Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students have better critical thinking skills?

U.S. faculty member, CMU-Qatar

When I decided to teach abroad, I had my doubts about whether students could handle the level of work required in CMU courses. After a few class sessions, my worries were confirmed. The students were smart, but they seemed to lack the foundational skills of my discipline. At first I thought this was due to poor preparation in high school. Then I wondered whether it was a matter of poor study habits. I gradually realized that the problem was not, in fact, a lack of fundamental knowledge or that students didn’t work hard. It was that they lacked critical thinking skills. This is not to say that students accepted everything they were told or kept their opinions to themselves; in fact, they were quite outspoken. But they were unused to the kinds of deep disciplinary analysis that I expected.

Once I realized this, I knew what I had to do. I began to identify more clearly in my own mind the kinds of questions experts in my field ask (e.g., about alternative interpretations, constraints, potential solutions, trade-offs, consequences). I then highlighted these questions explicitly and asked them repeatedly, reinforcing them until students begin asking the same questions themselves.

Other strategies 

  • Define what you mean by critical thinking (it means different things to different people) and identify its component skills (e.g., questioning received wisdom, analyzing cause and effect, considering trade-offs, evaluating solutions.) Give students practice exercising these skills alone and in combination.
  • Model how you approach particular kinds of tasks and problems, thinking aloud as you explain your reasoning at every stage. This highlights the kind of internal conversation experts engage in when approaching disciplinary problems.
  • When teaching problem solving, focus on the process of reasoning and not just the right answer. Require students to explain how they got the answers they did (right or wrong), and what steps they took and why. This will help them transfer skills into new contexts and think more critically about what they’re doing.
  • Ask “what if” questions that change the parameters of a problem or case (e.g., What if this were a non-profit rather than a for-profit organization? What if we turned the temperature up? What if this event took place in France rather than Germany?). Hypothetical question tests students’ understanding of underlying principles and their ability to think flexibly across diverse contexts.
  • Give a pre-assessment at the beginning of the semester that tests not only students’ familiarity with key terms, ideas, etc., but also how they engage in problem solving.
  • Ask your TA to help you understand what learning strategies (successful or unsuccessful) students employ and where they struggle with course content. Students are often are more comfortable discussing areas of difficulty or misunderstanding with TAs than with the course instructor.
  • Compare notes with colleagues who have taught courses that are prerequisite to yours to try to determine areas where students’ critical thinking skills are weak. Then develop activities to strengthen these skills

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.