Faking It

Students often don’t know what educators mean by "critical thinking."

Posted Jul 20, 2017

One of my favorite observations from teaching undergraduate critical thinking (as I noted in my last post) is that even though students claim to, they often don’t know what educators mean by "critical thinking." Even so, there is a tendency for students to nod their heads in agreement with whatever educators say, because hey, no one wants to look foolish! We see this behavior quite often in the classroom.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

Nothing. Not a single hand. Maybe, there genuinely are no questions. However, in larger classrooms, with over 100 people, this is probably not the case—there’s bound to be at least one question. In my opinion, if a student has a question, it makes them look smarter to ask it. It is in their interest to do so, particularly if they don’t understand what is being discussed. Still, questions often go unasked, perhaps, because of shyness or uncertainty. When hands do go up, there are generally very few of them. No one wants to stand out and look like they don’t get it, especially if no one else is raising their hand. Thus, some might just be sitting there, still wondering, “What do you mean by critical thinking?”  

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Critical thinking (CT) is a metacognitive process: It consists of a number of sub-skills and dispositions, that, when applied through purposeful, self-regulatory, reflective judgment, increase the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument (Dwyer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). As noted in my last post, CT is important because it allows students to gain a better understanding of complex information; it allows them to achieve higher grades and become more employable, informed and active citizens; it facilitates good decision-making and problem-solving in social and interpersonal contexts; and it decreases the effects of cognitive biases and heuristic thinking. Though past research suggests that explicit CT instruction can foster CT (e.g. Reed and Kromrey 2001; Rimiene 2002; Solon 2007), how best to teach it remains a key concern in educational research (Dwyer, et al., 2014). This is perhaps a result of issues regarding CT conceptualization.

Though the definition above is a modern and, arguably, straightforward description of what is meant by CT, it is only one of many. The varying definitions and conceptualizations can make it difficult for researchers and teachers to understand or agree on the key components of CT. In turn, this may impede their ability to construct an integrated theoretical account of how best to train and assess it (Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014).

The University of Western Australia (2007), found that while 92 percent of academic staff believed it was important to provide students with opportunities to critically evaluate their own beliefs and perspectives with a view towards changing them, 54 percent of students felt that they were not actually provided such opportunities by their educators. Perhaps this can be somewhat explained by research conducted by Lloyd and Bahr (2010), who examined the qualitative descriptions of CT provided by academics. According to one university lecturer interviewed, "we expect students to do it [think critically], but now you are questioning me on my understanding of it, I wonder if I actually understand it myself."

Lloyd and Bahr’s research revealed that only 37 percent of academics instructing or assessing CT in university courses at least acknowledge the dispositional and self-regulatory aspects of CT. Furthermore, only 47 percent described CT in terms of involving processes or skills! If educators are in the dark about CT, how can we expect students to know its meaning?

Lloyd and Bahr’s research indicates that students’ descriptions of CT were largely outcome focused, whereas academics’ descriptions of CT were more process focused. For CT instruction to be effective: (1) instructors need to acknowledge the discrepancies among "understandings" (i.e. discrepancies between educators’ and students’ understanding, as well as understandings among educators themselves); and (2) students’ pre-existing understandings (sometimes inaccurate) must be addressed (Bransford, et al. 1999). These considerations, like CT, are metacognitive in their own right; for example, in this context, students are required to think about their thinking (Flavell, 1976). If the diverse perspectives that students hold prior to training are not engaged, they may fail to grasp newly taught concepts; and may fail to understand how they can coordinate their knowledge with the knowledge of others and apply it to real world problems — CT in practice!

Educators need to reach agreement on what is meant by CT. However, what seems like the simplest solution, unfortunately, is not. For example, in 1988, a committee of 46 experts in the field of CT gathered in an effort to agree upon a definition of CT and the skills necessary to think critically. The findings of this meeting, the Delphi Report, revealed overwhelming agreement (i.e. 95 percent consensus) that analysis, evaluation and inference were the core skills necessary for CT (Facione, 1990). Though advancements in understanding CT have been made, 30 years later, these skills remain "core." Nevertheless, debate lingers on. Why? Why is it that educators, after 30 years, still have trouble conceptualizing and communicating CT for instruction?

Perhaps it isn’t necessarily an issue of agreement or even trouble. Both for good and bad, critical thinking has become a "buzz" phrase over the past couple of decades. We all know it’s important, useful and we want our students to do it; but, maybe it’s the case that, consistent with the qualitative excerpt above, many educators don’t really know what researchers mean by "critical thinking" and/or simply haven’t researched it themselves (see also: Eigenauer, 2017). Despite not understanding it, there is a tendency for educators to, like my students, nod their heads in agreement with whatever researchers say. In a way, educators will sometimes fake it too. 

If we want everyone to stop faking it and successfully apply CT, we need to make sure we, as educators, understand it. We need to throw away the buzz words and read the research on CT. For students to think critically, we must not fake it. 


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C.P., Harney, O. Hogan, M.J. & O’Reilly, J. (2014). Using interactive management to define and cultivate critical thinking competencies. Educational Technology Research & Development, 62, 687–709.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J., & Stewart, I. (2012). An evaluation of argument mapping as a method of enhancing critical thinking performance in e-learning environments. Metacognition and Learning, 7, 219-244.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J. & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43-52. 

Eigenauer, J.D. (2017). Don’t reinvent the critical thinking wheel: What scholarly literature tells us about critical thinking instruction. Innovation Abstracts, 39, 2.

Facione, P. A. (1990). The Delphi report: Committee on pre-college philosophy. Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press.

Flavell, J. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–236). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lloyd, M., & Bahr, N. (2010). Thinking critically about critical thinking in higher education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4(2), 1–5.

Reed, J. H., & Kromrey, J. D. (2001). Teaching critical thinking in a community college history course: Empirical evidence from infusing Paul’s model. College Student Journal, 35(2), 201–215.

Rimiene, V. (2002). Assessing and developing students’ critical thinking. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 2(1), 17–22.

Solon, T. (2007). Generic critical thinking infusion and course content learning in introductory psychology. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34(2), 95–109.

University of Western Australia (2007). ACE and NSSE. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/CATLyst/archive/2007/1/ace_and_nsse