Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking in the College Classroom

"Everyone agrees that students learn in college, but whether they learn to think is more controversial." ~McKeachie, 1992, p. 3

The discrepancy highlighted by McKeachie is at the center of ongoing debate about the role of critical thinking in our modern classrooms. Compounding this dilemma even more are concerns about the passive learning stance adopted by many postsecondary students and the vast amount of readily available information provided by the media.

A recent cartoon shows a teacher helping a class of students working at computers as the teacher states "Just go to and click on 'answers'!".  This humorous jab at society provides comic relief in the newspaper, but the reality of this type of thinking loses its humor when it is applied to the modern generation of college students. As college faculty, how do we encourage critical thinking in our students?

As described by MacKnight (2000, pg. 38), "we fall prey to modern communication media, which present a world where the prepackaging of intellectual positions and views is so ingenious that thinking seems unnecessary." Thus, as our society becomes more advanced with an endless supply of information readily available via television, radio and the Internet, it is essential that faculty prepare students to be critical thinkers and cautious consumers of information.

Think About It

Think about each of the following questions and rate your response on a scale from 1 to 5:

  • How important are critical thinking skills for college students?
  • How important is teaching critical thinking within your degree/program competencies?
  • How important is the development of students' critical thinking within your courses?
  • How well do your instructional strategies instill critical thinking strategies within your students?

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking… we all know what it is, but can we define it? Watch the following video to see how critical thinking is defined by faculty at GCU.

Research (Paul, Elder & Bartell, 1997) indicates that an overwhelming majority (89%) of university faculty claim that the promotion of critical thinking is a primary objective of their instruction. Yet, only 19% could define critical thinking and 77% had little, limited or no conception of how to reconcile content coverage with the fostering of critical thinking.

Where do you stand? Go to the Critical Thinking Wiki and provide your own definition of critical thinking. In addition, provide a brief narrative about the role of critical thinking in the courses that you teach.

This ambiguity only adds to frustrating challenge of structuring classroom activities to clearly and effectively meet an undefined goal. Thus, the first step of ensuring the promotion of this abstract intellectual ability is to operationalize critical thinking. Generally defined:

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplines process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Center for Critical Thinking, 2004, ¶2)

This definition of critical thinking provides a framework, or a process goal, that leads to achievement of the specific course learning objectives.

When examining critical thinking in any given course, it is important to clearly differentiate between the content of a course and the process by which the content is mastered. The course learning outcomes provide guidance on the content goals, while critical thinking guidelines provide instructional strategies for approaching and learning the specific course content. As such, "instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief" (Dumke, 1980, pg. 3).

Embracing Critical Thinking

A plethora of research has been done in the traditional classroom environment to examine the relative value of various instructional strategies for the promotion of students' critical thinking abilities (see "Resources and Suggested Readings" for more detailed information). Research clearly supports the benefits of active learning strategies to promote enhanced understanding, retention and critical thinking over the shallow, passive learning that results from conventional lectures. The consistent finding across this research is that instructional approaches that incorporate constructivist, active-learning, student-centered philosophies are the most effective for enhancing students' critical thinking.

Constructivist learning philosophies tend to shift the emphasis from the instructor to the student. As described by Thanasoulas (n.d.),

"It is the learner who interacts with his or her environment and thus gains an understanding of its features and characteristics. The learner constructs his own conceptualisations and finds his own solutions to problems, mastering autonomy and independence. According to constructivism, learning is the result of individual mental construction, whereby the learner learns by dint of matching new against given information and establishing meaningful connections, rather than by internalising mere factoids to be regurgitated later on. In constructivist thinking, learning is inescapably affected by the context and the beliefs and attitudes of the learner. Here, learners are given more latitude in becoming effective problem solvers, identifying and evaluating problems, as well as deciphering ways in which to transfer their learning to these problems." (¶ 2)

As such, instructional principles based on a constructivist framework require instructors to anchor learning activities within a larger context while supporting students in developing ownership of the task. To encourage active engagement with course material, the instructor must promote authentic tasks that reflect the complexity of the environment students will face then support and challenge students' thinking while encouraging them to test their ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts. Throughout this process, instruction not only facilitates content review, but provides the opportunity for reflection on the learning process (Savery & Duffy, 1995).

Key instructional principles (Savery & Duffy, 1995):

  • anchor all learning activities to a larger task,
  • support the learner in developing ownership of the task,
  • design an authentic task,
  • design the task to reflect the complexity of the environment the learner will face,
  • support and challenge the learner's thinking,
  • encourage testing ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts, and
  • provide opportunity for reflection on the content learned and the learning process.

While constructivist or student-centered instructional philosophies are not unique to any one teaching mode, there are several advantages to the use of online tools for promotion of critical thinking using this type of philosophical approach. Central to student-centered learning and the development of critical thinking is allowing students the individualized time necessary for mastering the learning process; and, unlike the constraints of scheduled class period, online resources allow students to complete learning activities at their own pace. The increased time available also ensures that students have the time necessary to prepare for learning tasks. Because learning is facilitated in an individualized environment, online resources remove peer-pressure and self-consciousness that can hinder classroom interactions. The equal-opportunity environment of self-paced, online interaction encourages inclusion of all students and allows each student the prospect of learning by the means that best fit their preferred learning style.

Watch the following video clips in which Dr. Richard Paul discusses the role of thinking in relationship to critical thinking; pay particular attention to the strategies suggested for questioning students in a manner to promote critical thinking:

Profile of a Critical Thinker

How do you know if your students are thinking critically? What is the profile of a critical thinker? The following table provides an overview of the skills, strategies and thought-processes that distinguish critical thinking.

Critical Thinking

Non-Critical Thinking

Epistemological Standpoint:

  • shades of gray - strives for depth
  • interdisciplinary
  • knowledge is open
  • knowledge is intertwined with thinking
  • black and white - superficial level
  • uni- or adisciplinary
  • knowledge is closed
  • knowledge is independent of thinking

Modes of Inquiry:

  • rational and consistent
  • strives to learn how to think
  • holistic/webbed
  • original/insightful
  • multiple frames of reference
  • irrational and inconsistent
  • strives to learn what to think
  • uni-disciplinary/linear
  • relies on second-hand information
  • one or very limited frames of reference

Concrete Strategies for Thinking:

  • suspends closure
  • explores/probes
  • questions
  • fair-minded
  • active
  • collaborative/communal
  • precise language
  • strives for closure
  • dogmatic/avoiding
  • doubting
  • ego-/ethnocentric/emotional
  • passive
  • authoritative
  • vague language

Final Thoughts

Critical thinking is undoubtedly important in our classes… the key then is for each faculty member to define critical thinking within the content and scope of the courses they teach. As faculty, we must go beyond abstract discussions of critical thinking to apply its principles in a concrete, measurable manner in the classroom. Specifically, ask yourself:

  • What is the role of critical thinking in this particular course?
  • What instructional materials or resources am I providing to promote critical thinking in my students?
  • What instructional strategies can I implement to foster increased critical thinking?
  • How will I know if my students are thinking critically?
  • What assessments can I integrate to document and measure critical thinking in this particular course?


Broadly defined, "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness" (

As lofty as this definition sounds, critical thinking only becomes meaningful in the classroom when it is applied to the thoughtful processing of specific course content. Critical thinking is more than simple retention of information or mastery of skills. While basic mastery of terms and skills is an essential basis for more critical analysis, critical thinking involves an analysis of information in a manner that guides beliefs and behaviors. There are a range of instructional strategies that promote critical thinking in the classroom (see Teaching Critical Thinking Skills for specific classroom examples); instructors must thoughtfully and deliberately examine the integration of various instructional strategies in relation to course content, goals and objectives to determine the most appropriate avenue for approaching critical thinking in each course.

For a detailed discussion of critical thinking in the college classroom, read Teaching for Critical Thinking by Diane Halpern.

Applied Understanding

Faculty at Grand Canyon University who elect to receive faculty development credit for completion of this module must complete the following activity:

Select one course that you teach at GCU; for this particular course, provide a narrative that addresses the "Final Thoughts" reflective questions. Your responses should clearly elaborate on the role, purpose and implementation of critical thinking strategies as it applies to the specific course that you have selected. Send your responses (as an email attachment) to [email protected]

  • What is the role of critical thinking in this particular course?
  • What instructional materials or resources am I providing to promote critical thinking in my students?
  • What instructional strategies can I implement to foster increased critical thinking?
  • How will I know if my students are thinking critically?
  • What assessments can I integrate to document and measure critical thinking in this particular course?

Suggested Readings and Resources

  • Astleitner, H. (2002). Teaching Critical Thinking Online. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29 (2), 53-77.
  • Bruning, K. (2005). The Role of Critical Thinking in the Online Learning Environment. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(5).
  • Bruning, R., Zygielbaum, A., Horn, C., & Glider, W. (n.d.). Online Tools for Enhancing Student Learning and Extending Resources in Large Enrollment University Courses. Available from the Center for Instructional Innovation at the University of Nebraska.
  • Collison, G. Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
  • Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Dumke, G. 1980. Chancellor's Executive Order 338. California State University, Chancellor's Office, Long Beach.
  • Hanna, D. E., Glowacki-Dudka, M. & Conceicao-Runlee, S. (2000). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education. Atwood Publishing: Madison, WI.
  • Horton, S. (2000). Web Teaching Guide: A practical approach to creating course web sites. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
  • Jones, D. (1996). Thinking Critically in an Online World. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from
  • MacKnight, C. B. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly, 4, 38-41.
  • Muirhead, B. (2002). Integrating Critical Thinking into Online Classes. United States Distance Learning Association Journal. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from
  • Murchu, D. & Muirhead, B. (2005). Insights into Promoting Critical Thinking in Online Classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(6).
  • Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2004). The Nature and Functions of Critical and Creating Thinking. The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Peirce, W. (2003). Strategies for Teaching Thinking and Promoting Intellectual Development in Online Classes. Electronic Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices. U.S. Distance Learning Association: Information Age Publishing.
  • Pyle, R. (1997). Teaching Critical Thinking Online. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2006 from 
  • Savery, J. R. & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology 33(1) 31-38.
  • Walker, G. (2005). Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(6).

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