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College instructors often list critical thinking as one of their central learning goals, but it is much easier said than done.  From the start, we need to recognize that our students may not know what we mean when we say, “think critically.”  In Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield defines it as “A process of hunting assumptions–discovering what assumptions we and others hold, and then checking to see how much sense those assumptions make,” (p. 24).

Students will not automatically become critical thinkers just by sitting in a college classroom.  What steps can you take to teach critical thinking skills in your discipline?

  1. Learning to think critically is a process.  Treat it as such, and do not become frustrated if students stumble or seem to go back to old ways of thinking.
  2. Address students’ misconceptions that critical thinking is negative or is always intended to overturn what is known.
  3. Introduce a disorienting dilemma to compel students to think differently about a topic they already think they know something about.
  4. Model critical thinking yourself.  Think out loud for students, explain ways in which you have changed your thinking about questions in your discipline, or work through problems together.
  5. Introduce a simple framework for critical thinking that students can apply themselves.  Brookfield has a four-step process for gathering and analyzing assumptions.  I use the three A’s (author, audience, and agenda) as a starting place for students to read historical texts.
  6. Start critical thinking with impersonal problems or questions.  Students will be more receptive in learning the methods of applying critical thought before they question their own beliefs.
  7. Treat critical thinking as a social process.  The input and feedback of others, especially peers, helps us to identify our own assumptions, consider different interpretations, and articulate our reasoning.
  8. Consider borrowing problem-based or inquiry-based learning approaches that are suitable for your students’ level and discipline.

For more, see these suggestions for teaching critical thinking from Jessica L. Collett, an Associate Professor in Sociology and friend of the Kaneb Center.

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