5 Tips for Integrating Critical Thinking into Education

Factors necessary to consider for facilitating training in critical thinking.

Posted Nov 30, 2018

I recently enjoyed the opportunity to give a talk on Integrating Critical Thinking into Educational Settings to fellow university educators from a diverse range of disciplines—all with the common trait of recognising the importance of critical thinking (CT) as an important outcome of third-level education. I spoke for about three hours, across 90-plus slides, on a wide array of topics pertinent to CT. Following the prep and the talk itself, I noticed a pattern emerge—everything I discussed boiled down to one of five categories: instructional typology, conceptualisation, method of assessment, method of delivery and characteristics of the educator. The feedback from the talk was positive, with many fellow educators advising that they had learned a lot from the session; and so, I thought an abridged discussion of those five key categories might, likewise, be helpful to those who follow this blog.

1. Instructional Typology

According to Ennis’ (1989) typology of CT courses, there are four different CT training methods: general, infusion, immersion and mixed. In the general approach to CT training, actual CT skills and dispositions “are learning objectives, without specific subject matter content” (Abrami et al., 2008, p. 1105). The infusion of CT into a course requires specific subject matter content upon which CT skills are practiced, in which the objective of teaching CT within the course content is made explicit. In the immersion approach, like the infusion approach, specific course content upon which CT skills are practiced is required; however, CT objectives in the immersed approach are not made explicit. Finally, in the mixed approach, CT is taught independently of the specific subject matter content of the course.

Comparing the four CT course types, results of a meta-analysis by Abrami et al. (2008) revealed that courses using the mixed approach had the largest effect on CT performance (g+ = .94), followed by the infusion approach (g+ = .54), the general approach (g+ = .38) and, finally, the immersion approach (g+ = .09). It is important to note that the immersion approach (which had the smallest effect) is the only approach that does not make CT objectives explicit to students. These findings suggest that making CT objectives and requirements clear to students may be a crucial aspect of course design aimed at increasing CT ability and that the enhancement of CT ability is greatly dependent upon how CT is taught (Abrami et al., 2008).

2. Conceptualisation

In one of my very first posts for this blog, Faking It, I discussed past issues in conceptualising CT. To teach CT, make sure you know what it is and what you’re teaching! This may seem like a no-brainer, but past research suggests that educators may not always have a full understanding of what is meant by CT (e.g. Lloyd & Bahr, 2010; UWA, 2007). It’s important for educators to do their homework and ensure that they have a working understanding of what CT is and how they can operationally define it (e.g. with respect to ensuring that what they are teaching appropriately matches what they are assessing; and what ‘this’ is matches established conceptualisation[s]). Remember, if you want to teach CT, you need to think critically!

3. Method of Assessment

I once took over the teaching of a CT module in which the only method of assessment was the final exam, which, for the preceding three years consecutively, asked the same question: What is critical thinking? The question was hilariously ludicrous, given that it perpetuated the antithesis to CT—more or less inviting students to have memorised a definition. At least, unlike most standardised CT measures, it wasn’t a series of MCQs, where you can actually guess the right answer 20-25 percent of the time. I generally adapt one of the open-ended varieties of standardised CT measures for my final exams, but this is not a perfect strategy either. However, what I wholeheartedly advocate for is assessing often. That is, ensure students are engaging in CT outside the classroom on a regular basis, as best you can—provide them with opportunities to develop their reflective judgment. I assign weekly assignments, a term paper, and a final exam in order to ensure that my students have as many opportunities as reasonably possible to develop their CT). For a more detailed discussion of the nature of CT measure, be sure to read my earlier post on critically thinking about measuring CT.  

4. Method of Delivery

Active Learning is a fundamental component of CT instruction. In fact, instruction is probably a poor word here—training works better, as instruction should only be a portion of CT training. Specifically, CT training should utilise a mixed approach of didactic instruction and active learning. According to Mayer (2004), students should be cognitively active during learning and educators must provide them with guided practice. This type of active learning provides students with a form of scaffolding (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976), whereby they are guided didactically by their educator and also actively 'learn by doing'. Research suggests that people learn more through active learning (e.g. Hake, 1998; Laws, Sokoloff & Thornton, 1999; Redish, Saul & Steinberg, 1997), and more specifically, that intensive practice of CT skills increases CT ability more so than didactic teaching of CT (Burbach, Matkin & Fritz, 2004).  

Know your Mode of Delivery. Will you be presenting training through a 'traditional classroom setting' or exclusively through e-Learning; perhaps a mix of both through blended learning? The presentation method you use will dictate what can and cannot be done with respect to the other factors discussed, such as active learning. Be clear on your mode of delivery and tailor training around it.

Knowing your Audience Size is crucial for determining what type of active learning to integrate into your training lesson. If you have a small group of approximately 10 individuals, opening the floor to collaborative discourse is a useful means of practicing CT. However, if you have a lecture hall filled with 300 students, open discourse is not likely to be feasible. With a larger group, informally picking people out of the crowd and asking them what they think might work for you. If you feel that in this context, you might come across like you’re ‘putting people on the spot’, perhaps polling your students will work best. The point is that, regardless of what size your audience is, you need to keep everyone engaged!

Utilise Argument Mapping. An argument map is a visual representation of a logically structured network of reasoning, in which the argument is made unambiguous and explicit via a ‘box and arrow’ design, in which the boxes represent propositions (i.e. the central claim, reasons, objections and rebuttals) and the ‘arrows’ among propositions indicate the inferential relationships linking the propositions together (Dwyer, 2011; van Gelder, 2002). Research indicates that training CT through argument mapping significantly enhances CT performance (Alvarez-Ortiz, 2007; Butchart et al., 2009; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2011; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2012; van Gelder, 2001; van Gelder, Bissett & Cumming, 2004). Be sure to see my last post on argument mapping!

5. Characteristics of the educator

Be Intellectually Honest with Yourself and Your Students. No one is infallible and as such, you will often be asked questions to which you don’t know the answer. Respond accordingly, "That’s a good question—I don’t know." Set an example for your students by showing them that it is okay to be uncertain. This is the nature of reflective judgment. Better yet, when you don’t know, open the question up to the class for discourse. Encourage collaborative CT! Try to avoid speculating; and when you do, preface the assertion by advising students that you are speculating.    

You Can’t Always Be PC If You Want to Think Critically. I always warn my students in my introductory CT lecture that you can’t always be politically correct if you want to think critically. It is often the case that controversial topics are those that require the most CT! Be cognizant of the difference between being offensive and objective—and ensure your students know too! CT should be engaged when you care about a topic; and when we care, emotion tends to get involved. If we truly care about what to believe/do, we need to question the controversial topics objectively and play Devil’s Advocate, no matter how uncomfortable it may sometimes make us feel. Remember, when you enter the house of critical thought, you must leave emotion at the door! 

Be Personable and Funny. CT is an important learning outcome; but, in all honesty, sometimes it can be excruciatingly boring! Due to the abstract nature of CT, it is easy for novices to get lost or confused and, subsequently, fail to regain focus on the lesson. By integrating humour and real-life examples, maybe even from your own life, you’re giving your students something concrete on which to latch. Such examples will clarify the abstract nature of the lesson and the humorous/personal touch may facilitate future recall of the lesson. 

References

Abrami, P.C., Bernard, R.M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M.A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking   skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78, 4, 1102-1134.

Alvarez-Ortiz, C. (2007). Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking Skills? Master’s Thesis. University of Melbourne, Australia.

Burbach, M., Matkin, G., & Fritz S. (2004). Teaching critical thinking in an introductory leadership course utilizing active learning strategies: A confirmatory study. College Student Journal, 38, 3, 482-493.

Butchart, S., Bigelow, J., Oppy, G., Korb, K., & Gold, I. (2009). Improving critical thinking using web-based argument mapping exercises with automated feedback. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25, 2, 268-291.

Dwyer, C.P. (2011). The evaluation of argument mapping as a learning tool. Doctoral Thesis. National University of Ireland, Galway.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J., & Stewart, I. (2011). The promotion of critical thinking skills through argument mapping. In C.P. Horvart & J.M. Forte (Eds.), Critical Thinking, 97-122. Nova Science Publishers, New York.

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.

Ennis, R.H. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: Clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18, 4-10.

Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 1, 64–74.

Laws, P., Sokoloff, D., & Thornton, R. (1999). Promoting active learning using the results of physics education research. UniServe Science News, 13, 14-19.

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.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 1, 14-19.

Redish, E., Saul, J., & Steinberg, R. (1997). On the effectiveness of active-engagement microcomputer-based laboratories. American Journal of Physics, 65, 1, 45.

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

van Gelder, T. J. (2001). How to improve critical thinking using educational technology. In G. Kennedy, M. Keppell, C. McNaught & T. Petrovic (Eds.), Meeting at the Crossroads: Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, 539–548. Melbourne: Biomedical Multimedia Unit, University of Melbourne.    

van Gelder, T.J. (2002). Argument mapping with Reason!Able. APA Newsletter: Philosophy & Computers, 2, 1, 85-90.

van Gelder, T.J., Bissett, M., & Cumming, G. (2004). Enhancing expertise in informalreasoning. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 58, 142-52.

Wood, D.J., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.

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