Making Connections That Matter
Critical thinking in theory and practice
June 18, 2021
Critical thinking is at the heart of any liberal education. In the United States it is a regular feature of undergraduate study, interwoven into college and university syllabi, classes, and programs.
Educators’ interest in critical thinking is driven in part by employer priorities. AAC&U’s latest survey of employers shows that they consistently rank critical thinking as a “very important” outcome for college graduates to succeed in the workforce, a finding that has remained consistent across AAC&U’s research since 2006.
Critical thinking is discussed extensively in higher education research literature, especially through theories about how to define, measure, and develop “higher-order” cognitive skills. However, there is a less substantial body of scholarship exploring the connection between educational practices and critical thinking research. That is, how is critical thinking being taught at colleges and universities, and how can educators use research to improve teaching practices?
As part of my research over the last several years, I conducted surveys and interviews with educational practitioners who teach critical thinking on college and university campuses as well as researchers who focus on critical thinking in their scholarship. Below, I offer insights about how critical thinking educators and scholars can better support our students’ learning.
The Educator’s Perspective on Critical Thinking
In one of my studies, I surveyed 176 US and UK college instructors and asked them to rank the critical thinking skills that they considered most important in their teaching. The faculty members taught courses across the humanities and social sciences in disciplines such as history, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology. The educators ranked the following ten skills as most important to least important in their teaching:
- Inductive reasoning
- Deductive reasoning
The findings showed that, across a range of subjects in the humanities and social sciences, college instructors ranked analysis, evaluation, and interpretation as the most important skills. In contrast, creativity, problem-solving, description, and deductive reasoning were identified as less important by faculty members.
Based on the study findings, there appears to be an emerging consensus (at least within the humanities and social sciences in these two countries) that the same sets of critical thinking skills matter for their students. This has practical implications for how critical thinking is taught to students and the skills that are prioritized across disciplines.
Researchers’ Suggestions for Teaching Critical Thinking
For another study, I interviewed six critical thinking researchers who, alongside their research projects, taught undergraduate students. The duality of their work meant that they could share insights based on their own critical thinking research as well as their teaching experiences. I asked the researchers about the learning strategies that they considered most effective for developing critical thinking and the advice that they would give to educators. Below are some suggestions that the researchers gave for teaching critical thinking.
Instructor-led questions and tasks are effective strategies for improving critical thinking. These strategies were especially valuable when grounded in the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., asking students to create, evaluate, analyze, or apply) or when students’ answers were accompanied by faculty feedback.
Collaborative argumentation supports the development of analysis and evaluation skills. Having students work together to create diagrams that scaffold their critical engagement and argumentation skills can be an especially effective assignment.
Critical thinking is a process. The researchers recommend that faculty steer their students away from focusing on final answers. Instead, they emphasize that learners should focus on the process of building an explanation for an answer rather than whatever that answer is.
Uncertainty is an important part of teaching critical thinking. Questions and tasks that help students learn to solve problems with uncertain solutions should be built into our teaching practices. For example, faculty can actively encourage students to acknowledge what they don’t know about a particular topic and explore what these gaps mean for their critical engagement.
Understanding the critical thinking skills that are most valued within university programs supports educators to make informed pedagogical choices about the content and skills that are essential for their students. This practical approach of ranking critical thinking skills has recently been adopted by researchers at Miami University, who are running a similar study to explore the similarities and differences between faculty members’ and students’ critical thinking priorities, along with their perceptions of critical thinking in curricular activities across disciplines.
Moving forward, it is important that we continue to find ways to meaningfully engage both educators and scholars on the topic of critical thinking. This will help strengthen the connection between teaching practice and research to further enhance learning outcomes for students.
Lauren Bellaera is the director of research and impact for a United Kingdom–based university access charity, The Brilliant Club. She is also a part-time associate lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London and a Fulbright alumna. You can read her latest publication in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity.