Five Strategies to Help Students Apply Critical Thinking

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While definitions for what constitutes critical thinking may vary, most higher education professionals agree that students need to learn critical thinking skills. In this article, we list five strategies from educator, Stephen Brookfield, for helping students develop their critical thinking skills.

Work in Structured small groups

Brookfield claims critical thinking occurs best in small group settings because students discover assumptions and perspectives from listening to one another. They value the questions from their peers: “They [students] say how much they learned from the observations peers made about their ideas, or the suggestions they offered on how to think differently about problems they were facing” (p. 56). Brookfield finds that students are less threatened when examining assumptions with one another than with a teacher who is more of an authority figure.

To promote small group work, design activities that go along with the assignment and require students to work with unexpected dilemmas, examine assumptions that they may not even know they have, see knowledge in new ways, gather evidence, and share new perspectives. For example, students could work in groups to analyze scenarios and/or help one another investigate troublesome issues. Make sure group activities have guidelines and ground rules. 

Model critical thinking

Provide examples of how you use critical thinking skills in your own work; i.e. how you have examined your own assumptions, gathered evidence, developed arguments, created new strategies, etc.

Be clear with students about the goals of the assignment and why you are asking them to do this critical thinking work:

“Students really appreciate knowing why the teacher is doing what she is doing. They say this helps them learn whatever is being taught and also gives them the sense that they are in the hands of a trusted guide.” (p. 62)

Raise questions that the assignment has stimulated for you. Acknowledge contradictions you see in the assignment. Provide an example of an assumption the assignment raises for you.

Provide active learning experiences related to the assignment

Provide opportunities for engaging in role play or simulations, working with scenarios or case studies, consulting new resources, or working with experiments to uncover assumptions: “It is much easier for students to describe the assumptions they are operating under in reference to a specific activity or experience than to talk generally about the assumptions they hold” (p. 70).

Develop disorienting dilemmas related to the assignment

A disorienting dilemma is one for which there is no one answer. The dilemma involves contradictions and forces one to think differently (Mezirow, 2000). The dilemma is unexpected: “A trick with designing a disorienting dilemma is that it has to be unsettling enough to shake students out of their comfort zone, but not so discomforting that those students will do their best to avoid dealing with it” (Brookfield, 2012, p. 72). Explain to students how you have dealt with disorienting dilemmas in your own scholarly work.

Ask questions that promote discovery

Begin with questions that help students explore assumptions of others (writers, researchers, and other scholars). Beginning with the assumptions of others is often less threatening than beginning with one’s own. Brookfield (2012) provides some sample questions and/or prompts to begin with:

  • Is one of the assumptions the author is operating under that…
  • When I’ve faced similar problems I’ve sometimes assumed that…
  • What cause and effect relationships do you see in this part of the study?
  • It seems that three possible assumptions behind this research/experiment might be…Which of these seems most likely to you?
  • What’s the most accurate assumption you find in this work?

Next, ask questions that uncover evidence and information behind assumptions:

  • Pick a conclusion the author/researcher seems to have made. What’s the most convincing piece of evidence provided to support this conclusion?
  • If you must pick one piece of evidence in this study that you find most persuasive or convincing, what would that be?

Then, ask open ended questions that generate multiple responses:

  • Whose perspective is missing in this work and what would it look like if it was included?
  • What radically different examples could you give of this concept? How would these different examples take our analysis in a different direction?
  • What questions or issues have been raised for us today?
  • What would happen if different data were included in this research?

Also, ask questions of individual students to help them understand their own reasoning:

  • What’s a good example of what you’re talking about?
  • Can you explain the term you just used?
  • Can you tell us why you think your conclusion is accurate?
  • What data is that claim based on?
  • What evidence would you give to someone who doubted your interpretation?

References

Brookfield, S.D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.