preparing for scholarship: critical thinking

I met with a local biology teacher today to talk about setting up a Schol Bio preparation day in the Waikato, and we also discussed things like the need for critical thinking skills (in addition to a solid base of knowledge from students’ year 12 & year 13 studies and time spent in reading more widely around the subject). So here are some thoughts on this, for those of my readers thinking of entering for the examination this year.

That critical thinking needs to be applied not only to the questions themselves (just what is the examiner asking me to do? what are the key points I must answer to do this), but also to the resource material (what inferences can I draw from this? which bits of information are relevant, and to which section(s) of the question) and to your own knowledge (which of the concepts I’ve learned about is directly relevant here?). Assessing your own knowledge with the same care that you apply to assessing the question and determining how to integrate the resource material with your answer is very important – it’ll avoid you doing what I’ve heard examiners characterise as a “brain dump”. That’s when a student simply writes down everything they know that might be related to a particular question, in the hope that some of it will be relevant.

And then look at the construction of your answer in the same way: for example, check to see that for each statement you make, you’ve also written a justification. That is, why is the point you’ve just made, relevant? What explanation can you provide to support it?  For example, in the 2015 paper there was that question around whether the moa could possibly be brought back into our bush. In answering the part asking about factors leading to a species’ extinction, you might have written that a species might be more at risk of extinction if it’s a specialist (eating a fairly specialised diet). That would be an ‘evidence‘ statement, which you’d then need to justify: if environmental conditions change so that its particular food sources become rarer, or disappear completely, then the species is less likely to survive.

Critical thinking is a learned skill, & something that needs practice. It’s something your teachers will probably work on with you. But there are also resources out there that you can use. For example, has rather a good model that encourages this sort of reflection:

  • what is the question I’m trying to answer?
  • what information do I need to answer it? Of all the information available to me, which bits are relevant?
  • now I’ve identified all the relevant facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
  • what assumptions am I making here, and are they justified?

Teachers are probably already aware of the resource on the tki website (and the material at this link is a “heavier” extension to that.) but for a student looking for additional study pointers focused on critical thinking then this webpage is a nicely written primer on the subject.

Don’t think that these thinking & reflective skills are needed only for the exam! They’re the sort of skills that you’ll use throughout life – a point made by the narrator of this video 🙂

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