"Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking" (Lau & Chan, 2015).
The following skills are often cited as components of critical thinking:
- understanding the logical connections between ideas
- identifying, constructing and evaluating arguments
- detecting inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
- solving problems systematically
- identifying the relevance and importance of ideas
- reflecting on the justification of one's own beliefs and values .
Lau & Chan (2015) further note that "Critical thinkers are able to deduce consequences from what they know, make use of information to solve problems, and seek relevant sources of information to inform him/herself. . . Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks."
Currently, there is a strong academic debate about whether critical thinking is generalizable across disciplines, or whether there is a core set of critical thinking skills that can be nurtured (Schleuter, 2016). As well, there is concern that colleges and universities are not improving students’ critical thinking skills, despite having mission statements that aim to do so. Schleuter comments that, “Professors of literature, science, psychology, economics and so on must reflect on how they think as scholars and researchers within their own disciplines -- and then explicitly teach those cognitive processes to students. If there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that thinking skills, general or otherwise, can’t be learned if they’re not taught in as overt a manner as other content in college courses”.
Teaching Critical Thinking
How does one go about incorporating critical thinking into university curricula and courses? There is a fairly large body of literature about critical thinking in higher education, much of it without any real suggestions as to how to actually teach it. This is partly because teaching critical thinking may depend somewhat on the nature of the discipline and the size of the course, although studies in physics and biology have shown that even students in very large first-year courses can benefit from small pedagogical changes to incorporate more critical thinking and interactivity (Cowan et al., 2014). Below are some suggestions from across the literature that can help students to understand and think critically about concepts in a course. (Note: you might want to start small and consider using only one or two of these suggestions at specific times in the course.):
At the beginning of the course, discuss with students what you mean by terms like “analyse”, “assess”, “critique”, “reasoning”, “fallacy”, “assumptions”, “logic”, “compare and contrast”, etc. Go through some very short readings in class to demonstrate the terms you want them to understand and have them ask questions about, and reflect back, what they understand about those terms.
Deconstruct the literature of the field so that students understand how knowledge in the discipline progresses. Make them aware of how scholarly journals and conference papers differ from textbooks and popular media. Have them read some short excerpts on the same topic from different types of sources, and ask them to articulate the differences that they notice about these sources. Are some more reliable or credible than others?
Make sure that students have the resources (readings, websites, videos, etc.) that expose them to the concepts that you want them to think critically about. This might involve giving them readings with opposing points of view, or readings that contain some dubious information alongside readings that are factually accurate. In class, ask students to compare the content/points of view in the materials. Get them to ask questions about what they have read.
Show students how to analyse and deconstruct the structure of an argument, and how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the argument through the use of argument maps (see Dwyer 2017, cited below).
Teach students to read critically by identifying problems/issues that arise out of the text and extending their reading into social understanding and/or action (see Naiditch 2017, cited below).
Give students essay topics where they are deliberately challenged to think about not just the content of the topic, but how the topic is framed in print publications and/or online media. As a further element of their grade, give students the opportunity to present their essay findings as a poster. This could be an open event for other faculty and students to drop by and discuss the topics with your students.
Ask students to keep a critical thinking journal, where they reflect upon their own understanding of various topics as the course progresses.
Flip your classroom, at least partially, and require students to do some short key readings on their own and/or take a short quiz before they come to class. Stress that you will not just be covering the basic elements of the material in class, but also will be discussing with them what the material is about and common assumptions or fallacies about the topic that they noticed.
In large classes, think about using clickers and in-class quizzes to increase interactivity and pinpoint areas of misunderstanding of the material.
Incorporate peer group discussion into the course, where groups are challenged to come up with lists of the assumptions or fallacies that they noticed in their readings or in the concepts covered.
Get students to ask more “Why” questions about the material being covered or that they are reading. For example, in a class about factory farming, students might ask themselves "Why does factory farming have such a negative reputation in the public domain, even though there have been advances in animal care? Are negative opinions about faculty farming justified?". One way to encourage students to ask these kinds of questions about the material is to have them hand in a certain number of questions during the course for a small percentage of the grade. Every so often, select a few examples of their "why" questions and bring them to class to stimulate discussion.
Use “What If” scenarios to get students thinking critically. For example, "What if you could redesign the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? What process would you use to do it? How would you ensure that some groups are not left out? What issues would be important to consider? What principles would you use to guide your framework?"
Introduce debate into the course. Use the board/whiteboard to record pros and cons as students debate the topic. Another approach is to divide the class into debate teams where each team must argue first one side of the issue, and then the other side. Throughout the course, different teams could present their debate on different topics.
- See Active Learning
Incorporate group teamwork into your course, where students are presented with a problem they must solve. For example, in a transportation geography course, you might have them examine a statement such as: "Many cities are incorporating bike lanes to encourage less reliance on cars and to increase the safety of cyclists." What questions does each group have about these goals? What kinds of information would the group need to assess the desirability and efficacy of bike lanes? Have them search online resources in class to see if they can find reliable sources that would help with their assessment.
- Bahr, N. 2010. Thinking critically about critical thinking in higher education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 4(2). doi: 10.20429/jstol.2010.0400209
- Gini-Newman, G. (2017). Using Assessment to Nurture Critical Thinking. Keynote by Garfield Gini-Newman at the Perspectives on Teaching Conference, Western University, Fall 2017.
- Van Gyn, G. & Ford, C. (2006) Teaching for critical thinking. Green Guide #6. Ottawa. Ont. : Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Note: This text is directed at university teaching and is particularly useful for examples of critical thinking approaches across a variety of disciplines.
If you need help incorporating critical thinking in your courses, please contact one of our educational developers.
Dwyer, C. 2017. Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Note: Chapter 5 is particularly useful for teaching students how to extract arguments from a text and how to analyse those arguments using argument maps.
Naiditch, F. 2017. Critical pedagogy and the teaching of reading for social action.
Lau, J. & Chan. J. (2015). What is critical thinking? Available at http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php
Cowan, M., Evans-Tokaryk, T., Goettler, E., Graham, J., Landon, C., Laughton, S. ... Weir, A. (2014). Engaging students to think critically in a large history class. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Schleuter, J. (2016). Higher Ed’s biggest gamble. Inside Higher Ed. June 7. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/06/07/can-colleges-truly-teach-critical-thinking-skills-essay