Critical thinking is listed as a desired skill or preferred outcome within many higher education courses. It is something that students are expected to demonstrate through their involvement in the class and learning activities. It may be listed in a rubric and/or stated in the course syllabus, depending upon the requirements of the program or the school itself. There may be varying degrees as to how it is demonstrated and then evaluated, ranging from occasionally to always within a rubric description. It is a common practice to provide students with the course rubrics at the start of class; however, the question becomes: Do students usually know what critical thinking means? Do instructors or schools provide a standard definition?
Additional questions that arise include: Do instructors understand the meaning of critical thinking and are they provided with an explanation by the school? These are questions that I sought to answer and I spent over two years talking to instructors and students about this topic. There is information that is readily available, such as websites devoted to critical thinking and a few books about this topic, and there are classes that spend an entire term examining it; however, what does the average student and instructor know about this topic? How is it utilized in classes if it is stated in a rubric? What I wanted to learn is whether or not critical thinking is overrated (which means it is not actively utilized in classes and is only a catchphrase) or is it underutilized (which means it holds greater potential than is recognized now) in higher education classes.
My perspective is primarily based on my work in the field of distance-learning as an online educator and faculty development specialist, which has included the role of online faculty peer reviewer. I have reviewed hundreds of online classes and discussed critical thinking with hundreds of online faculty. What I’ve learned is that the average instructor may have a general knowledge about critical thinking and what it means; however, faculty generally do not provide an explanation for students beyond what is stated in the course rubric. I did not observe it as an active discussion or explained through additional instructional posts or supplemental information, and I also didn’t observe detailed notes about it within the feedback provided.
What do instructors generally know about critical thinking? For those who have conducted some research they will find definitions that are related to logic and reasoning. However, the usual go-to definition or explanation is Bloom’s taxonomy and this provides levels of cognition that can help instructors recognize when a state of critical thinking has been attained. What is unclear is whether or not a one-time occurrence indicates that students know how to use the skill on a regular basis. What are instructors taught by the schools? They are usually told to use questioning techniques and specifically Socratic questioning by a few schools. What I’ve observed is that even when questions are used that doesn’t necessarily mean a follow-up reply by students will demonstrate use of this skill.
When students were asked to define what critical thinking means, the following is a list of the most common answers:
Thinking outside of the box
Thinking harder about the topic
An ability to think independently
Weighing options, the pros and cons
Being rational and avoiding emotions
Making decisions, such as going to the grocery store and deciding on meal options
Becoming curious, creative, and open-minded
Learning through trial and error
Knowing what to do in life threatening situations
Making intelligent decisions
Collaborating with others to reach a consensus
This is only a partial list of the responses from students, and these were undergraduate and graduate students. After reviewing this list becomes clear that without a standard definition of critical thinking, students may not fully understand what is expected when they see it listed in a course rubric. It can also explain why it is difficult to evaluate this as a skill for an instructor and why students may come up short in their evaluation. What I’ve found is that students rarely conducted their own research about this subject and if they did they still weren’t sure if their definition was matched to their instructor’s definition, how it applies to their class and learning activities, or how to meet the requirement as listed in the rubric.
I’ve reviewed many of the available online resources to ascertain what instructors and students might read about critical thinking and it was often related to the use of logic and reasoning. The same is true for an online class I’ve taught that was six weeks in length and combined critical thinking with creative thinking. The logical perspective explained in the course materials involved looking for facts instead of opinions, evaluating arguments, examining premises, developing a logical or rational conclusion, and learning about potential fallacies. What this did was to take a subject that students were already unclear about and make it even more complex and challenging to apply directly to their classwork. Students generally struggled throughout the entire course and by the time it concluded there was little improvement in their ability to demonstrate the use of this skill.
Bloom’s taxonomy is referenced frequently by faculty and this taxonomy provides a range of cognitive or mental functions that begin with lower order thinking and progress to higher order thinking. On the lower end is the ability to recall information, which is usually held in short term memory and quickly discarded. As higher cognitive functions are engaged a student may be able to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. There are action verbs that are generally associated with each level and this is helpful for the development of course objectives. The challenge for instructors is making a determination of how to explain cognitive functions to students so that they understand what it means to demonstrate critical thinking. For example, how does a student know when to analyze or synthesize information in a discussion post or written assignment? Do they know when they have achieved development of this skill? Does answering an instructor’s question ensure they have reached a higher cognitive state? How many times do they need to demonstrate use of this skill to believe they have mastered its use? This is the challenge for educators; the uncertainty of the use of this skill and how to accurately assess it.
A New Perspective
What I propose is the use of a simpler model that explains how the mind functions or operates, which can provide a uniform description for instructors and students. As a starting point, the mind is always active and thinking is a natural process. A helpful way to understand how the mind performs is to separate thinking into three specific types, which will explain why critical thinking requires practice to learn before it can be actively used as a skill. The most basic type is simply called thinking or the automatic thought processes. This occurs naturally and includes thoughts about the current environment, along with thoughts that are based upon physical needs, emotions, or external stimuli. It also consists of self-talk, internalized dialogue, superficial thoughts, established thought patterns, habits of thinking, and existing mental structures. Automatic thinking also occurs as data is acquired through the five senses, when the mind relies upon perceptual filters to interpret the information received.
The next type is active thinking and this occurs when a person become consciously aware of their thought processes or while the mind is intentionally processing information. As an example, consider advertising messages. If an advertisement is noticed the mind would transition from automatic thinking to active or conscious thinking and awareness. Active thinking also includes reading, writing, speaking, stating opinions, and problem solving through the use of informal logic. For example, if a financial analysis is needed it would require taking numbers and putting them into a format or equation to be calculated, categorized, manipulated, or any other form of computation. Active thinking is often what students believe critical thinking consists of when they state it is a matter of “thinking hard” about a topic or subject. They are consciously aware of the topic and recalling the knowledge they currently possess about it.
The third type of thinking is critical thinking, which is not automatic and must be activated. It can be activated for a specific purpose and learned to be utilized as a skill. Students can trigger it when they need to work with more than their existing knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. It can also be activated through something unexpected, unknown, or unique. More importantly, critical thinking is done with a purpose. For example, when a student needs to research a topic and the subject is presently unknown to them. Instead of filling their paper with direct quotes they can question the information received in an attempt to find answers. It can also enhance problem-solving when a student needs an answer they cannot arrive at on their own. When students write papers they can provide more of their analysis and less from their sources because they have examined evidence and re-examined their beliefs or assumptions.
Critical thinking has the potential to transform every aspects of a student’s performance, from discussion question responses to written assignments. Students first learn to work with their accumulated knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. That is how they develop an initial response and for many students that also becomes their final answer. But educators want students to move beyond this active form of thinking and demonstrate that learning has occurred. It is easy to ask students to demonstrate critical thinking but even more challenging to develop a mental model for them to follow and that means it must be prompted so that students watch it in action and can then emulate the process. Thinking becomes critical when students provide more than a superficial or cursory response, and in place of opinions they develop well-documented and well-research position statements and analyses.
Critical thinking is not a natural process although there are times when it is possible for adults to have a period of reflection when they are prompted by unplanned or unexpected changes. Thinking also becomes critical when students no longer rely upon perceptual filters to determine what is accepted as true and correct, with a willingness to evaluate beliefs and change when they find compelling evidence. Critical thinking can be most effectively taught through the use of a detailed explanation, time to practice what is being learned, and direct application of the skill to issues and problems, which means that any time this skill is listed as a requirement for a course, students need a standard definition and an opportunity to practice it. I do not believe that critical thinking is overrated as it is transformative in nature; however, what I’ve observed in the field of distance learning is that it is under-utilized because of a lack of a uniform method of explaining it and this results in a missed opportunity for learning in higher education classes.