Teaching for Critical Thinking

SPC's Definition of Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking Definition via Wordle

Given the variety of definitions in the literature, an important step in preparing the plan to improve students’ critical thinking skills was to develop a consensus among the SPC faculty on what constituted critical thinking. For the purposes of the plan, SPC began by defining critical thinking. It is also helpful to have a baseline of knowledge about critical thinking before exploring its application in the classroom. See: Fundamentals of Critical Thinking (PowerPoint presentation download).

Members of the Quality Enhancement Committee (QEC) at SPC reported on various aspects of critical thinking theory to the faculty and presented them with several definitions in order to solicit feedback and input. Through meticulous incorporation of over 200 faculty members’ ideas collected in a College-wide survey, the QEC was able to draft the following definition for critical thinking:

CRITICAL THINKING is the active and systematic process of:

  • Communication
  • Problem Solving
  • Evaluation
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Reflection

both individually and in community to

  • Foster understanding
  • Support sound decision-making and
  • Guide action

The Art of Critical Thinking
The Art of Critical Thinking (PowerPoint presentation download)

This definition emphasizes the importance of critical thinking on an individual level as well as in community. The definition recognizes intellectual traits of critical thinkers. It also charges students to foster understanding and engage in sound decision-making to address the College's mission of fostering critical thinking. These skills will serve as tools for students in an ever-changing marketplace and world.


Instructional Approaches and Strategies to Develop Students' Critical Thinking

Designing activities in the classroom is not the first step toward critical thinking; instead the first step in promoting critical thinking in the classroom is to make certain that teachers have developed an intuitive understanding of critical thought (Paul, Elder, & Bartell, 1997). As learning theories suggest, students learn more effectively when they are actively involved in their learning. To be effective in teaching for critical thinking, however, students must not only be actively involved, they also must be thinking about what they are doing and thinking about their thinking process. Collaborative learning without the standards and elements of critical thinking becomes "collaborative mis-learning" (Paul, 1995, p. 95). With those caveats in mind, the review of the literature identified a number of instructional approaches that help develop students' critical thinking. Among those are active learning, collaborative learning, Socratic questioning, and significant learning experiences, as well as numerous strategies that support the various approaches.

Active learning is defined as instructional activities in which "students are doing things and thinking about what they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). When the activities involve thinking about their thinking process as well as thinking about what they are doing, they lead to development of critical thinking skills. Some examples of active learning are problem-solving, debate, role-playing, peer instruction, and presentations (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). 

In its truest sense, collaborative learning takes place when students engage in active learning in community. Collaborative learning shifts the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the groups who are learning in community (Bruffee, 1999). For collaborative learning to be effective in leading students to critical thinking, it should be structured by the instructors, carried out by students, and contain three key elements: preparation, cognitive structuring, and role structuring (Nelson, 1994). Preparation can be based on a question relating to material students have covered, information given in class, or lab experiences. Role structuring refers to the way in which students will participate: for example, a round robin with every student having a chance to respond, group presentations, or shared writings. Cognitive structuring refers to asking questions that are more open ended, complex and require critical thinking. One form of cognitive structuring that has been used for centuries is the Socratic method of questioning.

Socratic questioning involves probing deeper, investigating supporting evidence, and elaborating for clearer understanding. The goal of Socratic questioning in the classroom is to make it so familiar, so automatic that students begin to use Socratic questioning as they encounter information (Paul & Elder, 2006).

A systems approach to course design was developed by L. Dee Fink (2003), citing a 1989 study on student performance on critical thinking, or metacognitive tasks that concluded students developed little during their college years in their ability to identify implications, assumptions, researcher bias, and causal relationships. He suggested this could be improved by the introduction of significant learning experiences within the framework of the course, experiences that engage students and give classes a high energy level that results in "significant and lasting change" (p. 7). His Taxonomy of Significant Learning includes six categories that are interactive rather than hierarchical: foundational knowledge, application, integration, the human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn. In his taxonomy, critical thinking is application learning, which "allows other kinds of learning to become useful" (p. 31).

Taxonomy of Significant Learning
Source: L. Dee Fink's Taxonomy of Significant Learning, p. 30

Other instructional strategies that support teaching for critical thinking include serious writing; written summaries, outlines, and illustration; and assessments (Hullfish & Smith, 1961). Serious writing that serves as communication between teacher and learner also is a tool for enhancing critical thinking skills. Hullfish and Smith (1961) proposed that margins in student papers are the workspace of the teacher. Teachers should use the margins to carry on a conversation with their students, asking probing questions, asking for elaboration, or asking for the perspective being presented. As a critical thinking tool, student writing would be presented throughout the course, not as a final project with no chance of re-thinking or elaborating on what was written. As educators read students' work and provide feedback, they look for accuracy, relatedness, and originality. It is important to view students' work through a critical thinking lens that examines various elements of critical thinking and determines the level of critical thought by applying standards of critical thinking (Paul & Elder, 2006).

Summaries, outlines, and illustrations also serve as tools for encouraging students to think through the material (Hullfish & Smith, 1961). Students learn to read course material more critically if they are asked to summarize or outline salient information contained in readings and relate it to the logic of the discipline (Paul & Elder, 2006). 

Assessments that require students to use facts they have learned rather than to regurgitate them helps develop critical thinking skills. The complex nature of critical thinking demands multiple, diverse assessment measures to determine whether students are becoming critical thinkers (Ennis, 1993). Examples of current methods in use in higher education include:

Since students’ critical thinking skills develop slowly over time, it is important to assess critical thinking skills on multiple occasions, to evaluate growth, and to identify areas that require further work.

The Value of Improving Critical Thinking Skills

Examples of Critical Thinking (PowerPoint presentation download)

Why is critical thinking important to students?

Critical thinking is critical to employers

Why is critical thinking important to student learning?

College-level learning is deeper than memorizing facts:

Why is critical thinking important to society?

Critical thinking in the world of work

Critical thinking in everyday life