Reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress have demonstrated that, compared to students in other countries, American elementary and secondary


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NameReports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress have demonstrated that, compared to students in other countries, American elementary and secondary
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Critical Thinking

Reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress have demonstrated that, compared to students in other countries, American elementary and secondary students do poorly on test items requiring higher-level thinking skills (Marzano, 1991). There has also been a decline in the performance of American high school and college students on standardized academic-achievement tests which is due, at least in part, to their ineffective use of higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills (A Nation at Risk, 1983; Adelman, 1986; Applebee, Langer, & Mullis, 1989). Two blue-ribbon reports on the status of American higher education have called for more emphasis on, and development of, the critical-thinking skills of college students (Association of American Colleges, 1985; National Institute of Education, 1984). In a national report whose recommendations project through the year 2000, The National Education Goals Panel (1992) placed special emphasis on critical thinking by including the following two objectives among its most prominently stated goals: (a) The percentage of students who demonstrate the ability to reason, solve problems, apply knowledge, and write and communicate effectively will increase substantially. (b) The proportion of college graduates who demonstrate an advanced ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and solve problems will increase substantially.

In response to these calls for greater attention to critical thinking, all state universities and community colleges in the state of California have established a graduate requirement in critical thinking (Glaser, 1985). Some universities now offer graduate degrees in the teaching of critical thinking, such as California State University, Sonoma and the University of Massachusetts, Boston (Ennis, 1985). A national center for critical thinking has also been established, at which instructional resource materials are housed and national and international conferences on critical thinking are orchestrated (Paul, 1984). More recently, an international center for the assessment of higher-order thinking has been founded (Paul, 1992a).

The importance of developing students’ critical-thinking skills is supported strongly by postsecondary research indicating that factual material learned by students in college is soon forgotten (Blunt & Blizard, 1975; Brethower, 1977; Gustav, 1969; McLeish, 1968). Drawing on these findings in their comprehensive 20-year review of more than 2500 studies on how college affects students, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) reach the following conclusion:

Abundant evidence suggests that much factual material is forgotten rather soon after it is presented in educational settings. Thus, beyond imparting specific subject matter knowledge, claims for the enduring influence of postsecondary education on learning must be based on the fostering of a repertoire of general intellectual or cognitive competencies and skills (p. 114).

This conclusion is particularly appropriate when viewed in light of the contemporary “information explosion” resulting in an estimated doubling of technical information between the time students begin college and the time they graduate. As John Naisbitt (1982) argues in Megatrends, “Running out of [information] is not a problem, but drowning in it is” (p. 24). This phenomenon suggests instructors need to move away from “information-loaded” or “content-loaded” teaching and toward the development of students’ lifelong learning skills, such as higher-order thinking (Cross, 1993).

Erickson and Strommer, in their book, Teaching College Freshmen, highlight the special significance of this recommendation for the teaching of first-year students:

Our compulsions to cover so much material in class…are especially destructive in freshman courses. They reinforce the passive listening, verbatim note-taking, and superficial information-processing strategies that many freshmen bring to college. We need to give up our apparent belief that students cannot learn unless we say it (1991, p. 97).

The need for early and intentional development of college students’ critical thinking skills has also been called for by critical thinking scholars such as Meyers (Meyers, 1986), who argue forcefully in their text, Teaching Students to Think Critically:

In traditional teaching there is often an implicit assumption that learning to think critically develops naturally as students learn increasingly complex levels of discipline content and information… [Instead] analytical frameworks must be taught explicitly and constructed consciously, beginning with simple operations and building toward complexity and subtlety. Creating frameworks or perspectives takes intentional design of classroom exercises and assignments that force students to practice (1986, p. 10).

Also, broader political and economic arguments for critical thinking have been made that a population with well-developed reasoning skills is essential to an effective democracy—a form of government which expects its citizens to participate wisely in the political process and judge wisely in the judicial process. Also, development of critical thinking skills may be essential if America is to compete successfully in a global economy that is now characterized by higher levels of international competition and greater demands for a highly skilled work force (Brookfield, 1987; Sculley, 1994).

In addition to being important for our nation’s political and economic prosperity, critical thinking has been viewed as a key vehicle for reducing racial/ethnic prejudice and promoting appreciation of diversity. Richard Paul, founder and current director of the National Center for Critical Thinking, has argued that critical thinking is an important tool for “civilizing human relationships…[for getting] beyond cultural and ethnic strife which is deeply rooted in narrow, ethnocentric, egocentric thinking” (1992b, p. 3).

Instructional Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking

If we want college graduates to be effective and experienced critical thinkers, the mental habit of critical thinking needs to be established early in the college experience so that it can be repeatedly practiced, refined, and developed throughout the remaining college years. John Chaffee is director for the Center of Critical Thinking at La Guardia Community College and author of the book Thinking Critically. He points out the importance of introducing the development of critical thinking skills at the beginning of the college experience:

Becoming a critical thinker is a complex developmental process. This process is best grounded in a meaningful and coherent introduction to the field of Critical Thinking. Once established, this intellectual foundation can be further elaborated through students’ coursework and reflection on their own on-going experiences (1994, p. 8).

The freshman seminar is a course that can help students develop critical thinking during their very first semester of college life. Moreover, getting freshman seminar faculty involved in designing and implementing critical thinking instruction can make them more aware of this important skill and prompt them to use it in their other courses. If this occurs, then students will experience critical thinking “across the curriculum.”

The following instructional strategies may be used to teach a particular course unit on critical thinking, or they may be used throughout the semester across different course topics. For maximum effect, it is recommended that these strategies be introduced early in the course, within the context of an instructional unit devoted exclusively to critical thinking. Then students can use them to practice and reinforce
critical thinking skills with respect to different course topics.

u Explicitly define critical thinking for students in terms of specific actions and attitudes that can be put into practice.

Although the call for critical thinking has been consistent since the early 1980s, there is much less consistency in how critical thinking has been defined or described. Following a 25-year review of the critical thinking literature, McMillan concluded that, “What is lacking in the research is a common definition of critical thinking and a clear definition of the nature of an experience that should enhance critical thinking” (1987, p. 37).

Differences in how critical thinking has been defined seem to revolve around whether it (a) specifically involves a well-reasoned evaluative judgment (Young, 1980; Furedy & Furedy, 1985) or (b) generally embraces all forms of higher-level thinking that are more complex or deeper than mere acquisition of knowledge and factual recall (Bloom, 1956; Greeno, 1989).

The latter, more inclusive version has been adopted as a working definition in this manual. This broad definition includes a wide variety of specific mental activities that have been called critical thinking. The following list of activities can be shared with students to help them understand what critical thinking actually is. Students can use this list to determine whether they are actually engaging in critical thinking.

1. Application: To apply theoretical principles or abstract concepts to practical, real-life situations and concrete problems (e.g., applying learned principles of critical thinking to class discussions and course exams).

2. Analysis: To break down (deconstruct) information into its parts in order to see the relationships among these parts, or the relationship between the parts and the whole (e.g., to identify the root causes of disagreements during class discussions; to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information; to identify and disclose hidden assumptions or biases).

3. Synthesis: To build up (reconstruct), combine, or integrate separate pieces of information to create a new pattern or alternative structure (e.g., to combine related ideas discussed in separate sections of the course to form a single, unified product—such as a written paper or concept map).

4. Evaluation: To judge the truth or value of ideas, data, or products (e.g., to judge the quality of a logical argument using established standards or learned criteria for critical thinking).

5. Deduction: To draw specific conclusions about particular examples which are logically consistent with, or necessarily follow from general principles and premises (e.g., to deduce what particular enforcement practices or disciplinary actions would follow if the college were to adopt a general “zero tolerance” drug policy on campus).

6. Induction: To draw out well-reasoned generalizations or principles from specific examples (e.g., to identify recurrent themes or categories among a variety of ideas generated during a group discussion).

7. Adduction: To make a case for an argument or position by accumulating supporting evidence in the form of logical arguments, factual information, or empirical research.

8. Refutation: To make a case against an argument or position by accumulating contradictory evidence in the form of logical arguments, factual information, or empirical research.

9. Extrapolation: To extend, expand, or project beyond information given and identify its implications for other areas (e.g., to extrapolate from present trends to construct an image of the future).

10. Hypothetical Reasoning: To create tentative ideas or explanations for purposes of testing their validity or predicting their accuracy (e.g., to develop a survey or questionnaire designed to test the hypothesis that students are dissatisfied with the social climate on campus).

11. Perspective-Taking: To view an issue from different viewpoints or positions in order to gain a more complete understanding (e.g., to view an issue from the perspective of someone different than yourself in terms of gender, age, or race).

12. Divergent Thinking: Wide-focus thinking which serves to generate many different ideas (e.g., brainstorming multiple potential solutions to a problem).

13. Convergent Thinking: Focused thinking which eliminates multiple ideas to decide on one particular option or alternative (e.g., to identify the best solution to a problem from a list of different solution strategies).

u Identifying attitudes associated with critical thinking

In addition to involving specific mental processes, critical thinking also involves certain attitudes, including the following:

1. Willingness and courage to engage in intellectual risk-taking (Paul, 1992c).

2. Tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty (Meyers, 1986).

3. Openness to new ideas (Brookfield, 1987) in light of contradictory evidence (Wade & Tavris, 1990).

These critical thinking processes and attitudes could be distributed to students in a handout or incorporated into the course syllabus, and discussed with students early in the semester.

u Identify what critical thinking is not, i.e., types of thinking and attitudes that are common misapplications of critical thinking.

The following list of common critical-thinking errors, based primarily on the work of Ruggiero (1996) and Wade & Tavris (1990) may be used for this purpose.

1. Overgeneralization: drawing general conclusions on the basis of an insufficient number of observations. (For example, concluding that a group of people are “all that way” or “most of them are that way” on the basis of just a few observations.)

2. Selective Perception: focusing only on information that supports your ideas, and overlooking any information that contradicts them. (For example, a racially prejudiced person recalls particular examples to support his racial stereotype, but fails to consider instances which do not fit the stereotype.)

3. Using black-and-white/either-or reasoning. (For example, thinking that human behavior must be caused by either genetics or environment, but overlooking the fact that is often caused by a combination of these two factors.)

4. Assuming that two coincidental events must have a cause-effect relationship. (For example, crime rates increased during the same time period when parents report using less physical punishment with their children, therefore failure of parents to physically punish their children has caused an increase in the crime rate.)

5. Creating a straw man, i.e., attributing an idea to someone who never actually expressed that idea and then proceeding to attack it. (For instance, someone who claims to be “pro-choice” on the abortion issue is attacked for not being “pro-life.”)

6. Appealing to authority or prestige, rather than to reason. (For
example, “Doctors prescribe this medicine, therefore it must be good for you.”)

7. Appealing to tradition, rather than to reason. (For example, “This is the way it’s always been done, so there’s no reason why we should do it differently.”)

8. Appealing to popularity or the majority, rather than to reason. (For example, “Everybody I know uses it, so it must be a good product.”)

9. Reaching conclusions on the basis of emotion, rather than reason. (For example, “If I feel strongly about it, then it must be true.”)

10. Attacking the person, rather than the person’s argument. (For example, “You’re too young and inexperienced to know what you’re talking about.”)

11. Assuming that critical thinking means being critical. (Critical thinking is not synonymous with negative thinking; it also involves thinking constructively—such as solving problems, and thinking creatively—coming up with new ideas and fresh approaches.)

u Model or role play the process of critical thinking for
your students.

Instead of immediately suggesting solutions for college adjustment challenges, first put yourself in the problem situation, as if you were a student, and think through the process of solving the problem—out loud. This enables you to model critical thinking for your students and allows them to witness the process of problem solving in addition to its final product. You could even ask students to bring college-adjustment dilemmas to class for you to think through and attempt to resolve in front of them.

A variation of this procedure would be for you to role play a scene involving common critical-thinking errors, and then replay the scene with the characters displaying effective critical thinking skills.

u Have students think aloud while they attempt to solve
problems and resolve dilemmas.

Research has shown that the quality of students’ higher-level thinking is enhanced when they are asked to think out loud while they solve problems (Ahlum-Heather & DiVesta, 1986). Thinking aloud probably helps by causing students to consciously pay attention to their thinking and change these hidden thought processes into oral communication which can then be responded to and improved via feedback from others (Resnick, 1986).

u After students have communicated their ideas, have them reflect on their thought processes to see whether they thought critically, and, if so, what form of critical thinking they used.

Occasionally giving students some “pause time” in class lets them reflect on the quality of their thinking and decide whether they have used the thought processes and attitudes associated with critical thinking. For example, after a small-group or whole-class discussion, have students reflect on the quality of the thinking they displayed during the discussion and have them share these personal reflections verbally or in writing (for example, in the form of a short, post-discussion minute paper).

Research has shown that high-achieving college students tend to reflect on their thought processes during learning and are aware of the cognitive strategies they use (Weinstein & Underwood, 1985). When such “meta-cognition” (thinking about thinking) and self-monitoring can be learned by students, the quality of their thinking skills is enhanced (Resnick, 1986).

u Pose questions to students that provoke critical thinking.

As discussed in section 1, questions which ask students to think at a level higher than rote memory are more likely to elicit student involvement than lower-level questions which ask them for recall of factual information (Andrews, 1980). These results indicate that students are willing and eager to respond to questions that require critical thinking, and it suggests that the specific type of thinking that students engage in will be strongly influenced by the specific type of questions that instructors ask them. As Erickson and Strommer point out in their book, Teaching College Freshmen: “Our questions direct student thinking; we need to plan them carefully” (1991, p. 118).

Alison King has conducted research which shows that students can learn to generate their own higher-level thinking questions. Using a technique which she calls “guided peer questioning,” students are provided with a series of generic question stems which prompt different forms of critical thinking, such as:

(a) “What would happen if ___?”

(b) “What is the difference between ___ and ___?”

(c) “What are the implications of ___?”

(d) “Why is ___ important?”

(e) “What is another way to look at ___?” (King, 1995).

Relative to a control group of students who simply partake in small-group discussion following a lecture presentation, students who are provided with high-level thinking questions beforehand have been found to: (a) ask a greater number of critical thinking questions and fewer rote recall questions in subsequent small-group interactions without being provided with question prompts, (b) elicit more high-level reasoning responses and elaborated explanations from teammates, and (c) exhibit greater academic achievement on test questions involving higher-level thinking (King, 1990).

u Provide students with opportunities to practice critical thinking skills within the context of peer interaction.

Research has consistently revealed that, when college students are required to engage in face-to-face discussion of course concepts with their peers, they are more likely to develop critical thinking skills than by merely listening to lectures and recording course notes. For example, Kulik and Kulik (1979) conducted a comprehensive review of research designed to assess the effectiveness of different college teaching strategies. They found that student discussion groups were significantly more effective for promoting students’ problem-solving skills than the traditional lecture method.

Evidence for the value of having students explicitly practice critical thinking skills during peer interaction is again provided by Alison King. Her research involved a variation of the above procedure which she calls “reciprocal peer questioning.” In this procedure, students listen to a presentation and individually generate 2-3 relevant questions pertaining to the presentation, using question stems designed to elicit higher-level thinking responses which are provided to them by the instructor. Then students form two-member groups in which one member poses a question and the other member adopts the role of explainer/respondent; later, the students reverse roles.

Research on students who engage in this structured pair interaction reveals that they are more likely to display higher-level thinking in group discussions and on course examinations (King, 1995).

u Create small groups of students (3–5) in which each member is assigned a specific critical-thinking role (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation, application) with respect to the learning task.

These roles can be depicted visually for students in the form of a graphic organizer, such as the following content-by-process matrix, which juxtaposes key critical thinking processes with key course concepts.

To ensure that students “stretch” their range of critical thinking skills, have students rotate critical thinking roles on successive small-group tasks.

The content-by process matrix provides students with a visible structure that helps them identify the type of cognitive processes they are expected to engage in when learning particular course content. The importance of providing such explicit structure for first-year students is underscored by Erickson and Strommer in Teaching College Freshmen:

Structure is one source of support for freshmen, and we can provide it with explicit and clear instructions about what students are to do when they are “actively involved.” The instructions not only call for an end product, but they also outline what students should consider along the way. Eventually, we hope students will learn to think through these situations without so many prompts. Initially, however, freshmen need them to guide thinking (1991, p. 119).

In addition to visually highlighting for students what critical thinking processes they are to engage in, a content-by-process matrix could also benefit instructors by (a) raising their conscious awareness of the importance of promoting specific critical thinking skills, and (b) encouraging them to identify core concepts in their courses—those ideas or issues that students should think most deeply about, such as those which have the most long-term value. Rather than attempting to cover everything equally (and perhaps superficially), the content-process matrix may serve as a visual reminder for instructors to “uncover” the most important principles, like critical thinking, found in the vast content of freshman seminars.

As Richard Paul, nationally known pioneer of the critical thinking movement, warns us:

Let us therefore explicitly recognize the misleading nature of expressions like ‘this is what we need to cover!‘ Let us recognize that the key question is ‘How can we design what we ‘cover’ so that students must thoughtfully and deeply master it?’ The addicting delusion of coverage must end (Paul, 1994, p. 10).

u Create cognitive dissonance or disequilibrium in the minds of students with respect to course concepts and issues.

Research suggests that instructional practices that promote critical thinking are those which create cognitive dissonance or disequilibrium in students and prods them to consider different perspectives or multiple viewpoints (Brookfield, 1987; Kurfiss, 1988). The following practices are recommended as strategies for giving students that state of cognitive disequilibrium.

— Select readings which present alternative viewpoints to those presented in the textbook.
For example, have students compare certain information in the textbook with that from another source with a different perspective. This strategy should help combat the “dualistic” thinking of first-year students which often leads them to believe that there are only right and wrong answers to problems or issues (Perry, 1970).

— Deliberately invite guest speakers to visit the class with differing perspectives on course topics.

— When deciding on the sequence of course topics or concepts, consider arranging their order in a way that juxtaposes and highlights incompatible viewpoints or perspectives.
Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is a strong advocate of this strategy. In his words: It’s hard to stimulate critical thinking monologically. . .

I work very hard at trying to represent multiple perspectives. I try to build my course materials so that as soon as an idea has been offered persuasively, another idea that challenges it comes next. . . it’s a dialectical view of what it means to teach something to somebody else, which is to force them to confront contradictions and counterpoints (quoted in Miller, 1997, p. 5).

— Incorporate comparison-and-contrast questions into lectures, tests, and assignments.

— During class discussions, raise questions that call for multiple student perspectives. (For example, “Who doesn’t agree with what’s being said?” “Would someone else like to express an opposing viewpoint?”)

— Assign a minute paper or reaction paper at the end of class which asks students if there was any point made or position taken during the day’s session which they strongly question or challenge, and then use their responses as springboards for discussion in the next class session.

— Use student-centered instructional methods which take you “off stage,” exposing students to the perspectives of other students and reducing their perception of you as the absolute authority. For example, have students who hold diverse viewpoints on a certain issue join together to form (a) small discussion groups, (b) student debate teams, or (c) panel discussions.

— Play the role of “devil’s advocate,” using the Socratic method to prod students to see the pros and cons of their position on an issue. For example, persuade students to buy into a certain position, then proceed to expose its flaws.

— Have students engage in “reverse thinking” by requiring them to switch their original position on an issue being discussed in class. This can serve to combat “either-or”/“black-and-white” thinking and help students adopt a more balanced position on controversial issues.

— Have students research and prepare to defend both sides of an issue, then randomly assign them to argue for one of the positions in class or on an exam. For instance, two students might be given the assignment of researching both sides of a college-life issue, such as whether the legal age for use of alcohol should be lowered or remain the same. Before the debate begins, a flip of the coin could determine which side of the issue each student will take. As Bergquist and Phillips point out, this type of activity encourages students to “appreciate the complexity of intellectual issues and the inherent danger of simplistic thinking” (1981, p. 116).

— Have students role play someone with whom they disagree strongly.

u Engage students in problem-based or issue-centered tasks to stimulate critical thinking.

Active engagement in the learning task is a necessary condition for the development of critical thinking. Rather than passively receive information about something, students need to actually do something—they must “act” on the material in some way to be able to think critically about it. If higher-level thinking is to be developed, instruction must involve methods that require students to use content, not simply acquire it (Kurfiss, 1988; Young, 1980).

The critical thinking literature strongly suggests that these active-learning tasks be centered on (a) problems that may not be readily solved, (b) issues to be discussed or debated, or (c) decision-making tasks that require exploration of equally appealing alternatives. The appropriateness of such tasks for first-year students is well articulated by
Dale Safrit:

As educators of first-year students, we must not only teach appropriate subject matter but must concurrently involve learners in applying the subject matter to the analysis and resolution of problems and issues they face daily. The synthesis and application of information to new problems and issues is basic to the concept of critical thinking and contributes greatly to effective decision making (1994, p. 62).

The relevance of problem-based tasks for first-year adult students, in particular, is underscored by theory and research indicating that
re-entry students have a “problem-centered orientation” to learning
and prefer to discuss course concepts that directly relate to issues they face in their personal lives (Knowles, 1978).

Such problem-centered learning tasks are more likely to promote critical thinking than information-disseminating lectures or textbooks. As Ward (1989) puts it, “One can be quizzed about a textbook (or an expository lecture), but it is next to impossible to discuss it” (p. 29). The YCE text overcomes this typical textbook limitation by the inclusion of personal stories and group exercises, many of which can readily serve as issue-centered tasks that stimulate active student involvement and promote critical thinking.

Meyers & Jones (1993) suggest that the following types of questions, based on approaches taken by prominent case-study teachers, can be used to promote critical thinking in response to problem-based or issue-centered tasks.

(a) Discussion Starters (e.g., “What dilemma does the situation pose?“)

(b) Implication questions (e.g., “What does the problem in this situation imply for your career?”)

(c) Predictive/Hypothetical questions (e.g., “If the roles of the main characters were switched, what would have happened?”)

(d) Analytical/Evaluative questions (e.g., “What particular action is at the root of this problem? Which action played the most pivotal role?”)

(e) Summary/Synthesis questions (e.g., “What are the main points that have emerged in our discussion thus far?”)

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