National surveys of college faculty reveal that their number-one instructional goal is to promote critical thinking (Milton, 1982; Stark et al., 1990), and national reports on the status of American higher education have consistently called for greater emphasis on the development of college students’ critical thinking skills (Association of American Colleges, 1985; National Institute of Education, 1984).
While the call for critical thinking has remained consistent since the early 1980s, there has been much less consistency in how critical thinking is defined or described by those who endorse it (Fisher & Scriven, 1997). For instance, following a 25-year review of the critical thinking literature, McMillan concluded that, “What is lacking in the research is a common definition of critical thinking and a clear definition of the nature of an experience that should enhance critical thinking” (1987, p. 37). Scholarly definitions of critical thinking have ranged from the very narrow—a well-reasoned evaluative judgment (King & Kitchener, 1994), to the very broad—all thinking that involves more than the mere acquisition and recall of factual information (Greeno, 1989).
In this article, I adopt a more inclusive definition of critical thinking that embraces all thought processes that are “deeper” than memorization and recall of factual information. When students think critically, they think deeply; they not only know the facts, but they take the additional step of going beyond the facts to do something with them. Critical thinking involves reflecting on the information received, moving away from “surface” memorization and toward deeper levels of learning. It also involves a shift away from viewing learning as the reception of information from teacher or text (in pre-packaged and final form) to viewing learning as an elaboration and transformation of received information into a different form by the learner.
This broad definition of critical thinking does not equate critical thinking with the cognitive process of evaluation or critique; instead, it incorporates evaluation as one specific form or type of critical thinking. This is an important distinction, not only for the purpose of definitional clarity, but also for the practical purpose of combating the prevalent student misconception that critical thinking means being “being critical.” Because of this common student misconception, I prefer to use the term “Deep Thinking” Skills (DTs) in my classes.
In an attempt to describe more clearly for students (and for myself) what critical thinking actually is, and how it can be identified and demonstrated, I developed a classification system to organize the variety of cognitive skills that would be embraced by an inclusive definition of critical thinking. The classification system or taxonomy appears in the Appendix to this article. This classification system may be viewed as a compilation of cognitive nouns translated into mental-action verbs, which could be used as a guide by instructors—to develop teaching strategies that intentionally promote the development of critical thinking skills, and by students—to assess whether they are engaging in effective critical thinking when speaking, writing, or studying. Each of the critical thinking skills included in the taxonomy is defined in terms of a corresponding mental action and is followed by a trio of sample questions designed to promote that particular form of thinking. The questions have been constructed in a generic manner that allows them to be adapted for use in specific courses and academic disciplines. Considerable research evidence indicates that such generic question stems can serve as effective prompts for promoting student use of specific thinking skills in different contexts (King, 1990, 1995).
In particular, I have employed the following two types of questioning strategies to promote critical thinking in my classes.
1. “Open-ended” questions intentionally designed to provoke divergent thinking.
Research indicates that college instructors spend little class time posing questions to students, and when questions are posed, the vast majority of them are memory-level questions that ask for factual recall rather than critical thinking (Gardiner, 1994). Furthermore, questions calling for factual recall are the type of questions that are least likely to promote student involvement. In contrast, studies show that “open-ended” questions calling for divergent thinking (i.e., questions that allow for a variety of possible answers and encourage students to think at a deeper level than rote memory) are more effective in eliciting student responses than “closed” questions calling for convergent thinking (i.e., questions that require students to narrow-in or converge on one, and only one, correct answer) (Andrews, 1980; Bligh, 2000). Ironically, and fortuitously, these results indicate that students are more likely to respond to questions that require deeper-level thought (critical thinking) than rote memory.
I insert open-ended, divergent-thinking questions (such as those included in the linked taxonomy) into my lecture notes as a reminder to pose them at certain points in class. I may pose them for general class discussion, or for discussion in small groups. Sometimes, I will ask students to write a minute-paper in response to the question. On other occasions, I have students write a minute paper first and then discuss their written responses. I have found that this strategy benefits the more reflective students by allowing them time to gather their thoughts prior to verbalizing them. It also benefits international students and students who may be fearful or self-conscious about public speaking, because it gives them a script to fall back on (or build on) and use as a support structure for communicating their ideas orally.
Experimental research indicates that students who are asked higher-level thinking questions in class are more likely to display higher-level thinking on course examinations (Hunkins, cited in Bligh, 2000). Classroom-based research conducted by Alison King (1990, 1995) demonstrates that students can also learn to generate their own higher-level thinking questions. Using a technique she calls “guided peer questioning,” students are first provided with a series of generic question stems that serve as cognitive prompts to trigger or stimulate different forms of critical thinking, such as:
(a) “What are the implications of ___?”
(b) “Why is ___ important?”
(c) “What is another way to look at ___?”
2. Questions that ask students to reflect on their own thinking processes and to identify what particular form of critical thinking they are using.
After students have communicated their ideas, either orally via group discussions or in writing via minute papers, I periodically ask them to reflect on what type of critical thinking my question was designed to promote and whether they think they demonstrated that critical thinking in their response. I typically ask them to record their personal reflections in writing, either working individually or in pairs; in the latter case, their task is to listen and record the reflections shared by their partner. Research has shown that one distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving college students is that they tend to reflect on their thought processes during learning and are aware of the cognitive strategies they use (Weinstein & Underwood, 1985). Additional research indicates that students can learn to engage in such “meta-cognition” (thinking about thinking) if they are regularly asked self-assessment questions, which require reflection on their own thought processes. When students learn to routinely ask themselves these questions, the depth and quality of their thinking are enhanced (Resnick, 1986).
Skip Downing (founder of On Course Workshops and author of the On Course text) is known to promote teaching students the skill of asking “beautiful” questions. Naturally, this raises another question: “What makes a question “beautiful?” I would argue that one criterion for determining the beauty of a question is its capacity for promoting deep, reflective thinking; in effect, it launches the learner on a quest for critical thinking.
Andrews, J. D. (1980). The verbal structure of teacher questions: Its impact on class discussion. POD Quarterly, 2, 130-163.
Association of American Colleges. (1985). Integrity in the curriculum: A report to the academic community. Project on redefining the meaning and purpose of baccalaureate degrees. Washington, DC: Author.
Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fisher, A. & Scriven, M. (1997). Critical thinking: Its definition and assessment. Point Reyes, CA: Edgepress.
Gardiner, L. F. (1994). Redesigning higher education: Producing dramatic gains in student learning. Report No. 7. Washington , D.C.: Graduate School of Education and HumanDevelopment, The George Washington University.
Greeno, J. (1989). A perspective on thinking. American Psychologist, 44(2), 134-141.
King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.
King, A. (1995). Guided peer questioning: A cooperative learning approach to critical thinking. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 5(2), pp. 15-19.
King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.
McMillan, J. (1987). Enhancing college students’ critical thinking: A review of studies. Research in Higher Education, 26, 3-29.
Milton, O. (1982). Will that be on the final? Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.
National Institute of Education. (1984). Involvement in learning. Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Resnick, L. B. (1986). Education and learning to think. Special Report. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.
Stark, J. S., Lowther, M. A., Bentley, R.J., Ryan, M. P., Martens, G. G., Genthon, M. L., Wren, P. A., & Shaw, K. M. (1990). Planning introductory college courses: Influences on faculty. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary
Weinstein, C. E., & Underwood, V. L. (1985). Learning strategies: The how of learning. In J. W. Segal, S. F. Chapman, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills (pp. 241-258). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Classification of Critical Thinking Skills
1. Comprehension (Understanding): to convert information into a form that is personally meaningful, i.e., that makes sense to the individual who is learning it.
– How would you put ____ into your own words? (Paraphrasing)
– What would be an example of _____? (Illustrating)
– How would you translate ____ into visual form? (Concept-Mapping)
2. Application: to apply abstract or theoretical principles to concrete, practical situations.
– How can you make use of ____?
– How could ____ be put into practice?
– How would ____ be converted into an action plan?
3. Analysis: to break down or dissect information into its component parts in order to detect the relationship among the parts, or the relationship between the parts and the whole. (For example, identifying the underlying causes or sources of disagreement during a class discussion.)
– What are the most important/significant ideas or elements of ____? (Prioritization)
– What assumptions/biases underlie or are hidden within ____? (Deconstruction)
– What parts of _____ would be similar to/different than _____? (Comparison-and-Contrast)
4. Synthesis: to build up or connect separate pieces of information to form a larger, more coherent pattern. (Examples: Connecting related ideas discussed in separate sections or units of a course into a single, unified product, such as a concept map. Integrating ethical concepts learned in a course and philosophy with marketing concepts learned in a business course to produce a set of ethical guidelines for business marketing and advertising practices.)
– How can this idea be combined with _____ to create a more compete or comprehensive understanding of ____? (Integration)
– How could these different ideas be grouped together into a more general category? (classification)
– How could these separate ____ be reorganized or rearranged to produce a more comprehensive understanding of the “big picture?”
5. Evaluation: to critically judge the validity (truth), morality (ethics), or aesthetic (artistic) value of ideas, data, or products by using relevant assessment criteria (standards for judging quality).
– How would you judge the accuracy or validity of _______?
– How would you evaluate the ethical (moral) implications or consequences of _____?
– How would you rate the aesthetic quality (beauty) of ____?
6. Deduction: to draw conclusions about particular instances that are logically consistent with, or derive from general principles and premises.
– What specific conclusions can be drawn from this general ____?
– If this general ____ were true, then it would logically follow that ____
– What particular actions or practices would be consistent with this general ____?
7. Induction: to infer (derive or draw out) well-reasoned generalizations or principles from individual instances or specific examples. (For example, identifying recurrent themes or categories that emerge during a class discussion.) Note: One form of induction is the ability to abstract and extrapolate a concept learned in one context and transfer that learning to another context—a cognitive process often referred to as “decontextualization.” This capacity to transfer knowledge, i.e., to apply a concept learned in one context to contexts different than the one in which the concept was originally learned, is often presumed to be the “litmus test” of whether a student has really (deeply) learned the concept, or has simply memorized it in its original form. (For example, if a student can solve different versions or examples of math problems that require comprehension of the same, underlying mathematical concept, then the student is demonstrating deep learning or critical understanding of that concept.)
– What are the broader implications of ____?
– What patterns or themes emerge from ____?
– What can be extrapolated or extended from this particular ____ that may have more general or universal value?
8. Adduction: to make a case for an argument or position by accumulating supporting evidence in the form of logical arguments (rational thinking) or research evidence (empirical reasoning).
– What proof exists for ____?
– What are logical arguments for _____?
– What research evidence supports _____?
9. Refutation: to make a case against an argument or position by accumulating contradictory evidence in the form of logical arguments (rational thinking) or research findings (empirical reasoning).
– What proof exists that ____ is false?
– What are logical arguments against _____?
– What research evidence contradicts ____?
10. Balanced Thinking: to carefully consider arguments/evidence for and against a particular position or viewpoint.
– What are the strengths/advantages and weaknesses/disadvantages of ____?
– What evidence supports and contradicts ____?
– What are arguments for and counterarguments against ____?
11. Multiple Perspective-Taking: to view an issue from a variety of viewpoints, standpoints, or positions in order to gain a more comprehensive and holistic understanding.
– How would people from different ethnic or racial groups view this ____?
– How would people from different socioeconomic backgrounds be affected by ____?
– How would people who differ in age or gender react to ____?
12. Causal Reasoning: to identify cause-effect relationships between different ideas or actions.
– How would you explain why ______ occurred?
– What is responsible for ____?
– How would ____ affect or influence ____?
13. Ethical Reasoning: to identify what is morally right/ wrong or good/bad about particular ideas, attitudes, or practices.
– What does ____say about a person’s values?
– What are the moral implications of ____?
– Are the expressed or professed convictions of ____ consistent with actual commitments and observable actions?
14. Creative Thinking: to generate imaginative ideas, unique perspectives, innovative strategies, or novel (alternative) approaches to traditional practices. Note: Although critical and creative thinking have often been seen as separate cognitive skills, the latter is included in this typology, because it does involve thought processes that are deeper or higher than memorization.
– What might be a metaphor or analogy for ____?
– What could be invented to ____?
– What might happen if ____? (hypothetical reasoning).
-Joe Cuseo, Faculty, Psychology & Director, Freshman Seminar, Marymount College, CA