Critical Thinking Strategies
Community college instruction, done well, lays a foundation for lifelong learning—for personal and professional life, for subsequent educational experience, and for participation in a democracy. In the end, this can be accomplished only by teaching for critical thinking and by teaching for it in a way that is all-pervasive in classes, systematic within a discipline, and focused always on what is central and most transferable.
Gerald Nosich, “Problems with Two Standard Models for Teaching Critical Thinking,” 2005
The “what” of education is the content we want students to acquire, everything we want students to learn. The “how” of education is the process, everything we do to help students acquire the content in a deep and meaningful way. Most teachers assume that if they expose students to the “what,” students will automatically use the proper “how.” This common, yet false, assumption is, and has been for many years, a plague on education. By focusing on “content coverage,” rather than on learning how to learn, schooling has failed to teach students to how to take command of their learning, how to bring ideas into the mind using the mind, how to interrelate ideas within and among disciplines. Most teachers devise instructional methods based on the following [false] assumptions:
- Lecture content can be absorbed with minimal intellectual engagement on the part of students.
- Students can learn important content without much intellectual work.
- Memorization is the key to learning, so that students need to store up lots of information (that they can use when they need it).
Paul and Elder, Critical Thinking Competency Standards, 2005
To transform students into lifelong critical thinkers, we must not only design assignments to assess student thinking on a deeper level, we must also rethink our teaching strategies. If critical thinking is essential for learning, then it must become the central organizer of classroom instruction. To that end, we need to design and share instructional strategies that promote critical thinking on a daily basis. Such activities should foster deep, critical thinking about course content.
Aim for Full Integration into Classroom Instruction
Instructional strategies fostering critical thinking should be fully integrated into a course. Gerald Nosich (2005b) describes a problematic “one-of-many” instructional approach in which “an instructor teaches by making critical thinking a part of the class but also uses a number of other ways to help students learn the material. In this model, critical thinking is only one method among many for helping students learn the subject matter.”
Why is this approach problematic? As Paul and Elder (2005) explain, “The only capacity we can use to learn is human thinking.” Therefore, all classroom strategies, such as collaborative learning, structured questioning, lectures, discussions, videos, quizzes, exercises, labs, presentations, projects, and Internet activities, must require students to think critically. Critical thought is necessary for genuine learning to occur. According to Nosich (2005b), “all content, procedures, and engagement activities must be looked at from the point of view of how will this help my students’ ability to think critically through the subject matter?”
As faculty plan daily activities and projects, they should ask this question of every instructional strategy: How will this lecture (group project, exercise, discussion, video, quiz, lab, questioning technique, etc.) help my students think critically about the content at hand? How will my students be thinking critically during this class period?
Promote Deep Understanding of Content
Nosich (2005b) describes a common instructional approach in which the goal is to “cover” as many concepts and terms as can be crowded into the course; there is consequently little consideration of which topics are the most fundamental. Students are expected to memorize masses of information, and classroom strategies aim for the recall of hundreds of terms rather than promote genuine understanding of the discipline’s essential concepts.
Of course, a major concern of faculty is content coverage. Faculty members often assert that students must learn a substantial collection of terms, processes, and concepts before they can move on to the next level, the next chapter, the next course. In this case, learning usually equates to memorization or to the rote application of processes. Nosich (2005b) has a lot to say about the “value” of rote learning:
Contrary to what one might suppose, teaching students to memorize information does not lay a foundation of knowledge about which students can think critically in the next portion of the class. Such a method is not neutral with respect to fostering students’ critical thinking abilities; it is negative. It fosters an uncritical idea of information itself: that information is just a set of words, arranged by someone else, divorced from the contexts in which it can be put to use. Such a method assumes that one can have information without interpreting it, without conceptualizing it themselves, without evaluating whether it is accurate (and how one might check), without assessing the problems to which it is relevant, or even whether it is clear. A parallel case can be made about learning to follow procedures by rote. . . .
To say that information or a procedure is important means that students need to be able to grasp it, not just memorize the right words or the right formulas—to think it through and to think through other topics using it.
Paul and Elder (2005) add that “content is parasitic upon thinking. It is discovered and created by thought, analyzed and synthesized by thought, organized and transformed by thought, accepted and rejected by thought.”
It is important to remember that “without critical thinking guiding the process of learning, rote memorization becomes the primary recourse, with students forgetting at about the same rate they are learning and rarely, if ever, internalizing powerful ideas” (Paul and Elder, 2005). Faculty should fully integrate critical thinking into classroom activities so that it drives the learning process.
Schedule Daily, Deliberate Practice
Tim van Gelder (2005) explains that while critical thinking is a difficult and complex task, students can improve their thinking skills through practice: “For students to improve, they must engage in critical thinking itself.” And they must do so intentionally on a daily basis. It is not enough for students to sit and watch the instructor think—they must be engaged in thinking; they must practice thinking. Van Gelder defines “the characteristics of deliberate practice”:
- It is done with full concentration and is aimed at generating improvement.
- It is not only engaging in the skill itself but also doing special exercises designed to improve performance in the skill.
- It is graduated, in the sense that practiced activities gradually become harder, and easier practices are mastered through repetition before harder ones are practiced.
- There is close guidance and timely, accurate feedback on performance.
Van Gelder also notes that practice must be aimed at transfer: “We cannot simply hope and expect that critical thinking skills, once learned in a particular situation, will be applied spontaneously in others. Rather students also must practice the art of transferring the skills from one situation to another.”
Archive of Teaching Strategies
Click on the titles below to view activities and instructional strategies that help foster critical thinking in the classroom. Use and modify these strategies in your classes.
SEEQ Assignments: A Way to Foster Critical Reading and Thinking in Academic Disciplines
by Michael Ayers
Mini-lessons on the Intellectual Standards
by Connie Wolfe
Tips for Fostering Critical Thinking on a Daily Basis
by TACT (Team for the Advancement of Critical Thinking)