The Instructor’s Challenge: Moving Students beyond Opinions to Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is defined as a reflective and reasonable thought process embodying depth, accuracy, and astute judgment to determine the merit of a decision, an object, or a theory (Alwehaibi, 2012). Creative thinking involves analysis, evaluation, and a synthesizing of facts, ideas, opinions, and theories. Possessing the capacity to logically and creatively exercise in-depth judgment and reflection to work effectively in the realm of complex ideas exemplifies a critical thinker (Carmichael & Farrell, 2012).

Mere thinking might lead a student to engage in the offering personal opinions or life experiences to address a topic, yet the challenge for an instructor is to move students beyond offering personal opinions. Gaining additional thinking skills prompts a student to research the existing body of topical knowledge and respond by repeating the ideas and theories of experts in the subject matter. Quoting scholarly authors is a step above proffering personal beliefs and perceptions, yet regurgitating the thoughts of others does not equate to critical thinking.

As instructors, the goal should be to create a learning environment that causes students to engage in critical reflection and evaluation of the existing literature to render judgment based on a compilation of synthesized evidence. Although a student’s opinion might be relevant and provide a bridge for additional discussion, the challenge is to prompt students to provide justifications and founded explanations of their views. What does a student learn if the only criteria for the assignment is read the textbook and tell me what the author said? An effective method for beginning to teach the critical thinking process is for the instructor to respond to students with research-supported replies. By the instructor setting the example, students at least have the opportunity to view a reflective, evaluative response.

The asynchronous online classroom instructor can use a variety of techniques to facilitate critical thinking skills in his or her students. The fact that students must write discussion responses fosters a deeper level of thinking than reactionary verbal responses. Online students have the opportunity to think and organize their thoughts prior to responding to a question. Instructors must remove actual or perceived communication barriers to allow students to enjoy a strong comfort level with posting responses, asking questions, or contacting the instructor. Specific techniques to build critical thinking skills in students include:

  • Providing timely, positive, yet constructive feedback
  • Expressing agreement, appreciation, and encouragement
  • Posing challenging questions to students
  • Teaching the value of comparing and contrasting; everything is not right or wrong
  • Openly praising high quality work so other students can see what excellent work resembles
  • Encouraging students to provide problem-solving responses as opposed to offering textbook definitions
  • Keeping the discussion within the context of the subject matter; herd in the strays
  • Rewarding excellent participation; penalizing poor performance. I’ve found that the only way to encourage scholarly participation by a portion of the students is through the grade book.

  • A student’s critical thinking skills can be strengthened when an instructor probes the student’s viewpoint on the discussion topic by seeking additional clarification, explanation, and justification from the student.

    Instructors should prompt students to gain proficiency in research skills to be able to move beyond using personal opinions as the sole basis for responses. Recognizing that critical thinking involves assessment, examination, and reflective reasoning of existing information, ideas, beliefs, and speculations, effective instructors encourage students to gain proficiency in the ability to locate and retrieve scholarly information on the assigned topic. Instructors should respectfully challenge a student’s viewpoint to elicit a deeper, more reflective response by:

    • Setting the example: responding to the student with a reply supported by peer-reviewed literature
    • Mandating the use of peer-reviewed sources in addition to the course textbook
    • Asking questions directly related to the student’s response as opposed to posting an off-the-shelf, well-worn reply
    • Asking for clarifications, deeper explanations, and justification
    • Disallowing the use or, at a minimum, the overuse of direct quotes
    • Teaching the technique of synthesis of sources instead of rewarding a quantity of words
    • Not responding to students in such an authoritative manner that kills the discussion; the goal is to keep the discussion moving, and not cause students to assume the instructor always has the final word
    • Soliciting opposing views; encourage students to make a justified argument for or against a topic
    • Posting questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no answer or one-liners

    By stimulating a student’s reasoning process through probing and thought-provoking questions, instructors move students beyond being able to define a topic to possessing the ability to make an evaluative value judgment based on in-depth, sound interpretation of relevant information.

    Dr. Ronald C. Jones, president, Ronald C. Jones, Inc. and associate faculty, Ashford University.

    Alwehaibi, H. (2012). Novel program to promote critical thinking among higher education students: Empirical study from Saudi Arabia. Asian Social Science, 8(11), 193-204.

    Carmichael, E., & Farrell, H. (2012). Evaluation of the effectiveness of online resources in developing student critical thinking: Review of literature and case study of a critical thinking online site. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 9(1), 1-17. Retrieved from

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Deborah Dessaso

    Excellent article. In my view, the primary challenge is getting students to do the critical reading. Without this foundation, students won't know the issues that are being argued within the discipline. In my last writing class, I actually had to defend the use of scholarly articles. Students whined that the articles were too long and complicated, so I ended up having to unpack the articles in class.

    1. Paul T. Corrigan

      I agree that getting students to read–and to read in a more than cursory way–is essential. It's also problematic. I assume that the default for students is to not read and then I work to find ways to get them to read.

      Unpacking articles for students in class (depending on how one does it and how often) may actually disincentive students from reading on their own in the future (since the teacher's going to "go over it" in class). However, having some assignment, some formal or informal task that students will need to perform (and for which students will need to have completed the reading) has been shown to encourage students to do the reading.

      Another consideration may be the amount of time given for each scholarly article, taking into account such factors as the length and complexity of the article (scholarly articles significantly vary among disciplines), how advanced the students are, and how often the class meets (if you are talking about a face-to-face class). For instance, with a class of first-year students that meets three times a week, I assign a single scholarly article of relatively minimal complexity (just over 25 pages long) by breaking it into three parts over a week, with students writing about/in response to or using in some way each part before one of the classes and then the class discussing/using it in some way in class.

      This seems to help them engage. And, though I also preemptively explain to them why we need to read a scholarly article, I don't remember anyone complaining about it. It may also help that I choose a "controversial" article.

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

      1. Les

        Yes, I've always assumed that, to encourage students to complete the reading, one does need to assign tasks or projects requiring genuine engagement with the reading. But now I'm curious: When you say that this kind of approach has indeed been shown effective, which source(s) do you have in mind? I'd like to start looking into the literature for myself.

        1. debdessaso

          The source should, as much as possible, reflect the interests of the students. If you teach in a major urban environment as I do where most of your students are interested in hip hop, you may want to review Routledge's That's the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader. This is a compilation of some of the best academic writing on hip-hop culture in the past 20 years. I didn't assume that all of the students would be interested in hip-hop, so I included the book as a suggested, rather than required, reading.

  2. Teresa

    What an excellent resource. It can be quite challenging at times to facilitate the students’ ability to critically think. This is such a critical skill in caring for patients at the bedside, but some students and new graduates struggle with this. I have seen quite the improvements with critical thinking skills with the use of simulations in a controlled environment. It is a safe environment that the students can make mistakes then reflect on their decisions without causing harm to the patients.

  3. aranoff

    Any comments how to teach first year math students? It is hard to find original papers for them to read. They have enough trouble reading the text.

  4. Robert Fielding

    I wish all this had been available when I studied at university, more than 30 years ago. Back then we were more or less left alone with a reading list and an essay title. We had seminars and tutorials to go over what we had been told in lectures, but that amountede to little more than checking you had done the reading and a little bit on whether you understood what you had read.
    Does anyone know of a sort of 'front end' thinking course that students get on entering university. It would be too late for me, but I still write about this stuff and am currently working on short stories that show teachers and students the way – perhaps show it too dictatorial – point out might have been better.

Comments are closed.