TEP TeachBlog headerGetting Students to Think Critically « Teaching Effectiveness Program

Getting Students to Think Critically

As part of my job here in the Teaching Effectiveness Program, I help facilitate the Science Literacy Teaching Journal Club in partnership with the University of Oregon’s Science Literacy Program (SLP).  The SLP’s goal is to improve the general population’s science literacy by specifically addressing the topic in a variety of 100-level science courses.  In the journal club (which is open to anyone- if you’re interested contact jmueller@uoregon.edu), we read and discuss materials and engage in activities that can help SLP and other instructors improve their teaching.

Science Literacy Program screenshot of home page

One of our activities this year was identifying learning goals to be addressed in the courses associated with the SLP [i].  Among the many goals articulated are topics such as learning to identify “good” scientific information, identifying trustworthy sources of information, and evaluating scientific claims made in the media.  All of these goals depend on development of students’ critical thinking skills, an aim dear to the hearts of instructors far beyond the sciences!  But how can we help students to improve their critical thinking skills?  As part of our journal club activities, we have read several papers about this topic, and I’d like to share some of the key results here.

First, it’s easy to assume that activities like doing homework problems and writing lab reports or even research papers will automatically help develop critical thinking skills.  Research shows that this is true to some extent, but it’s not enough to produce efficient, measurable increases in critical thinking ability [ii].  Students need to have the critical thinking process explicitly taught to them before they can apply it in other circumstances [iii].

Don’t assume they’ve learned the critical thinking techniques before they start your class.  Most people don’t develop these skills on their own, and there’s a good chance they haven’t learned them in a previous course.  Even if they have, their skills may not be sufficiently well developed for the students to transfer them from one course to another.  So if you want students to work on thinking critically, YOU need to teach them how.

What can you do to teach critical thinking skills?  Below is a selection of guidelines for instructors generated by D. Alan Bensley [ii]:

  1. Motivate students to think critically.  Critical thinking is hard and people are lazy!  The better people understand the importance and reasons for thinking critically, the more likely they are to make the effort to do so.
  2. Be clear about your critical thinking goals.  Integrate critical thinking into your learning goals for the class.  Include it in your syllabus, and talk about it directly in your class.  The more students know about why you take the approaches and assign the activities you do, especially “nontraditional” ones that ask students to do more than sit in a lecture and write a paper now and then, the more likely they are to buy into what you’re doing.
  3. Work critical thinking into the subject-related content of your class.  Maybe you could ask students to critically evaluate the evidence on the various sides of a controversy in your field.  Do vaccines cause autism?  Is global climate change really a debate anymore?  Or have students look at the information that was available to a historical figure faced with a tough decision and perform a critical analysis to see if the students agree with the decision or conclusion that was actually made.  Have them evaluate some websites to see which are trustworthy and which aren’t [iv].  Case studies that pose a dilemma are another great way to get students to think critically about a situation, and many prewritten ones are available for use with little or no modification.  (For a collection of science-oriented case studies, check out the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.)
  4. Use guided practice.  Model critical thinking and provide students with a scaffold for the process of learning critical thinking.  You can model critical thinking in many ways, for example by “thinking out loud” in class or providing worked examples that detail how you approached problems.  To scaffold, start by guiding students through the critical thinking process by asking leading questions, giving hints on how to attack problems, etc.  and then gradually decreasing the help you provide.
  5. Include critical thinking in your assessments.
  6. Everyone needs feedback to reflect upon.  Provide feedback for your students about how they’re doing in the critical thinking realm.  Ask them to provide feedback on how you could improve your teaching of critical thinking.  And remember, feedback is useless if you don’t reflect on it!

Remember, practice makes perfect.  In critical thinking as in many other areas, LOTS of practice is needed before facility can be achieved.  And facility is necessary before people will persist with critical thinking despite the fact that it’s hard and not really in our natures.  So don’t give up- keep your students practicing.  Rational discourse depends on it!

Finally, for a dose of entertainment mixed with some useful advice, check out How Not to Be Stupid: A Guide to Critical Thinking, a video posted on YouTube.

Julie Mueller, Teaching Effectiveness Program, May 24, 2012

[i] To see a concept map of the learning goals the group identified, go to http://scilit.uoregon.edu/SciLit1/index_files/SciLit_Learning_Objectives_Concept_Map.pptx.

[ii] Bensley, D. Alan, A Brief Guide for Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking in Psychology.  APS Observer [Online] 2010, 23  http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2010/december-10/a-brief-guide-for-teaching-and-assessing-critical-thinking-in-psychology.html (accessed March 19, 2012).

[iii] van Gelder, T., Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science.  College Teaching 2005, 53, 41-46.

[iv] The UO Library’s page on Critical Evaluation of Information Sources is a great place to refer your students: http://libweb.uoregon.edu/guides/findarticles/credibility.html.

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