Teaching And Learning Center
Thinking: Can we teach it?
Teaching critical thinking might be
logically begun from knowing what it is. Unfortunately, there is no universally
accepted definition of critical thinking. Each academic discipline has its own
specific definition of critical thinking and none are exactly alike.
range from the very general (analytical and problem solving skills necessary for
a fairly advanced level of work in a particular field, such as history or
literary criticism) to long lists of specific skills.
In a landmark study
(Expert Consensus on Critical Thinking: The American Philosophical Association
Delphi Report, 1990), a panel of 46 well-known scholars and experts in the field
collaborated over a period of 20 months to articulate an international expert
consensus definition of critical thinking:
critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that results in
interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of
the evidential, conceptual, methodological,
criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.
spent a great deal of research energy in the last 20 years attempting to
understand the mental processes that lead to good judgment, and the typical
barriers that lead to poor judgments.
This research points to common human difficulties
in be willing to think critically; difficulty asking critical questions,
particularly about our own beliefs; and lack of understanding of probability. In
addition, tendencies to be strongly influenced by fear, to prefer simple
explanations in the form of stories, and to overuse simple heuristics, hinder
critically thinking in most people. Most psychology instructors believe it is
important to specifically address these issues in addition to instruction on
analysis, interpretation, etc.
There are 2
important educational questions regarding teaching critical thinking. First, is
it best taught through explicit instruction or by infusion across the
curriculum? Second, to what extent do critical thinking skills, having been
acquired on one topic in one setting, transfer to other topics and other
Toplak & Stanovic
(2002) attempted to answer the first question in a
study of 125 students who were given 9 different reasoning tasks, an IQ test,
and test to determine the need for cognition, and reflectivity versus
impulsivity. They found that in general people have a great deal of difficulty
considering all possible outcomes in a given problem (central to their
definition of critical thinking) across the 9 problem types. Strengths in one
domain did not typically transfer to other domains. Intelligence does seem to
help when the nature of the task is probabilistic reasoning or the task is
complex, but having a high need for cognition, and a reflective style help quite
a bit more.
Bensley, et al
(2010) found support for explicitly teaching critical thinking. They compared
students in research methods courses, one in which critical thinking was
specifically taught and the other in which they were not. Students in the
research methods course with no instruction in critical thinking made no
improvements in critical thinking over the course of a semester at all.
Students who received explicit instruction made
Solon (2007) taught
2 Psy 101 courses, one in which he explicitly taught critical thinking through
class activities (not lecture) for 10 hours and 20 hours of homework exercises,
and the other in which he did not. Students in the critical thinking class
improved their scores on a test of critical thinking. Students in the
conventional course did not (at all.) Both groups improved in overall knowledge
of psychology equally.
Our hope as
teachers, as far back as Plato, is that we can teach rigorous thinking within
our disciplines and that once students have mastered it, they will transfer the
skill outside the bounds of our field.
great deal of research in psychology from Thorndike in 1901 to the present
suggests that reasoning is both domain specific and difficult to teach. There is
some hope, however.
(1990) found that undergraduates generally improved
in their critical thinking skills over the 4 years of college. They followed
over 100 randomly selected students in 4 majors: natural sciences (biology,
chemistry, physics, etc.) social sciences (anthropology economics, political
science, etc.) humanities (literature, communication…) and psychology. Students
were tested in their freshman year on statistical, methodological and
conditional reasoning skills and again in their senior years. All majors
improved to some degree. Social Science and psychology majors improved their
scores in statistical-methodological reasoning very significantly and natural
science students improved dramatically in conditional reasoning. Interestingly,
improvements were not correlated with GRE scores. Since the reasoning problems
were not discipline specific, this study provides some support for the transfer
of critical thinking skills across domains.
Taken together, these studies suggest that explicit
instruction in critical thinking is warranted and that these skills will
Bensley, D., Crowe, D. S., Bernhardt,
P., Buckner, C., & Allman, A. L. (2010). Teaching and Assessing Critical
Thinking Skills for Argument Analysis in Psychology.
Teaching of Psychology, 37(2),
91-96. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Hobaugh, C. F. (2010). Critical
Thinking Skills: Do We Have Any?: Critical Thinking Skills of Faculty Teaching
Medical Subjects in a Military Environment. U.S.
Army Medical Department Journal, 48-62. Retrieved
Lehman, D. R., & Nisbett, R. E.
(1990). A longitudinal study of the effects of undergraduate training on
Developmental Psychology, 26(6),
Solon, T. (2007). Generic critical thinking infusion and course content learning
in introductory psychology.
of Instructional Psychology,
Toplak, M. E., &
Stanovich, K. E. (2002). The domain specificity and generality of disjunctive
reasoning: Searching for a generalizable critical thinking skill.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1),
- Written by June Foley, Professor, Social and
Behavioral Sciences, Clinton Community College, Copyright (c) 2011
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