Teaching Critical Thinking


Every student within a discipline needs to learn facts and acquire basic knowledge in introductory classes. Students make flashcards, memorize terms, and gain a basic understanding of the subject. Sometimes, students may be able to apply the knowledge they’ve learned in order to solve basic problems. These lower-level activities are referred to as declarative knowledge, one of the three types of knowledge according to Joanne G. Kurfiss, author of Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. The challenge for you as a teacher is helping your students learn the two higher-level types of knowledge used in critical thinking: procedural (knowing how to reason, inquire, and present knowledge in a discipline) and metacognition (using cognitive control strategies, such as setting goals, critiquing one’s own thinking, determining when additional knowledge is needed, and assessing whether a line of inquiry has been fruitful) (Kurfiss, iv). So how do you help students move through the process of gathering all available information, weighing possible solutions, and coming to a logical hypothesis or conclusion? How do you help students learn how to think like an expert in the field?

Knowledge cannot simply be recalled and applied; expert learners have well-organized knowledge, not just problem-solving strategies. So knowledge in a field must be well understood and integrated into a mental scheme if the learner is to apply the knowledge to problem-solving. Within this schematic, knowledge must be organized and also accessible (34). This structure is not linear, but hierarchical. Many teachers and text books, however, present information in a linear, logical fashion that follows a sequence, not one that teaches the general procedure and then breaks it down into specific rules (36).

Additionally, novice learners often don’t know the structure and organization of knowledge in a field. As experts, we’ve learned to see the patterns of information and how concepts connect to each other, and so we often assume that students will do the same. But research into how people learn demonstrates that those new to a field don’t necessarily see these connections. Therefore, part of the instructor’s role is to make the organization visible to the students.

Students need a bigger structure, a sort of scaffolding, within which they can organize smaller items of knowledge and establish the relationship between what they know and the new information they acquire. Presenting “material in a chart, matrix, or hierarchical outline” (39) and making use of familiar examples or analogies that students can relate to helps students situate new information.

Kurfiss offers examples of assignments or approaches that develop these critical thinking skills that span the disciplines. How might you adapt her examples in your own classroom to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills?

Biology  Students in introductory biology courses are learning about the scientific method, from developing a hypothesis and determining a methodology to identifying conclusions and considering possible future directions. As students learn the scientific method, they build the foundation of research skills for future work: “description and definition, application, deductive inference, and induction” (73). As students learn these terms, they also learn what their limits are and how they can be either misused or expanded.

Mathematics  Students should move away from trying to plug in numbers to arrive at an answer and instead focus on the metacognitive skills necessary for approaching a problem. Group work can be helpful, since students have the opportunity to work through a problem together and discuss difficulties. The professor does not tell students how to solve the problem, but asks questions that help the students approach and solve the problem on their own. This doesn’t mean that the instructor waits until the students have the answer. Instead, the instructor interacts with the groups, asking questions when a group is stuck or the approach is not clear. Ask questions like those Allen H. Schoenfeld uses:
What (exactly) are you doing? Can you describe it precisely?
Why are you doing it? (How does it fit into the solution?)
How does it help you? (What will you do with the outcome when you obtain it?) (74)
While this teaching method might seem time intensive, students gain a deeper understanding of the work they are doing than if they simply copied examples the instructor put on the board. Students are learning the process of thinking through problems as an expert would approach a problem and practicing higher-order thinking skills.
Engineering  Real-world problems make up the backbone of engineering classes and develop critical thinking skills. Kurfiss suggests using guided design, which “slows down the decision process by having students work through a series of steps in teams, pausing after each step to compare their results with those of an imaginary team working on the same problem.” Note that the imaginary team’s answers are not necessarily correct! Students must constantly engage with the steps they are working through, and must reflect on whether their approach was correct, and figure out which approach—their own or the imaginary team’s—was correct and how to correct the other approach (75).
Literature  Students may be hesitant to analyze literature on their own. Ease them into the process by asking them to describe a character using a metaphor. Studies have shown that students who develop metaphors to describe a character fare better with literary analysis than students who jump right into analysis because students are connecting what they’ve read on the page with their own background knowledge and understanding (77). Using the metaphors as a starting point, students can then develop an argument for why they chose the metaphor. Journal entries are another way to encourage students to develop their own thoughts about literature. Begin by asking them to respond to the work. Once students have written a few entries, pose questions for the students to work through. Kurfiss writes that in one class “writing often fostered insights and fresh interpretations of the material. Students overcame their initial reluctance to explore poetry this way and developed confidence in their ability to ‘make sense of literary works’” (77).
Political science  Students are often limited by their own perspective, and these personal perspectives help develop biases that keep students from engaging with factual information. To help students recognize and overcome their biases, ask students to evaluate multiple perspectives. For example, a project on the Cuban Missile Crisis that asks students to consider the crisis from the American, Soviet, and Cuban points of view encourages students to consider other interpretations. Considering multiple perspectives requires students to leave behind their own opinions when they cannot support them with facts (82).

Psychology  In psychology, teaching students to think critically requires getting students to challenge their “personal theories” and consider all of the data. Kurfiss provides Jane S. Halonen’s classroom as an example. Students practice divergent and critical thinking by designing an intelligence test and administering it to ten people. The class then discusses the results, the problems that came up during testing or analysis, and ethical issues. The resulting discussion reveals a skepticism about such tests, while students may have previously accepted intelligence tests at face value. When used on the first day of class or early in the semester, students have an experiential foundation they can use the rest of the semester.

When preparing your own class, think about how your students are engaging with information and whether they are learning the critical thinking skills that will support their learning in future courses. With a little planning, your class can help students master, not just memorize, knowledge.




Kurfiss, Joanne G. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2. Washington, D.C.” Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1988.