaningful interaction with their instructors. Additionally, students related the following concerns:

  • Students were not self-directed learners. They were not confident in their ability to approach a problem and figure it out on their own.

  • The students evidenced a powerful sense that they were not learning as much as they should be.

  • Many of the students voiced a belief that their college teachers do not really care much about them or about promoting their learning or interacting with them.

  • The result? Students did not engage fully or energetically in learning something they did not want to learn or see any reason for learning (pp. 33-38).

Many of today’s administrators and teachers realize the importance of developing a new contemporary vision of learning (Muirhead, 2001). Adult educators affirm a new teaching and learning model that stresses student-centered instruction (Sherry, 1996). The traditional role(s) of teachers are being changed from information transmitters to guides who design, and design for, meaningful, responsible, soulful and reflective learning experiences (Salomon, 1992, Ó Murchú, 2005). The term education describes a teaching and learning concept that transcends sharing facts but it assumes that a capable teacher will know where he or she is going (goal-oriented). The wise teacher seeks to guide his/her students toward greater maturity which translates into new skills and knowledge. The soulful teacher recognizes the holistic nature of meaningful learning and appreciates the multiple intelligences of his/her students. The 21st, Century teacher, irrespective of his/her learning environment, recognizes the value of critical thinking at all levels of meaningful learning.

What is Meaningful Learning - ML?

In order to effectively integrate technology into a meaningful learning experience in on-line classes, we must first have a clear understanding of what a meaningful learning experience is. Meaningful learning (ML) occurs when learners actively interpret their experience using internal, cognitive operations. ML requires that teachers change their role from sage to guide, from giver to collaborator, from instructor to instigator (Ó Murchú, 2003). Since students learn from thinking about what they are doing, the teacher’s role becomes one of stimulating and supporting activities that engage learners in critical thinking (Bhattacharya, 2002). Teachers must also be comfortable that this thinking may transcend their own insights. Meaningful learning requires knowledge to be constructed by the learner, not transmitted from the teacher to the student (Jonassen, et al., 1999).


According to Jonassen, et al. (1999), meaningful learning is:

  • Active (manipulative): We interact with the environment manipulate the objects within it and observe the effects of our manipulations.

  • Constructive and reflective: Activity is essential but insufficient for meaningful learning. We must reflect on the activity and our observations, and interpret them in order to have a meaningful learning experience.

  • Intentional: Human behavior is naturally goal-directed. When students actively try to achieve a learning goal that they have articulated, they think and learn more. For students to experience meaningful learning, they must be able to articulate their own learning goals and monitor their own progress.

  • Authentic (complex and contextual): Thoughts and ideas rely on the contexts in which they occur in order to have meaning. Presenting facts that are stripped from their contextual clues divorces knowledge from reality. Learning is meaningful, better understood and more likely to transfer to new situations when it occurs by engaging with real-life, complex problems.

  • Cooperative (collaborative and conversational): We live, work and learn in communities, naturally seeking ideas and assistance from each other, and negotiating about problems and how to solve them. It is in this context that we learn there are numerous ways to view the world and a variety of solutions to most problems. Meaningful learning, therefore, requires conversations and group experiences.

To experience meaningful, authentic learning, students need to do much more than access or seek information—they need to know how to examine, perceive, interpret and experience information and think critically at all times.

Meaningful and Soulful Learning

To the ancient Greeks the root word for “soul” is the same as the word for “alive”, and to them the soul was what made living things alive. Plato considered the soul to be the “essence” of a person that reasons, decides and acts. He considered the soul to be a separate entity from the living body and to be immortal. In early Hebrew thought, “soul” represented the life force. However, over time it began to be seen as something independent of the physical being. According to the Hebrew bible, when God created Adam, he “breathed” into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. The Hebrew word for “breath” is often used to mean “spirit” and “inspiration”. “Soulful learning” is therefore defined as being the essence of breathing life into transformative reflection, which comes from the inside –out (Sorensen & Ó Murchú, 2005).

Learning for learning's sake isn't enough. We may learn things that constrict our vision and warp our judgment. What we must reach for is a conception of perpetual self-discovery, perpetual reshaping to realize one's goals, to realize one's best self, to be the person one could be. (Gardner, 1983)

The concept of “meaningful learning” may be defined from several perspectives. From the point of view of Colaizzi (1978), “meaningful learning” is authentic learning. In agreement with Colaizzi, Wiske (1998).

Critical Thinking

Describing the critical thinking process has challenged individuals from a diversity of academic disciplines. Huitt (1998) highlights how various groups have made significant contributions which have improved our understanding of this complex concept:

Cognitive psychologists developed vital distinctions and differences in thinking such as creativity.

Philosophers thinking is a process that must based on criteria and standards and it is an important activity that influences a person’s beliefs and behavior.

Behavioral psychology provided have established detailed definitions that categorize critical thinking elements which have enabled teachers to create instructional student activities that enhance reflective thought.

Content specialists – have created relevant teaching methods for a diversity of subject areas (i.e. reading).

An excellent critical thinking definition is offered by Lipman (1995) who states “….critical thinking is skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context” (p. 146). It is one of the best definitions on critical thinking because Lipman integrates the concept of standards (criteria to measure achievement), skills (especially cognitive) and personal judgment (making wise choices). Moreover, Lipman argues for a comprehensive instructional approach that acknowledges the importance of both teachers and learners fulfilling their respective roles in the educational process. Teachers must consistently affirm the independence and autonomy of their learners by enabling them to freely pursue meaningful, authentic learning objectives. Students are given the power to assume greater responsibility for their educational experiences and cultivate self-directed learning strategies. Therefore, the context of learning critical thinking skills is interactive and builds upon individuals who are dedicated to improving their academic performance by continuously enhancing their ability to acquire new knowledge and implement creative problem solving skills.

Lipman’s (1995) definition should be viewed as a reference point that describes the essential features of critical thinking. It requires individuals to be proactive, determined to work through complex problems and be open-minded to explore alternative ideas and solutions. Critical thinking is a dynamic learning process that can be stimulated by a variety of formal and informal activities. Perhaps, educators have placed too much emphasis on logical aspects of reflective thought and neglected the soulful, role of emotion. Brookfield (1987) warns people that it is risky to ignore emotions when making decisions. The critical thinking process has a built-in emotional element because people are often engaged in assessing the need to change their values and beliefs. This can bring anxiety and even resistance to implementing potential changes that appear threatening. Those who discard flawed assumptions can experience feelings of liberation, self-confidence and joy as they learn how to effectively make changes in their personal and professional lives.

The process of promoting critical thinking in online classes involves facing the realization that students must be meaningfully motivated and encouraged to change their thinking skills. Deutschman (2005, p. 55) shares five powerful myths about changing behavior:

  • Crisis is a powerful impetus for change. Ninety percent of the patients who’ve had coronary bypasses don’t sustain changes in the unhealthy lifestyles that worsen their severe heart disease and greatly threaten their lives.

  • Change is motivated by fear. It’s too easy for people to go into denial of the bad things that might happen to them.

  • The facts will set us free. Our thinking is guided by narratives not facts.

  • Small, gradual changes are always easier to make and sustain. Radical, sweeping changes are often easier because they quickly yield benefits.

  • We can’t change because our brains become ‘hardwired early in life.’ Our brains have extraordinary ‘plasticity,’ meaning that we can continue learning complex new things throughout our lives- assuming we remain truly active and engaged.

Deutschman argues that inspiration for changes arises from positive visions of the future based on metaphors that provide a meaning to facts. People must begin by changing how they think, which requires adjusting their mental frames of how they process information. Unfortunately, the concept of critical thinking has been confused with being something quite abstract from daily living. In reality, adults utilize critical thinking skills in a host of situations: individuals raising questions within a relationship, employees who explore the rationale behind their work assignments, managers experimenting with delegation of duties, citizens posing difficult questions to their political leaders, and families discussing the merits of various television shows (Brookfield, 1987).

Critical Thinking & Reading

The distance learning environment mirrors traditional classrooms in requiring their students to read an assortment of books and articles for their classes. Research studies reveal three major differences between good readers and poor ones. Byrnes (2001) notes that good readers can recognize words automatically which enables the individual to focus on higher order thinking by utilizing sentence integration and make semantic connections. Secondly, good readers quickly recognize words. “Speed is important because readers need to be able to operate on information in working memory before it dissipates” (Byrnes, 2001, p. 144). A third characteristic of a good reader is their ability to recode words into phonological representations. The phonological skills help the individual to create a code and stable pathway for the working memory to effectively access word meanings.

Anderson (2005) stresses that reading comprehension follows a specific sequential order that starts with perception, then moves to parsing of words and closes with utilization. Language studies highlight the principle known as immediacy of interpretation. It refers to people pulling meaning from each word before finishing the sentence. A study conducted by Just and Carpenter (1980) examined study participants as they read a sentence and people were fixated more on words which were unfamiliar or perhaps surprising to them. Immediacy principle indicates interpretation of sentences can begin even before the verb appears and people will devote more time at the end of a phrase. Cognitive psychologists have investigated the reading of textual narratives and their findings reveal the structure and order of the material has important implications for readers. Thorndyke’s (1977) project created two stories: one with what is considered a natural order which had a logical progression of the story and another with the story being scrambled. Study participants were able to recall 85% of the original story but only 32% were able to recall the chaotic story. It is interesting that Anderson (2005) uses a series of single sentences within a chapter to highlight key ideas to help individuals acquire a better understanding of the material. Pressley and Schneider (1997) found that students can enhance their ability to identify important ideas in passages through reading activities which offer both practice and feedback. Students learn to use their metacognition skills to regulate their reading practices. Teachers can assist students by helping them broaden the range of cues that are associated in encoding and retrieval of information so they can effectively recall the information in a larger range of situations. Research on students’ reading a textbook in class have found that by asking why questions and having guided peer discussion of the material enhances learning. Distance educators can create online dialog questions that stress material from student textbooks. A natural concern among all educators is whether students are reading their course materials. The questioning process increased the student’s elaboration of the information which made the knowledge more meaningful and helped them to better categorize and recall it (King, 1994).

The authors create lesson plans that are designed to enhance the student’s study strategies and increase their understanding of foundational knowledge. Teachers can develop instructional plans that increase the student’s cognitive information processing skills (Driscoll, 2005, p. 104):

  • provide organized instruction

  • arrange extensive and variable practice

  • enhance learner’s encoding and memory

  • enhance learner’s self-control of information processing.

Anderson (2005) argues that combination of distributed practice and learning the information in different contexts will increase retention. The level of information processing and using elaboration techniques are essential to effective recall of knowledge. Students find recall of knowledge easier from a novel than from a textbook. In reality, they are able to elaborate on material in the novel which enhances the learning process because the students are making the information more relevant (Schacter, 1996). Teachers can remind students of study techniques: such as being active readers, taking concise notes and using elaboration techniques to make the material more meaningful. Essential cognitive processing elements “…include understanding main ideas, generating inferences that link these ideas together, and relating them to related information in the memory” (Bruner et al, 2004, p.31).

Cognitive psychologists have attempted to create a basic problem solving model that could be relevant in a diversity of academic subjects. Bruning et al (2004) observes that a common feature of the models is developing a set of general procedures to work through a problem and the application of metacognitive skills which help individuals to monitor their work. Anderson (2005) sees problem solving as having a goal-directed orientation involving a problem space “which consists of various states of the problem. A state is a representation of the problem in some degree of solution” (p. 245). A focus on goals reveals that individuals will divide a major goal into a set of sub goals by utilizing operators. “The term operator refers to an action that will transform the problem state into another problem state. The solution of the overall problem is a sequence of these known operators” (Anderson, 2005, p. 245). Cognitive experts consider problem solving skills to have unique qualities. Halpern (1997) observed that problem solving involves specialized use of knowledge for a clearly defined problem (i.e. word problems) which depends upon subject expertise. In contrast, critical thinking often requires reflecting on information from several academic disciplines or knowledge domains. Often, the problems are open ended, have potentially numerous solutions and sometimes might not have a known answer.

The problem solving process requires individuals to learn how to use operators to develop potential states through search techniques that eventually lead to the goal of resolving the problem. Anderson (2005) reveals that individuals acquire operators primarily through three means: discovery, analogy and direct teaching. Yet, each of these represents possible barriers to acquiring operators. The discovery method requires higher order reasoning skills and can be time consuming and quite frustrating. Individuals can implement analogies for resolving problems with only a limited amount of instruction. This is an important advantage which enables problem solvers to begin practicing to refine their skills. Anderson (2005) sees two vital issues with analogies that involve identifying appropriate examples and helping students avoid making superficial comparisons with previously used analogies. Ross’ (1987) research on study participants who were learning about probability principles they were given an illustration of tossing two dice to produce the number seven. The study participants were given what appeared to be a similar problem using the dice. Individuals made a superficial comparison to their previous example and they only were successful when a new problem reflected early probability principles. The experiment illustrates the need for students to cultivate creativity, patience and determination to avoid trying to solve a problem too quickly.

Critical Thinking & Writing

Writing is known as a complex activity that involves an assortment of cognitive tasks. Bruner et al (2004) states it includes “…working and long-term memory, procedural and declarative knowledge, motivation, self-regulation, and beliefs and attitudes” (p. 291). A theoretically sound cognitive model of writing is able to effectively recognize variances in writing such as different types (i.e. poetry, letter or essay), variety of tasks which have different intent, narrative length and creative expectations, writer’s goals, experience and age and degree of complexity.

Flowers and Hayes’ (1984) writing model reflects a focus on three major phases: task environment, long-term memory and working memory. The task environment involves a description of the writing assignment which would include a specific topic and target audience. Motivational cues are often grades such as an essay being worth one test grade. Teachers must strive to make clear assignments because confusing directions can cause students to miss the original purpose of the task and not produce their best work. The external storage is second aspect of the task environment which is the text produced and the use of resources such as student notes from articles, drafts of paper and the student’s previous papers. External storage plays a key role in reducing the writer’s memory load which enables individuals to work on new knowledge to write and revise new material. The writer’s long-term memory according Flowers and Hayes impacts the entire writing process. “Cognitive processes interact continually in working memory and long-term memory as writers think through their goals, search for ideas and vocabulary, and evaluate and review text that they have written (Bruning et al, 2004, p. 294).

It is important for teachers to balance their teaching activities to provide students with subject content knowledge, instructional guidance to assist in learning research and writing skills. The working memory is where the majority of the writing tasks take place and three major processes are associated with it: planning, translating and reviewing. Planning requires individuals to develop goals and generating ideas which might arise from their long-term memory. Generating content and relevant ides flows throughout the writing process as individuals organize their material into coherent structures. Working memory does involve the writer’s translation of ideas by accessing their semantic memories and locating the vocabulary to express their thoughts. Researchers have noticed a trait of good writers is their automatic translating skills enable them to reduce stress of items on their working memory (McCuthen, 1996). The reviewing process in the working memory pertains to evaluating and revising the writing. Good writers are better at understanding of how to integrate their subject content and discourse knowledge. Also, good writers are able to identify flaws in their work such as the choice of words. Graham and Harris (1993) noticed that less sophisticated writers had problems seeing the value in editing their first draft. Often, those who struggle with writing will neglect devoting adequate attention to revising papers. This affirms the need for teachers to help students cultivate self-regulation cognitive skills.

Hillocks’ (1989) investigation identified the four effective instructional approaches to student writing:

Models – share good examples of writing and assisting students to identify parts of the model and stress is placed on the producing a quality product.

Sentence-combining – students learn to combine several sentences into one complex sentence and the emphasis is on the process of writing.

Scales – students learn how to evaluate the quality of compositions and revise the weaker works and the stress is upon revision.

Inquiry – students are given data and they are given directed to use the data in their writing which can range from descriptive to theoretical essays on the data. It encourages students to develop plans and organize their ideas.

Studies reveal that an excessive emphasis on grammar can actually promote weaker writing skills. A review of the literature on best writing practices affirms that importance of avoiding instructional approaches that create passive learning situations. Students should be challenged to use their metacognition skills to learn about the writing process (i.e. planning and revising) and provided with opportunities to compare good and poor written materials to gain insights into quality narratives (Brynes, 2001).

Distance educators can share writing resources with their students. Clark’s (2004) web site contains practical information and advice for today’s writers whether they are novices or more advanced in their skills. The author’s students have benefited from using Sawer (2000) and Hostetler’s (2004) writing advice.

Figure 2. Writing Tips


The authors have endeavored, based on their many years of working and practical experiences in both traditional and managed learning environments, to give their insights into promoting critical thinking in online classes. From the abstracted perspectives of authentic, soulful and meaningful learning, to the concrete aspects of multiple intelligences and effective instructional, metacognitive approaches to critical thinking in reading and writing, they have striven to further the debate surrounding the outdated model of education practices in many traditional universities to the detriment of 21st. Century, life-long learning. The challenges of today’s society demand of educators and education institutions, whether traditional or virtual, to seek out, explore and utilize new horizons and new possibilities for the provision of authentic, meaningful learning. Be this as it may, the authors contend that void of the belief that critical thinking skills must infiltrate this vision for education, the possibilities for soulful learning are negated and students will continue, with their mentors to regurgitate information, ad nasium, ad finitum. Remember, ‘Action with Vision WILL change the world’.



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About the Authors

Daithí Ó Murchú Ph.D.

Daithí Ó Murchú is an all-gaelic, Irish medium, elementary school principal teacher in Gaelscoil Ó Doghair, Newcastle West, Ireland since its foundation in 1985. In 1993 he founded the first co-educational, second level ‘ all-Gaelic Gaelcholáiste’ in the Mid-West and in 1996, was awarded his Masters in Management and Curriculum studies in Trinity College, Dublin. Following his first PhD in Technology and linguistics and subsequently in Elementary education and Learning, he was elected executive vice-president of human language and technology with SITE (USA).

As a cultural and technology expert with the European Union’s MyEurope schools, Daithíalso collaborated with Waikito University, New Zealand on their distance-education, teacher training programme and began collaborating with Trinity College, Carmarthen, Wales and the University of San Diego in their technology and Multiple Intelligences programmes. Having been seconded to Mary Immaculate College of Education, University of Limerick as a lecturer in Methodology of teaching Gaelic, Daithí continued to work with the Master programmes in MSc, MEd and MA in Education and ICT programmes in the various universities. As a research fellow in ICT and Education at Trinity College, Dublin, he lectured and designed the first MSc programme modules in Gaelic in Knowledge management and ICT.

Presently Daithí is working with Aalborg University, Denmark in their VirtDan project which designs innovative, e-Learning, blended environments for linguistics, and is contracted to the position of National co-director of Gaelic in blended, e-Learning environments with Hibernia College, Ireland. He continues to teach in Gaelscoil Ó Doghair, which is his first ‘mathethical’ love and his books, presentations and keynote speeches have been enthusiastically received worldwide.

Contact Dr. Daithí Ó Murchú at: omurchu.ias@eircom.net


Brent Muirhead Ph.D.

Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the Lead Faculty and Area Chair for GBAM Business Communications in the graduate department at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Contact Dr. Muirhead at: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.


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