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.
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 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).