Developing Critical Thinkers

Developing students as critical thinkers is essential for preparing students for success in life; thus, there is wide consensus in academia about the necessity to teach students to develop and refine their capabilities in critical thinking.  This is complex work, requiring faculty not only to think about what it means to develop students as critical thinkers within a field of study or major, but also to consider how we encourage students to develop habits of mind and a sense of integrity that leads them to be thoughtful about their actions and choices in their everyday lives.

Teaching for critical thinking is an intellectual exercise that requires you to be intentional about the decisions you make at each stage of the course design, planning, implementation, and assessment phases.  For example, you will want to give significant thought to questions such as:

  • What kinds of questions will create a sense of curiosity about your course and drive the inquiry process that you want students to engage with throughout the course?
  • In addition to what you want students to know, what critical thinking habits do you want students to develop and practice throughout the course?
  • What assignments and learning activities are best suited to facilitate the inquiry process?
  • What is your role, as a faculty member, in motivating students to take responsibility for learning the course material?  How will you work to achieve this?
  • What does successful ‘critical thinking’ look like in your course and field of study?
  • How will you, or could you, know that your students are progressing as critical thinkers?

Scholars have given quite a bit of thought to what a critical thinker looks like.  As Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking write in their Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (2009),

“A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • Thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences;
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.”

Thus, students who think critically demonstrate a deep understanding, even ownership, of their knowledge.  Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain provides a useful representation for the developmental nature of critical thinking and articulates the sequence of steps for teaching students to think critically.

Mason’s Development of Critical Thinking Rubric

One tool that can be of assistance as you consider these questions is Mason’s “Development of Critical Thinking Rubric.”  Resulting from an interdisciplinary team of Mason faculty participating in a faculty community focused on teaching for critical thinking, it heavily borrows from the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE rubrics for critical and creative thinking.  The rubric articulates criteria for the development of critical thinking and provides language for how students move from novice to more sophisticated levels of achievement across each criterion.

Scholars in this field point to the key importance of dispositions, or habits of mind, in the development of students as critical thinkers. Thus, the rubric begins with the criterion, intellectual autonomy, as a precondition for the development of specific critical thinking competencies as articulated in the remainder of the rubric. The target, for those who teach critical thinking, is to talk with students about the dispositions or habits of mind of the critical thinker as their cognitive skills strengthen and to encourage them to be reflective about themselves as critical thinkers.

Our definition states that “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.  The capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways; thinking innovatively; and intellectual risk-taking — all component of creative thinking — is part of the development of critical thinking.”   ~adapted from the AAC&U critical thinking and creative thinking rubrics

Additional Rubrics for Critical Thinking

Resources for Critical Thinking

American Philosophical Association Delphi Research Report
a report based on international expert consensus definition of critical thinking, including its core cognitive skills.

Building Multiple Choice Questions Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy
From the Instructional Assessment Resource unit at the University of Texas, Austin. Guidelines and worksheets are available for faculty to support their thinking as they develop multiple choice questions that require critical thinking.

Foundation and Center for Critical Thinking
The Foundation and Center for Critical Thinking aim to improve education by offering program that emphasize instructional strategies. The website offers links to such programs and resources for socratic questioning, critical reading and writing, higher order thinking, assessment, research, quality enhancement, and competency standards.

Helping Your Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills
IDEA Paper #37 by C. L. Lynch and S. K. Wolcott. This resource presents a model for developing critical thinking/problem-solving skills based on reflective judgment and “theoretically grounded and empirically supported strategies”. The authors provide a rubric and a “road map” to support faculty thinking of the ways in which they can infuse Critical Thinking in their teaching.

Introduction to Creative Thinking
by R. Harris from VirtualSalt. This page compares critical and creative thinking and discusses the views about creative thinking.  The author provides several arguments to support the point that creativity can be taught and offers strategies to foster creativity.

Reasoning Across the Curriculum Program
From the PDF file of the Handbook of Resources compiled by faculty across the disciplines for Prince George’s Year of Critical Thinking. This resource offers numerous links to websites and materials on teaching reasoning and critical thinking at the program level and course level. This resource offers rich examples of different strategies that can be used to promote/develop Critical Thinking. It also addresses changes that faculty would need to think about if they were to re-design/re-work their content to promote Critical Thinking.

Tutorial on Creativity, Brainstorming and Innovation
from Infinite Innovations Ltd. – This tutorial provides basic information about creativity, brainstorming, and innovation.  “brainstorming” software is available and free for downloading.  This website also offers a good overview of terms and strategies.