Faculty Focus


Critical Thinking: Definitions and Assessments

Despite almost universal agreement that critical thinking needs to be taught in college, now perhaps more than ever before, there is much less agreement on definitions and dimensions. “Critical thinking can include the thinker’s dispositions and orientations; a range of specific analytical, evaluative, and problem-solving skills; contextual influences; use of multiple perspectives; awareness of one’s own assumptions; capacities for metacognition; or a specific set of thinking processes or tasks.” (p. 127)

Critical thinking is assessed in a variety of ways by individual teachers, but unlike many other college-level learning skills, it is also regularly assessed via a battery of standardized tests such as ACT’s Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP), the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), ETS’ Proficiency Profile (PP), and a set of scoring rubrics known as the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE).

Stassen, Herrington, and Henderson report on an interesting activity undertaken to answer several questions regarding critical thinking definitions. They wondered what dimensions of critical thinking were emphasized by these standardized tests and measures and whether those dimensions reflected how faculty at their institution defined critical thinking. “This exploratory analysis was intended to help us understand the relevance (or fit) of each of these tools to our faculty’s priorities for students’ critical thinking development.” (p. 135)

They began by having a group of general education instructors generate an operational definition of critical thinking. The definition grew out of faculty responses to the following question and prompt: “What learning behaviors (skills, values, attitudes) do students exhibit that reflect critical thinking? Students demonstrate critical thinking when they …” (p. 128) Analysis of the instructors’ responses resulted in 12 dimensions of critical thinking: judgment/argument, synthesizing, problem solving, evidence-based thinking, drawing inferences, perspective taking, suspend judgment, application, metacognition, questioning/skepticism, knowledge/understanding, and discipline-based thinking.

Next they looked at how the four standardized tests defined critical thinking. “To understand the commonalities between the four external sources and our campus’s own critical thinking definition, we used our internal definition as the anchor definition and coded the external sources in relation to the categories present in that internal definition.” (p. 130) A table in the article presents this comparison.

Their analysis shows that “judgment/argument is the predominant component of critical thinking reflected in all of the external assessment options (accounting for between one-half to over three-quarters of all the descriptors associated with critical thinking).” (p. 133) They found “substantial emphasis” on drawing inferences and evidence-based thinking and lesser emphasis on synthesizing, problem solving, and perspective taking. But some aspects of their definition of critical thinking, such as application, suspending judgment, metacognition, and questioning/skepticism, received no emphasis in the standardized assessments. “The results suggest that all three standardized tests address a narrow set of constructs present in the campus definition, with the primary focus on judgment/argument, evidence-based thinking, and drawing inferences.” (p. 135)

This analysis was not a study of the validity of the items on the standardized assessments, but rather an exploration of how the basic construct of critical thinking was defined by the assessment tool. Furthermore, their campus definition was not assumed to be the “correct” definition. The authors note that it wasn’t systematically vetted or compared with the responses of other groups of faculty on their campus or elsewhere, although the list of dimensions identified by these general education instructors is not notably unusual.

Despite these limitations, other benefits derive from this kind analysis. Most notably it generates rich conversations about critical thinking. It helps individual faculty, collections of faculty teaching related courses (in this case general education), and institutions clarify what they mean when they say they are teaching critical-thinking skills.

Reference: Stassen, M. L., Herrington, A., and Henderson, L. Defining Thinking in Higher Education. In Miller, J. E. and Groccia, J. E., eds. To Improve the Academy, 30. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.10 (2011): 8.