I had been teaching for nearly 30 years when I discovered that I had failed to instruct my students in the basics of critical thinking.
My moment of awakening occurred in a conversation with one of the best students in that year’s graduating class. While her research presentation was strong, I suggested that it would have been even better had she started by articulating the questions she was investigating. She seemed intrigued, so I continued: whenever you read anything, I noted, you need to ask what questions the author was trying to answer. She was dumbstruck. No one, it seems, had ever told her this before. In that simple exchange, I discovered what I should have realized years earlier. Students don’t necessarily internalize basic critical thinking skills just by taking our courses. They need explicit instruction.
In the years since, I’ve explored the modes of analysis students need to acquire and how we can convey them effectively. Here are my suggestions:
- Identify critical thinking as a key learning goal in your courses. In high school, students mostly demonstrate competency by absorbing and then reproducing material. Memorization remains important in college, but simply regurgitating information generally isn't the learning goal of our courses. We want students to analyze, synthesize, compare, extrapolate, and transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts. These are the skills students will continue to use long after they forget the specific information they learn in our courses. We can’t assume our students will be prepared to think in these ways or even to know that we expect them to do so. We need to explain what college-level learning requires at the outset of our courses.
- Identify the thinking challenges embedded in your assignments. Assignments designed to promote critical thinking should flag the specific skills we expect students to employ. For example, in place of a prompt that invites students to “evaluate the persuasiveness of this article,” we might say, “Evaluate the persuasiveness of this article by weighing the strength of the evidence the authors present, whether they have overlooked pertinent evidence, and, if they have, how this might have skewed their results.” Being explicit about the intellectual work each assignment requires will make students aware of the habits of mind we are attempting to foster—in this case, what “evaluating persuasiveness” actually entails.
- Refer back to modes of analysis in your evaluation of their work. Even when we’re explicit about the work we ask of them, students may misunderstand or fail to execute effectively. Using modes of analysis in a grading rubric or comments on a paper helps students identify specifically where they can improve. Rather than commenting, “You need to reference historical events here,” we might write, “Interpreting Lincoln’s speech in its historical context requires explaining how specific events made the issues he discusses urgent, how he understood those events, and how they are reflected in the language he used.” Comments on student work should reinforce things they need to learn, not only assess what they have already learned. In many cases, what students need to learn is how to think more rigorously or analyze a phenomenon more comprehensively.
- Incorporate comments on critical thinking into class discussions. When a student raises a thoughtful question in class, our instinct might be to simply say, “That's a great question.” Such praise might boost a student’s confidence, but it doesn’t help the class understand why the question is great. A better response would be, “That's a great question because you are comparing this article with the work of an author we read two weeks ago, and that sort of comparative analysis is a key component of critical thinking.” Drawing attention to modes of analysis when they surface naturally reinforces these habits of mind in our students.
- Share your learning process with your students. Students often assume that we no longer have to work hard to learn new things, as they do. But all of us sometimes struggle with false starts, setbacks, or changes of direction in our research and writing. Sharing these difficulties models for students that learning is a lifelong process, that employing discipline-appropriate modes of critical analysis can be challenging, and that we sometimes discover unexpected things along the way. Beyond humanizing us, sharing in this way demonstrates the difficulties even experienced researchers encounter in drawing conclusions from data or comparing two works of art.
Most students arrive on campus unaware that a primary goal of college is to mold them into critical thinkers. Most of us assume, as I did, that students will internalize essential habits of mind just by doing their coursework. While no doubt some will, many will not. Students need clear, consistent guidance about what critical thinking looks like and how to do it. That guidance eases their transition from high school to college-level work and reduces their frustration when they struggle in our courses. In the process, we can help them focus on the skills they will need throughout their lives—in their careers, in fulfilling their civic responsibilities, and in making sound personal decisions. Best of all, helping our students become better critical thinkers is not that hard to do.
Louis E. Newman, PhD, is the former dean of academic advising and associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University and John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, at Carleton College. He is the author of Thinking Critically in College: The Essential Handbook for Student Success (Radius Book Group, 2023).