Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been very much discussed in education, and there are many definitions of it available. (See, for example, the Critical Thinking Rubric at Metropolitan Community College.)

Critical thinking is, simply put, careful, skeptical, and conscious thinking; it is the sort of thinking, guided by logic and method, that academics value. Critical thinking is also the ability to view any object of study from multiple perspectives, to recognize the cultural, ideological, and cognitive frames (or schemata) we bring to understanding.

While the value of critical thinking to scholarship is hardly new, only recently have we understood that critical thinking is in itself a habit and a skill, something which, like the composing process, many of our students may have to learn and practice.

A particularly useful approach to critical thinking is offered by James Lett, "A Field Guide to Critical Thinking." Lett points out that claims, to be accepted, must be:

  1. falsifiable (that is, evidence that could prove the claim false must be at least conceivable)

  2. logical (that is, valid, with all premises leading unavoidably to the conclusion)

  3. comprehensive (that is, all evidence must be entertained)

  4. honestly evaluated without self-deception

  5. replicable

  6. sufficient

Critical thinking skills are frequently viewed developmentally, usually according to Bloom's taxonomy, as follows:

Knowing. Gathering and reporting information and displaying mastery of basic knowledge or course content.

Understanding. Using facts to predict, infer, order, compare. Using knowledge in different contexts.

Applying. Using knowledge to solve problems or do something.

Analyzing. Breaking down problems/data/facts and seeing patterns and components in order to understand the parts and how they fit together into a whole.

Creating. Generalizing about facts/knowledge across more than one situation. Seeing larger relationships, creating new knowledge, and drawing conclusions.

Evaluating. Assessing and making value judgments. Solving problems in an original way. Seeing from multiple perspectives and using sophisticated reasoning.

Writing and public speaking foster critical thinking in many ways. Putting words on paper or preparing to address an audience helps students slow down and consider an issue in greater depth. It also demands that students express their views or opinions at some level. Even a plain explanation or review of the "facts" requires the writer to select pertinent facts, organize them in a rhetorically effective way, and present them accurately. However, to promote critical thinking skills more fully, ask students to make an argument, take a stand, or defend a thesis. To do so in a responsible way for an academic or educated reader requires that students consider the following:

All sides of the issue. By considering all sides and showing, whether through a literature review or through discussion, that they understand the issues, student writers strengthen their own position.

Their own position. They may not even be clear on their position until they begin prewriting. Conducting research and pursuing invention techniques may challenge their initial assumptions. Teach them to be ready to alter their thesis as they explore it.

Convincing and comprehensive evidence. Writing an argument makes students ask what is convincing to an educated reader. How much evidence is enough? What kind of evidence counts, and what kind may be persuasive yet not sufficient?

Awareness of fallacies. A good argument is based on solid logic, without hasty generalizations, faulty causal attributions, misleading statistics, and so on.

Reasonableness. A reasonable writer will make concessions, show awareness of other possible arguments, and be sensitive to different perspectives. A reasonable writer will not play on emotion to excess or expect readers to assent based on his/her personality or reputation.

While every assignment cannot necessarily ask students to present a full-fledged argument, every assignment can expect students to present and defend a thesis in a reasonable and logical manner. 

To up the level of critical thinking even more, ask that students go beyond defense of a thesis. Encourage students to find creative solutions to problems and make defensible value judgments. Use case study assignments or challenge students to discover problems themselves. Ask for a critical analysis and proposed solutions. In short, ask for synthesis and evaluation.

The Critical Thinking Resource Guide, developed at Washington State University in 1999-2000, is an excellent tool for creating assignments and evaluating critical thinking skills. Student writers often express concern about expressing their own ideas. They may worry that disagreement with a professor will lower their grade, or they may believe that opinion, along with the first-person "I," has no place in college writing. Show them that you do value their views, and that you will read with an open mind if they argue well.


Suggestions To Encourage Critical Thinking in Written Work and Speeches
  1. Avoid limiting the number of sources students can use.  You probably hope they will research 15 sources and use 5. But too often they stop research when they reach the magic number Instead, tell them to include a “Works Consulted” page in their paper that will demonstrate their research process to you. The works they actually cite can be included in a “References” or "Works Cited” page.

  2. When you assign the writing, be explicit about how it helps achieve learning objectives in the class, and go beyond “communicating ideas.”  This is the ideal time to discuss your own research/writing process. Explain how writing about a topic, from taking notes to communicating results, helps you deepen and organize your thinking.

  3. Provide some in-class time for “invention,” the rhetorical technique of discovering something to say. For example, have a class discussion about possible approaches to the problem the assignment addresses, or ask students to throw out ideas developing the topic they might write about, and discuss them for all the class to hear. Or, a few days after you make the assignment, ask students to come to class with three possible topics, and have them discuss them in small groups to help them select and develop one.

  4. Check back now and then to see how students are progressing with their research and writing. There are many ways to do this, but here is one: Ask them to write a mini-essay or present a two-minute, impromptu speech (in-class, no grade) about what they are discovering. After class, select the best two or three essays, and bring them to the next class to read aloud and discuss—what made them the best and what directions can you suggest to the author for further research or development of the idea? For the two-minute speeches, take notes and give a few comments at the end of the best performances. 

Whatever the activity, the goal is to make writing an integral part of the way students learn—they are writing to improve their knowledge and understanding of your course content, not merely to communicate ideas you have poured into them. When they write, they take what you teach and make it their own, and that, in essence, is critical thinking.


Additional Resources

AAC&U Critical Thinking VALUE rubric

Chaffee, John. Thinking Critically. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. 

Facione, Peter. Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts. California Academic Press, 1988.

Potts, Bonnie, "Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking," ERIC Digest (ED 385606)

Forehand, Mary. "Bloom's Taxonomy: Original and Revised"

Critical Thinking Resources. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Faculty Development.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking sponsors a website that includes useful reading materials and announcements of conferences and related events.

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