The Journal of General Education 50.1 (2001) 1-28
Critical thinking is viewed as a major teaching goal by faculty (Siegal, 1988). When 2,700 teachers from 33 two- and four-year colleges were asked to identify among a list of choices what they perceived as their primary teaching role, "helping students develop higher-order thinking skills" tied with "teaching students facts and principles" for the highest number of responses; each was selected by 28% of those surveyed (Cross, 1993). Yet, there is evidence that little critical thinking development actually takes place in college classrooms (Barnes, 1983; Braxton & Nordvall, 1985; Paul, Elder, & Bartell, 1997). This discrepancy between what is valued and what is pursued ought to be a perennial concern of practitioners and educational researchers alike.
A central premise of this study is that classroom instruction, and thus student learning, is intensely influenced by the actions of teachers. Teacher behavior is heavily guided by intent, which is in turn linked to teachers' personal self-efficacy. Presumably those faculty members who intentionally infuse critical thinking into their courses do so because they feel reasonably confident in their ability to execute the actions needed to achieve the desired outcome; those who lack such confidence are apt not to invest the necessary time and effort.
This study borrows from the conceptual framework of the exercise of human agency insofar as it recognizes that "teachers' beliefs in their personal efficacy to motivate and promote learning affect the types of learning environments they create and the level of academic progress their students achieve" (Bandura, 1993, p.117). A study by Gibson and Dembo (1984) examined differences between teachers possessing high instructional self-efficacy with those possessing low instructional self-efficacy. Findings reveal that the former group is more apt to devote classroom time to academic learning, provide assistance to those experiencing learning difficulties, and praise students for their accomplishment. Meanwhile, the latter group is more apt to spend time on nonacademic activities, give up on students when they do not achieve the desired results, and criticize students for failures. In their study, Woolfolk and Hoy (1990) found that teachers' sense of personal efficacy not only affected the choice of instructional practices, but also the educational orientation fostered inside the classroom. Teachers with a high self-efficacy supported the development of students' intrinsic interests and academic self-directedness; those with low self-efficacy adopted a custodial orientation, and were more likely to utilize extrinsic inducements and negative sanctions. There is also empirical evidence showing that instructional self-efficacy significantly impacts students' perceived academic performance (Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989), as well as actual achievement (Ashton & Webb, 1986).
Instructional self-efficacy is by no means formed in a vacuum. Rather, it is molded by a wide spectrum of factors from one's background experiences and current contextual setting. In a study by Joan Stark et al. (1988), students and faculty at eight institutions were interviewed in an effort to investigate how courses are planned and taught. Results show that among the strongest influences on course planning are academic content, materials, student characteristics, and faculty beliefs. The importance of faculty beliefs was confirmed through another study examining influences on the planning of introductory college courses. Based on exploratory interviews conducted with 89 faculty members, researchers concluded that faculty members are most strongly influenced by their discipline orientations, scholarly and pedagogical backgrounds, and beliefs about the purpose of education (Stark et al., 1990b).
A current deficit exists in the research literature regarding faculty attitudes associated with the development of students' critical thinking skills. This study strives to redress this dearth through an in-depth investigation of the underlying faculty beliefs and perceptions that are related to instructional self-efficacy and teacher intentions towards critical thinking development efforts. This exploratory study was designed to probe faculty members' feelings on a wide range of potentially relevant contextual factors, some of which were suggested by the work of other researchers. These included but were not limited to faculty members' educational background, disciplinary field, institutional mission and support, student characteristics, and available resources.
Qualitative case study methods were used to gather data for this study. In a...