December 1st, 2014

Unlocking the Mystery of Critical Thinking


Critical thinking. We all endorse it. We all want our students to do it. And we claim to teach it. But do we? Do we even understand and agree what it means to think critically?

According to Paul and Elder’s (2013a) survey findings, most faculty don’t know what critical thinking is or how to teach it. Unless faculty explicitly and intentionally design their courses to build their students’ critical thinking skills and receive training in how to teach them, their students do not improve their skills (Abrami et al., 2008).

This common blind spot is understandable. The critical thinking literature is quite abstract and fragmented among different scholars who don’t seem to talk to each other:

  • Stephen Brookfield (2012), a critical theory and adult education specialist, focuses on assumptions.
  • Diane Halpern (2003), who’s been awarded for her teaching and research, takes the perspective of a cognitive psychologist.
  • Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2013b), founding leaders of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, hail from philosophy and education psychology, respectively.
  • Peter Facione (2013), a leadership consultant and former university executive, worked intensively with philosophers in the Delphi Group.
  • Susan Wolcott (2006), an accounting professor, created a developmental model of complex thinking.

If you want to avoid the whole mosaic, you can also make a case that the higher levels of Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of cognitive operations and Perry’s (1968) advanced stages of undergraduate cognitive development represent critical thinking.

Can you find common ground? Yes. In general, the scholars listed above agree that critical thinking entails an interpretation or analysis, usually followed by evaluation or judgment. It requires that learners have mastered some subject matter to think about, so it can’t be done in a knowledge vacuum. It is difficult and unnatural, and it takes time and effort to learn. And it involves not only cognition but also character and metacognition/self-regulated learning. This means that learners must be willing to pursue “truth” to wherever it may lie, persist through challenges, evaluate their own thinking fairly, and abandon faulty thinking for new and more valid ways of reasoning. These are intellectual “virtues” that don’t come easily to people and must be cultivated.

The scholars also generally agree that students learn critical thinking by answering challenging, open-ended questions that require genuine inquiry, analysis, or assessment. These examples call upon students to think critically:

  • What are your reasons for coming to that interpretation/evaluation?
  • What are the arguments on this issue pro and con?
  • How strong are those arguments? What is the evidence behind them and how solid is it?
  • What are the main assumptions behind this line of reasoning?
  • How can we interpret these data? What conclusions can we draw, if any?
  • What additional information do we need to resolve this issue?
  • What are the trade-offs, implications, and consequences of each solution we’ve discussed?
  • By what standards and priorities will you judge the quality of different solutions?
  • What are the limitations of your chosen solution?
  • How can you defend it against the arguments in favor of other solutions?
  • What are some alternatives that we have not yet explored?

Paul and Elder (2013) recommend asking questions that hold students accountable for meeting their eight standards for critical thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, and fairness, such as:

  • How can you validate the accuracy of this statement/evidence?
  • How is that information relevant here?
  • How well does that conclusion handle the complexities of the problem?
  • What is another interpretation or viewpoint on the issue?
  • How does this conclusion follow from the data or earlier statements?
  • How can both these interpretations be true when they lead to such different conclusions?
  • Do you have a vested interest in one position or another? How honestly and impartially are you representing the other viewpoints?

One other important element in the learning process: Students must get feedback on their responses, whether from you, a teaching assistant, or their peers, so they can refine their thinking accordingly.

Certain learning experiences incorporate inquiry more naturally than others. Among the most amenable are class discussions, debates, structured controversy, targeted journaling, mock trials, inquiry-guided labs, POGIL-type worksheets, and debriefings of complex cases, simulations, and role plays. Using these methods, you can nurture their curiosity, encourage their questions, and ensure they can explain and justify their claims.

As the instructor, you, too, provide a key learning experience by serving as a role model. Students need to see you demonstrating the courage to question your own beliefs and values, the fair-mindedness to represent multiple perspectives accurately, and the open-mindedness to give viewpoints opposed to your own their due. In such instances, you should point out to students that you are practicing critical thinking. In their “Religion in American Life” course, Mel Seesholtz, a known critic of dogma-based organized religion, and Bryan Polk, a college chaplain, format some of their lectures as debates between the two of them. While sincerely trying to advance their point of view, they consciously model civil discourse, critical thinking, and the accompanying dispositions for their students (Seesholtz & Polk, 2009), showing an alternative to the loud, blustery, belligerent wrangling so common on talk radio, certain news channels, and some television shows. Students may not otherwise see an alternative way to disagree, and they need to in order to co-exist peacefully and respectfully with others in this diverse world.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Bloom, B., & Associates. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: David McKay.

Brookfield, S. D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Facione, P. A. (2013 update). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Available at

Halpern, D. F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (4th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013a). Study of 38 public universities and 28 private universities to determine faculty emphasis on critical thinking in instruction. Available at

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013b). The critical thinking community. Available at

Perry, W. G. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wolcott, S. L. (2006). Steps for better thinking. Available at

Seesholtz, M., & Polk, B. (2009, October 10). Two professors, one valuable lesson: How to respectfully disagree. Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at

Dr. Linda B. Nilson directs the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University.

  • Kathleen

    This sentence is the key to success: "Unless faculty explicitly and intentionally design their courses to build their students' critical thinking skills and receive training in how to teach them, their students do not improve their skills." It's not enough to give your students compare/contrast assignments, nor even to ask Socratic questions, and hope they develop critical thinking skills from that. They won't. You must be straightforward and clear when you announce to your students, "We are going to study critical thinking: what it is, and how you do it." Through your lesson module(s), it's your job to help students understand that this is a new learning skill that will take them beyond thinking with their emotions or with knee-jerk reactions to anything they see, hear, or read in school or in life. It can be quite an eye-opener for them.

    In my first semester as an adjunct lecturer, I was so fortunate to discover a faculty development seminar on critical thinking at my campus that extended over two semesters of learning and of developing lesson plans that I was able to apply and test in the classroom. The seminar was the catalyst for my concretely applying the ideas I had had previously, but with no way to implement them. Participating in it was one of the best things I ever did for myself and for my students.

    Furthermore, I explored critical thinking on my own not simply in general terms but, very specifically, on how critical thinking is applied in various disciplines such as the sciences, engineering, the arts, etc. The methodology or application of critcal thinking is very different in the study of history, for example, than it is in engineering. The more you know about multiple methods outside of your own discipline, the better off you are, and the better off your students will be, too. For that research I highly recommend the Paul and Elder booklets devoted to individual disciplines, available at as noted above.

    Perhaps you can guess that overtly teaching critical thinking has been one of my favorite things to do in the classroom.

  • ad_in_disguise

    This article is just an ad in disguise (for the seminar of the author of this article). How cheap.

    • Kathleen

      True, it is an ad in diguise (and I felt like an advertiser myself while writing my remarks) but, anyone who does get an opportunity to study critical thinking and how to teach it should give it a shot–though not necessarily through the medium advertised here.

    • disguise_in_adds

      @ad_in_disguise Great! Just when I was starting to think about thinking….

  • Eric Fry

    Critical Thinking is often understood and described only under the simple definition of "thinking about your thinking" or "looking from another point of view". The foundation of critical thinking is built upon a disposition towards quality thinking that must come through intrinsic motivation which of course is the hardest to develop as an educator (Paul/Elders’ Intellectual Traits, TC2s' Habits of Mind). Only through modeling the qualities of a critical thinker and designing learning experiences that will lead students to reflect upon and appreciate their use of quality reasoning can the critical thinking ability transfer to the discipline of study.

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  • lalita pradeep

    For me, it is an experience, as I am in Educational administration, so I find myself handicapped in core academic depths. truly enlightening.

  • jovive

    Dr. Nilson,
    Thank you so much for actually putting this together in a usable format. I too have found the research general and fairly vague. This is a great tool.

    • jovive

      Didn't see the ad at the bottom.

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