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Building new paths to critical thinking

Researcher: Jeffrey A. Greene
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Teaching ‘digital literacy’ for the Information Age

English author Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back 1,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” The point: In the ever-deepening information well of the Internet and other digital environments, how do we find truthful, evidence-based answers? We do it by teaching the students of the 21st century how to become critical thinkers, a feat that requires both self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition.

Even though today’s students have grown up in the Information Age, this does not make them “digital natives” according to Greene. Research indicates that many students struggle with learning online, and in particular with self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition. To make matters worse, students can fall into bad habits, such as failing to check the reliability of a source — something that can damage their ability to think critically. If you teach a swimmer how to breaststroke but not proper breathing patterns, they’ll flounder.

The Edge
Jeff Greene has developed new ways to analyze data from “think-aloud protocol” – or TAP – to measure how people self-regulate their learning and enact epistemic cognition as they work to find answers to questions and to solve problems. By studying the interplay of these two types of mind work, Greene has demonstrated how TAPs can be used by researchers to study complex learning behaviors. His findings suggest avenues by which understandings of epistemic cognition and self-regulated learning can be incorporated into teacher preparation programs to help teachers instill critical thinking skills in their students – steps toward developing stronger digital literacy skills.

As online resources become more essential in modern classrooms, the need for students to properly use digital literacy skills becomes more important. The Internet is an incredibly valuable resource – when students know how to use it effectively. Using the Internet can help students move beyond non-linear learning, provide access resources such as maps, charts and graphs, illustrations and interactive sites that the student can control.

This is where self-regulated learning comes into play. Successful, self-regulated learners make effective plans that can be monitored for effectiveness and efficiency, adapted when needed, and ultimately followed through even when things get tough. These skills are essential for successful digital experiences, Greene says.

However, self-regulated learning is not all that’s needed. Students can be self-regulated without using critical thinking skills. Epistemic cognition extends learners’ abilities by helping them construct, evaluate, and use the knowledge they consume.

Greene says that to successfully prepare students for the demands of the 21st century, researchers must continue to study epistemic cognition — a critical aspect of critical thinking. It helps individuals determine what they actually know versus what they believe, doubt, or distrust. People make decisions using learned epistemic cognition practices every day. Greene gives the example of choosing to keep money in a bank. Most people simply assume it’s safe because they’ve grown up among parents and others who they trust telling them it is okay. As a result, making that choice does not involve a very conscious evaluation process. As people confront more complex problems, if they continue to rely only on what other people tell them, they often lack the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to really think through them successfully.

People also need to know how to evaluate sources of information, sorting reliable ones from unreliable ones, and have an understanding of how knowledge is developed within disciplines. For example, people understand that their medical doctor has had years of specialized training that gives them expertise that can be relied upon.

Thinking out loud to gain critical knowledge

For more than 20 years, researchers have hypothesized the connection between epistemic cognition and self-regulated learning, but many empirical results are the product of self-report measures with questionable validity. Additionally, critical thinking is difficult to measure through the surveys, polls, or questionnaires used in self-report studies.

A more efficient technique for gathering data on such topics is think-aloud protocol (TAP) analysis. Developed in the 1980s from protocol analysis techniques used by K. Anders Ericsson and Herbert Simon, TAP requires research participants to verbalize their thought process as they engage in a task — a much more dependable process for measuring self-regulated learning than self-reports after learning, or outside of the learning context.

Previous researchers have succeeded in coding TAPs to show cognitive and metacognitive thinking patterns — a dictionary, so to speak, for translating the undiscovered language of the brain. (Azevedo, 2005) The phrase “I understand that,” for example, is coded as a “judgment of understanding,” or the study participant’s ability to comprehend the material in front of them. Through Greene’s expansion of this dictionary, epistemic cognition can also be measured in this way. The key with TAPs, however, is to encourage participants to report only their thoughts, not explain what they’re thinking. That’s because previous research has shown that by asking participants to explain their thinking process while learning can actually alter that thinking process, therefore fouling the measurements.

Although TAPs seem like a better option than self-report measures for this type of research, it’s important to note how intensive they are. Thirty minutes of data collected from TAPs may involve more than 1,000 phrases that require coding and up to six hours of work, according to Greene. And, given the number of codes, this research method needs a lot of participants in order for researchers to understand how each code relates to learning. Through collaboration with student colleagues, Greene has developed a procedure for aggregating TAP codes into a smaller set of variables that are simpler to study.

Greene and his research team have used the TAP coding procedure to capture self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition as they occur in students. For example, in one study they asked 20 undergraduates to participate in a 90-minute session, which began with a short demographic questionnaire and a 20-minute knowledge pretest. Then, the following learning task was read aloud:

“Imagine that you have been asked to write a five-page paper for an undergraduate elective class in public health on whether taking a daily vitamin pill is helpful for normal, healthy adults. You decide to consult sources on the Internet. We have provided you with a list of pages that came up after your first search, which you may consult if you wish. You are also free to consult any other webpages you wish.”

The student participants were asked to verbalize every single thing they thought or read during their 30-minute session navigating the Internet, which was audio and video recorded. After, they spent 20 minutes taking a posttest identical to that of the pretest. Upon comparing both test results, Greene observed significant improvement in posttest responses, and that this improvement was related to digital literacy processing, suggesting that self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition are related to knowledge gains in the digital learning environment. (Greene, Yu & Copeland, 2014) Greene has since built on this inquiry with a larger study.

Even more importantly, perhaps, this work has revealed that Greene’s techniques are a viable method of preparing, analyzing, and representing TAP data regarding these phenomena. Lastly, the study further demonstrated how TAP data collection and analysis can be successfully applied by researchers to the study of students’ complex behaviors when learning science topics in the multimedia, hyperlinked contexts of the Internet.

Different subjects require different skill sets

As teachers prepare students for continued education and for demands of outside-the-school endeavors, it’s important to teach them how to think critically in discipline-specific manners. The ways scientists make arguments, for example, is very different from how historians make arguments. And the essential elements needed to create an effective discourse in biology vary greatly from the knowledge required to successfully compete in a literary debate.

Greene and his research team utilized TAPs again to address the differences in self-regulated learning skills for those studying science and those studying history. For the study, 94 college-aged students were asked to explore either a history- or science-focused digital library. These computer-based learning environments feature curated collections of pictures, videos, texts, maps, simulations, and other multimedia forms.

Like the earlier study, students were given a 20-minute pretest and posttest to test knowledge gains after completing a specific task using the information within the digital libraries. Those assigned to the history library were tasked with understanding the origins and controversies regarding the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The group focused on science was asked to understand the phase change process of substances as they move from solid to liquid to gaseous states. Students in both groups spent the next 30 minutes verbalizing their thought processes, which were both audio- and video-recorded by the research team.

Participants from both groups, on average, scored higher on the posttest than on the pretest — results that support the hypothesis that digital libraries can help users learn and think critically when used effectively. The types and frequency of self-regulated learning processes used for each subject, however, varied. These findings support that idea that each subject requires a different approach, a different set of skills.

The findings provide initial support for Greene’s claim that different subjects of study require different self-regulated learning processes. These results are, however, merely an important first step to understanding this topic more in-depth.

Applications in the classroom

So many of the evolving standards and goals for education involve critical thinking and self-regulated learning, according to Greene. When teachers ask students to “analyze,” “evaluate,” “interpret,” or “argue,” what they really want is students to think critically. But the climate in the classroom has to be one that effectively supports, models, and rewards this skill.

For example, if a teacher says it’s important to think critically, but the only assessments she gives are multiple choice tests, then her students aren’t going to learn how to think critically, or see its importance. Likewise, if a teacher stresses the importance of being a self-starter in today’s world, but there are no opportunities to have voice in the classroom, the students are going to struggle to become more autonomous.

Teachers need to talk the talk and walk the walk, according to Greene. Educators who teach self-regulated learning should explicitly model it their lessons — and reward it.

Research has shown that some of the most productive educational environments for building critical thinking skills are constructivist in nature. Constructivist classrooms are student-focused, offering them autonomy to explore and solve problems to a point they can eventually teach it to their peers. The teacher works to build scaffolds that guide students in constructing their knowledge claims. (Muis & Duffy, 2013)

Teacher epistemic belief systems are vital to the success of the classroom and, ultimately, dictate the outcome for students’ success at solving complex problems. The next challenge involves continued research into how epistemic cognition can be incorporated into teacher preparation programs — something that will not only strengthen teaching technique, but change the course of the education system as a whole.

The future of this research

Little empirical research shows how self-regulated learning and/or epistemic cognition processing varies from website to website, according to Greene. To tackle this topic, he and his team are collecting and analyzing TAP data surrounding self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition to determine how students’ evaluations of websites affect how they self-regulate and learn with them. For example, do people who critically evaluate websites learn more — or even better — than those who do not? This seems like an obvious question, but more evidence is needed to truly answer it.

The phenomenon of “ego depletion” — the feelings of exhaustion that can result from having to regulate cognition and emotions when encountering challenging information online — is an additional topic Greene hopes to study in the future. People only have a certain amount of energy for engaging in things that require effort such as managing emotions, completing challenging tasks, and engaging in critical thinking. Once that energy is tapped, those processes become more and more difficult to complete. Ego depletion may have factored heavily during the 2016 presidential election, according to Greene. People regularly exchanged harsh commentary and shared defeated attitudes in response to the overstimulation of information received from social media sites on a daily basis. Greene wants to know how these environments affect critical thinking, and whether or not consuming information from websites with content that differs from your own belief system leads to further ego depletion.

Another area of new study: Greene and his team are also analyzing data from a study of professors reading various articles from all types of websites on a single controversial issue — such as the reproducibility “crisis” in psychology — to see how they enact epistemic cognition. The study will provide much needed insight into the discipline-specific nature of epistemic cognition. The participating professors represent a wide range of fields that include those closely related to the topic being studied such as sociology and anthropology, to much more unrelated fields like physics and chemistry.

Applying this knowledge within classrooms is one of the big next-steps. With additional funding, Greene hopes to collaborate with educators to develop self-regulated learning and epistemic cognition training programs to help them teach students how to become better digital learners.


  • Azevedo, R. (2005). Computer environments as metacognitive tools for enhancing learning. Educational Psychologist, 40, 193–197.
  • Chinn, C.A.; Buckland, L.A.; Samarapungavan, A. (2011) Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy ad psychology. Educational Psychologist, 46(3), 141-167.
  • Greene, J.A.; Azevedo, R.; Torney-Purta, J. (2008) Modeling epistemic and ontological cognition: Philosophical perspectives and methodological directions. Educational Psychologist, 43(3), 142-160.
  • Greene, J. A., & Yu, S. (2014). Modeling and measuring epistemic cognition: A qualitative re-investigation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39, 12-28.
  • Muis, K. R., & Duffy, M. C. (2013). Epistemic climate and epistemic change: Instruction designed to change students’ epistemic beliefs and learning strategies and improve achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 213–225.
  • Schommer-Aikins, M. (1990). Schommer epistemological questionnaire [for college students]. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(3), 498-504.
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By Alyssa LaFaro