What Limits Thinking?

by William Peirce

There are several ways to diagnose students' difficulties in carrying out the reasoning processes we ask them to undertake.

Problems with Thinking and Learning Style

Problems with Know How--

    Making Errors in Encoding, Operations, and Goals:

Missing important data or not separating relevant from irrelevant data. For example, some students in classes in writing about literature will base their interpretation of a poem on just the first stanza. Failing to select the right subskills to apply   Failing to divide a task into subparts. For example, some math students will jump right to what they think is the final calculation to get the desired answer. Misrepresenting the task. For example, students in a speech communication class instead of doing the assigned task of analyzing and classifying group communication strategies in their group discussion will instead just write a narrative of who said what. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have investigated how students interpret college academic writing tasks' discovering that sometimes students did not engage in the critical thinking that the professors' assignments intended (Flower (1987); Kantz (1989); Nelson (1990).   Not understanding the criteria to apply. For example, when asked to evaluate the support provided for the major claim of an article, students will explain why they liked the article rather than apply appropriate judgmental criteria.

Problems with Cognitive Load

Problems with Abilities

Source: Raymond S. Nickerson, David N. Perkins, and Edward E. Smith. The Teaching of Thinking. Erlbaum, 1985.

A good way to discover what kind of errors students are making in their thinking processes is to get them to unpack their thinking, to tell you step by step how they are going about the task. By listening to how they are solving the problem, an instructor can detect where the student is going wrong. Asking students to describe their thinking processes develops their metacognitive  abilities—a very necessary skill to improve thinking.


Flower, L. (1987). The role of task representation in reading-to-write. Technical report no. 6. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Kantz, M. (1989). Shirley and the Battle of Agincourt: Why is it so hard for students to write persuasive researched analyses?
    Occasional Paper no. 14. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Nelson, J. (1990). "This was an easy assignment": Examining how students interpret academic writing tasks. Technical report
    no. 43. Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley: National Center for the Study of Writing.

Nickerson, R. S., Perkins, D. N., & Smith, E. E. (1985). The Teaching of Thinking. Erlbaum.

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E-mail William Peirce wpeirce@verizon.net

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