Teaching And Learning Center

Critical 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.  Definitions 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:


 We understand 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. (Hobaugh, 2010)


 Psychologists have 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 settings?


 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 significant gains.


 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.  A 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.  Lehman, & Nisbett  (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‚Ķ) 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 transfer.


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 from EBSCOhost.


Lehman, D. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1990). A longitudinal study of the effects of undergraduate training on reasoning. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 952-960. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.26.6.952       


Solon, T. (2007). Generic critical thinking infusion and course content learning in introductory psychology. Journal of  Instructional Psychology, 34, 95-109.  


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), 197-209. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.94.1.197   






  1. Written by June Foley, Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Clinton Community College, Copyright (c) 2011 Permission is expressly granted to use the information found on this site for educational purposes with proper citation of this site and any sources used here.

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