Using Critical Thinking to Address Implicit Bias

World surrounded by different ethnicities

Have you wanted to incorporate current social issues into your course but struggled to do so? Are you looking for unusual ways to introduce the concepts of social justice and implicit bias? If so, you might consider using a critical thinking framework to develop a course assignment.

Faculty should lead students to assess and take responsibility for their own thinking. You can incorporate social justice principles into your courses to help students increase critical thinking skills and recognize areas of implicit bias in their thinking. Using a structured format for thinking about issues in which implicit bias may be a factor provides an objective method of analyzing patterns of thought that might be uncomfortable. It is when students step outside of their comfort zone that they can see situations or ideas from a perspective different than their own.

The Paul-Elder framework lends itself to this process. While this critical thinking model has been used in academic settings, there is little evidence that it has been applied to addressing social issues. There are eight elements of reasoning: purpose, questions, assumption, point of view, evidence, concepts and ideas, inferences and interpretations, and implications and consequences (Paul & Elder, 1997). As faculty use this model to develop assignments, they can examine their own thinking, improve their self-assessment skills, and uncover areas of their own implicit bias.

One example of using the Paul-Elder framework in your course is to use part or all of the eight elements of reasoning in a case study. Regardless of your subject matter, there are ways to incorporate ideas of social justice and the impact of implicit bias. If you are teaching a general education course, your focus could be on literacy barriers for an English class, or a biology class might highlight an environmental aspect of inequity. Major-specific courses can also address social justice concepts. For instance, in the medical field, your case study may emphasize access to care, while business courses could incorporate housing or other financial issues. I am sure you are already thinking of scenarios that would work with your course content.

As you develop the case study, you will have the opportunity to explore your feelings on the issue at hand and you can take time to think deeply about your topic. You may uncover areas of bias in your own thinking that you can address and share with students if appropriate. To get started, you can examine the elements of reasoning and decide the questions you want to address in each element. Here are some examples of questions to ask for each element and what students should be able to identify within each step.

  • Purpose: What is the purpose of the case study? Students should be able to clearly identify the goal(s) or objective(s) of the study. This will be a broad statement and further elements will streamline thinking about the issue.
  • Question: What is the question at hand? What is the problem? What is the meaning and scope of the issue(s) in the study? Students should be able to identify the problem at hand—the true issue(s) in the scenario.
  • Assumptions: What do we take for granted to be true? Are our assumptions justifiable? What assumptions are being made by the persons in the case study? Students should identify thoughts that they assume to be true or are common ideas because they have heard it repeatedly.
  • Point of view: What is the point of view of the student? What about others in the case study—what is their perception of the situation? Students should carefully consider the issue from the perspective of all persons in the case study.
  • Evidence: What factual information is available? What facts support your thoughts? Are there facts that do not support your position? Students should report only the information or data that is found within the study.
  • Concepts and ideas: Are there theories or laws that pertain to the scenario? How about ethical principles or concepts? Students should identify relevant concepts and ideas related to the case study.
  • Inferences and interpretations: What conclusions can we draw from the study? Are there solutions to the issue? Students should use the evidence they have and identify any assumptions that contributed to their conclusions.
  • Implications and consequences: What are the implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning? Are there positive or negative consequences? Students should be able to recognize the consequences of their conclusions about the scenario.

It may be daunting to fully incorporate the eight elements into one scenario, but it should be possible to begin to incorporate these standards of reasoning into case studies or other course assignments. It is important to allow students to discover areas of bias or the problems with long held assumptions.

Incorporating social justice concepts can be challenging but providing the opportunity for students to explore these issues is critically important. It is often hard to quantify student’s progress in this area. Using this tool provides you with an objective way to analyze thinking and confront beliefs that may not be evidence-based.

Diane Smith is an assistant professor at Missouri State University. She has 15 years of experience teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  She currently teaches nurse educator and population health courses.  Diane obtained her doctorate in population health nursing from Rush University in 2016


Paul, R., & Elder, L. (1997). The elements of reasoning and the intellectual standards. The Foundation for Critical Thinking.