|By Linda B. Nilson, PhD
We all endorse it and we all want our students to do it. We also claim to teach it. “It” is critical thinking, and very few of us actually teach it or even understand what it is (Paul & Elder, 2013). Research tells us that our students learn critical thinking only after we receive training in how to teach it and design our courses explicitly and intentionally to foster critical thinking skills (Abrami, Bernard, Borokhovski, Wade, Surkes, Tamim, & Zhang, 2008). We have to start by formulating assessable critical thinking learning outcomes and building our courses around them.
It is little wonder we don’t understand what critical thinking is. The literature around it is abstract and fragmented among several different scholars or scholarly teams who work in their own silos and don’t build on or even cite each other. Still, we can find some common ground among them. While each has a different definition of critical thinking, they all agree that it involves the cognitive operations of interpretation and/or analysis, often followed by evaluation. They also concur that students have to critically think about something, which means students have to learn how to do it in a discipline-based course. Another point of agreement is how difficult it is to do; it goes against our natural tendency to want to perceive selectively and confirm what we already “know” to be true. Therefore, critical thinking involves character as well as cognition. Students must be inclined to pursue “truth” over their own biases, persist through challenges, assess their own thinking fairly, and abandon mistaken reasoning for new and more valid ways of thinking. These intellectual “virtues” don’t come easily or naturally.
Critical thinking scholars also agree that questions are central to students acquiring critical thinking skills. We must ask students challenging, open-ended questions that demand genuine inquiry, analysis, or assessment—questions like these:
- What is your interpretation/analysis of this passage/data/argument?
- What are your reasons for favoring that interpretation/analysis? What is your evidence?
- How well does your interpretation/analysis handle the complexities of the passage/data/argument?
- What is another interpretation/analysis of the passage/data/argument? Any others?
- What are the implications of each interpretation/analysis?
- Let’s look at all the interpretations/analyses and evaluate them. How strong is the evidence for each one?
- How honestly and impartially are you representing the other interpretations/analyses? Do you have a vested interest in one interpretation/analysis over another?
- What additional information would help us to narrow down our interpretations/analyses?
These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions that require your students to engage in critical thinking. After giving an answer, students must also 1) describe how they arrived at their answer to develop their metacognitive awareness of their reasoning and 2) get feedback on their responses—from you, a teaching assistant, another expert, or their peers—so they can correct or refine their thinking accordingly.
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Some teaching methods naturally promote inquiry, analysis, and assessment, and all of them are student-active (Abrami et al., 2008). Class discussion may be the strongest, and it includes the debriefings of complex cases, simulations, and role plays. However, debates, structured controversy, targeted journaling, inquiry-guided labs, and POGIL-type worksheets are also effective. All of these learning experiences can arouse students’ curiosity, stimulate their questions, and induce them to explain and justify their arguments.
Finally, we need to remember that instructors are role models. Students need to see us showing the courage to question our own opinions and values, the fair-mindedness to represent multiple perspectives accurately, and the open-mindedness to entertain viewpoints opposed to our own. When we do this, we should let students know that we are practicing critical thinking.
Two faculty members, Mel Seesholtz and Brian Polk, illustrate these qualities during their regularly scheduled debates in their course, Religion in American Life. The latter is a noted critic of dogma-based organized religion and the former, a college chaplain. While sincerely trying to forward their viewpoint, they consciously model critical thinking, civil discourse, and the complementary dispositions for their class (Seesholtz & Polk, 2009). They demonstrate that the stormy wars of words so common in today’s political mass media do not represent the only way to disagree. If students don’t see the thoughtful, respectful alternative, how will they be able to peacefully co-exist with one another in this diverse world?
Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.
Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Study of 38 public universities and 28 private universities to determine faculty emphasis on critical thinking in instruction. Available at http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/study-of-38-public-universities-and-28-private-universities-to-determine-faculty-emphasis-on-critical-thinking-in-instruction/598
Seesholtz, M., & Polk, B. (2009, October 10). Two professors, one valuable lesson: How to respectfully disagree. Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at http://chronicle.com/article/Two-Professors-One-Valuable/48901/
Dr. Linda B. Nilson recently retired from Clemson University, where she was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation. Her books include Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills (Stylus, 2013) and Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (Jossey-Bass, 2010).