151: Assessing Analytical & Critical Thinking Skills (Part 2 of 2)


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  1. Content, Form, and Functions Outline
    • Purpose:
      • Assess students’ ability to determine the informational content, form, and communicative function of a piece of writing
      • All of these skills are important because we are buried in messages of all kinds
    • What It Is: 
      • Students read a message and analyze the what (content), the how (form), and the why (function) of the message.
      • Students can analyze a piece of reading creating a what, how, and why outline
    • Suggestions for Use:
      • Good for writing and communication courses
      • Good for courses that require students to digest dense texts
    • Step-by-Step Procedure:
      1. Choose a sample text that represents a focus genre of a unit.
      2. Divide sample text into sub-sections.
      3. Find a model text that can be used to write a model Content, Form and Functions Outline.
      4. Model process of creating Content, Form and Functions Outline using model text and model outline.  Give clear examples that differentiate form and function.
      5. Provide students with a blank Content, Form and Functions Outline graphic organizer.
      6. Assign text for students to outline and provide sufficient time for students to complete the graphic organizer.
    • Analysis Tips:
      • .Analyze outlines through 3 lenses
        • How well did they paraphrase content?
        • How well did they identify and describe the forms of the text passages?
        • How well did they analyze the functions of the text passages?
      • Keep a running tally of problem spots that students have trouble analyzing
    • Extension Tips:
      • Use this outline to compare different types of writing or media and evaluate their effectiveness
      • Cut a completed outline into pieces for a given text and have students use the text to reorder the pieces
    • Pros:
      • Prompt students to analyze messages carefully
      • Stimulates thinking about patterns and common structures in texts.  Can help students see why and how different genres encode the same information.
      • Allows teachers to focus in on specific sticky points in the text.
    • Cons:
      • Time intensive technique for teachers and students
      • Many texts and messages can’t be easily categorized in neat ways.
      • Many texts and messages perform several functions for each component, making analysis more tricky.
    • Caveats:
      • Start small.  Introduce technique with a short, simple text passage.
      • Don’t feel constrained to model and practice technique over one day – ok and maybe more effective to spread over several days.
      • Recognize that students may come to different valid conclusions about the function of a message.
  2. Analytic Memos
    • Purpose:
      • Assesses ability to analyze assigned problems by using discipline-specific problem solving and communication methods.
      • Assesses ability to communicate concisely and clearly.
      • Provide students with feedback on analytical and writing skills.
    • What It Is: 
      • Students write a 1-2 page analysis of an issue / topic for a specific audience (employer, client, stakeholder)
    • Suggestions for Use:
      • Good for courses that teach specific problem solving / argumentation skills
      • Good as practice for larger writing assignments
      • Best suited for small classes because they take long to prepare and assess
    • Step-by-Step Procedure:
      1. Determine which analytical / critical thinking / problem solving methods you want to assess.
      2. Invent a well-focused issue or problem for the students to analyze.  Gather background information on the issue.
      3. Specify the role of the writer, the audience, the subject and purpose of the memo.
      4. Write your own Analytic Method on the issue.  Note any difficulties.  Assess whether it emphasizes the right types of problem solving and analytical methods.
      5. Decide whether students will work alone, in pairs or in small groups.
      6. Provide written expectations for assignment that includes: students’ role, their audience, specific subject, analytical approach to be taken, length limit (usually 1-2 pages) and deadline.
      7. Explain to students how this assessment will prepare them for subsequent tasks in the course and in their careers.
    • Analysis Tips:
      • Read memo quickly, only once before assessing it.
      • Use short checklist as an aid with 3-5 major points to look for in each memo and limit yourself to these points.
      • Make a simple grid for checklist for places to check off: well done, acceptable, needs work.
      • Limit comments to 2-3 specific comments.
      • Can tally number of well done, acceptable, etc. and identify what are you students’ strengths and areas in need of improvement.
    • Extension Tips:
      • Facilitate peer feedback and revision sessions.
      • Use Analytic Memo as first draft to a graded memo-writing assignment.
      • Divide class into policy analysts and policy makers; have makers respond in memo format to the analysts.
    • Pros:
      • Authentic tasks that sharpen and assess job-related skills
      • Provides rich data related to students’ skills
    • Cons:
      • Preparing memo is time consuming.
      • Providing feedback on memos is time consuming.
    • Caveats:
      • Choose problems that are real enough to warrant thoughtful analysis.
      • Choose problems that are familiar to students.
      • Find ways to give grading credit to these drafts without penalizing students because this is an early draft.


Content, Form & Function Outlines can develop students’ awareness of the methods used to promote specific messages in texts.  Repeating this strategy may help students identify patterns that help them compare / contrast different texts and help them learn how to communicate messages in different writing genres.
The Analytic Memo can help students develop and gather feedback on their use of discipline specific problem solving and writing strategies.  It can serve as a first draft for a larger analytical writing assignment.


Preparation Steps
  • Analyze standards related to upcoming products – analyze the verb (thinking levels) and noun (concepts, topics) in the standards
  • Analyze the reading, writing and thinking skills needed to successfully complete products aligned to the standards
  • If the reading is dense, consider breaking the key texts using the Content, Form and Function outline – this is especially true if the key texts are serving as sources of information and as models for written products
  • If the project requires high levels of analytical thinking, consider using the analytical memo as a pre-assessment of students’ writing and problem solving skills and as a first draft for a written product
Early Implementation Steps
  • Use a version of the procedures above (see WHAT?) to implement the assessment of your choice.
  • Analyze the assessment and provide timely individual and class-wide feedback on the assessments.
  • Describe how the assessment feedback will affect future teaching and learning.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Implement assessment strategy multiple times so students can use the feedback and practice to develop related skills over time
  • After students have experienced the assessment several times, try implementing one of the assessment extensions ideas (see WHAT? above).



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