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Enhance Students' Critical Thinking Skills

What is Critical Thinking?

  • Cognitive process of reappraising ideas and thoughts in order to make more informed decisions and actions (Brookfield, 2012).

  • 4 Steps to Critical Thinking (Brookfield, 2012 pp.11-12)
    • Discover assumptions that influence your thoughts and actions
    • Check whether these assumptions are accurate
    • Test your assumptions by applying them to different viewpoints
    • Use adjusted assumptions to take more informed actions
    • “Critical thinkers raise vital questions and problems, formulate them clearly, gather and assess relevant information, use abstract ideas, think open-mindedly, and communicate effectively with others” (Duron et al, 2006 p. 160).

Why is Critical Thinking Important in Higher Education?

Rather than teaching students what to think, professors should strive to teach them how to think. In recent years, common teaching focus has been on the delivery of massive amounts of information rather than teaching how to critically evaluate what we are hearing or reading.
Critical thinking cannot be learned by sitting and listening to a professor. There must be an active student component. By developing critical thinking skills in the classroom, students can transfer these skills to their daily lives outside of the classroom as well (Moon and Jenkins, 2011).

10 Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking in Students

1. Define critical thinking in your context and share your definition with students (Carnegie Mellon University, 2015).

A specific and clear definition helps you and students understand the different aspects of critical thinking and what your expectations are.

2. Address students’ misconceptions about critical thinking and common logical fallacies in your field of study (Nilson, 2015).

Ask your students what they think critical thinking is. Explain how some perceptions of critical thinking are untrue.
Also, explain some common logical fallacies that may be relevant to your field of study and ask students why these fallacies do not demonstrate critical thinking. Some examples of logical fallacies are confirmation bias, ad hominem, and availability bias (Williamson, 2016).

3. Model your approach to critical thinking (Brookfield, 2012; Carnegie Mellon University, 2015).

Show students your process for critical thinking. Try to “think out loud” and share common questions or issues you consider.

4. Reinforce your definition of critical thinking through a reward structure (Brookfield, 2012; Carnegie Mellon University, 2015).

Let your students know when they are and are not meeting the definition of critical thinking. Require evidential support for claims in assignments and class discussions.

5. Peer review of drafts of papers, presentations, and projects (Nilson, 2015).

Similar to class discussions, peer review of student work allows students to apply critical thinking skills to evaluate other students’ arguments and exposes students to feedback from different points of view. The following article provides helpful information on implementing peer review in your classroom:

6. Provide a less-structured and more emotionally supportive learning environment that encourages exploration and reevaluation what students think is important (University of Hawaii).

Allow students to creatively analyze topics of their choice. Students should also feel safe and comfortable to share ideas and questions that they may not be accustomed to sharing. Promote respect, patience, and active listening in your classroom.

7. Real-Life case studies (Brookfield, 2012)

Show or ask students to bring examples of critical thinking in media such as news stories, TV shows, movies, or YouTube excerpts. Then, show and ask students how critical thinking was or was not implemented in these examples.

8. Simulations and role-playing (Brookfield, 2012; Nilson, 2015)

Have students participate in a simulation or role play that requires them to question an assumption or to look at something differently. Include a debriefing discussion at the end of the activity.

9. Critical debate or structured controversy (Brookfield, 2012; Nilson, 2015)

Choose a contentious issue relevant to your course for students to debate. Allow students to choose which side they will debate. After students are divided, tell them they will actually argue for the side they did not choose. A class discussion should be initiated to reflect on the debate experience. Nicole Klein (Health Education) recommends the website, which contains lots of data examining both sides of controversial issues.

10. Provide study guide questions that promote critical thinking, not just listing terms. Also, communicate your expectations to your students and give examples (Thad Meeks, Psychology).

    1. Students should study the material first, then test themselves using questions provided on the study guide.
    2. If students are still having difficulty understanding something, they should reexamine the material before asking the instructor.
    3. When asking the instructor, students should pose questions that demonstrate critical thinking about the material.
                  i.      For example:
      • Not critical thinking: “I don’t understand ____. What does it mean?”
      • Critical thinking: “I understand this part of the question because of this, but what does this part of the question mean and how is this related to the first part?”


Brookfield, S. D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Duron, R., Limbach, B., and Waugh, W. (2006). Critical thinking framework for any discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 160-166. Retrieved from
University of Hawaii. Reflective thinking. Retrieved from
Carnegie Mellon University. (2015). Students don’t demonstrate critical thinking. Retrieved from
Nilson, L. B. (2015). Magna 20 minute mentor: What activities and assignments promote critical thinking? [video file]. Retrieved from

Moon, D. and Jenkins, R. (2011). Magna 20 minute mentor: How can I help students develop critical thinking skills? [video file]. Retrieved from

Williamson, W. M. (2016). A master list of logical fallacies. The University of Texas at El Paso. Retrieved from


Additional Resources


Nelson, J. (2005). Cultivating judgment: A source book for teaching critical thinking across the curriculum. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Inc.
Note: Provost’s Office has copies of this book.
Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Note: Provost’s Office also has copies of this book.

Journal Articles

Kraus et al. (2013). Is truthiness enough? Classroom activities for encouraging evidence-based critical thinking. Journal of Effective Teaching, 13, 83-93.

Nilson, L. E. (2014). Unlocking the mystery of critical thinking. Faculty Focus.
Rowe et al. (2015). Redesigning a general education science course to promote critical thinking. CBE Life Science Education, 14: 1-12.

Midweek Mentor On-Demand Videos

(accessible via SIUe’s faculty development webpage,
A Sample of Midweek Mentor Video Titles

  • How Can I Help Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills?
  • How Can I Design Critical Thinking into my Courses?
  • What Activities and Assignments Promote Critical Thinking?
  • How Can I assess Critical Thinking with Student-Created Work?
  • How Can I assess Critical Thinking with Objective Items?

Other Videos

YouTube offers many critical thinking videos by Stephen Brookfield and others.
This Is Water – David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech
(Recommended by Elizabeth Cali, English Language and Literature)
The Danger of a Single Story – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED Talk)
(Recommended by Elizabeth Cali, English Language and Literature)
Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit


The Critical Thinking Community
Handbook of Critical Thinking Resources
National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Includes case studies for math, engineering, and science classes The Leading Source for Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues

Feel free to contact Lynn Bartels at (618) 650-5448 or
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