Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students don't demonstrate critical thinking.

Students don't understand what critical thinking means in your context.

It is natural for each of us to assume that everyone has the same (implicit) definition of critical thinking that we do. However, different definitions abound. Across disciplines, "critical thinking" can take on entirely different meaning: from analyzing documents based on their historical context (History) to proposing multiple solutions that meet a set of constraints (Design and Engineering) to analyzing research methods’ validity (Psychology and Statistics). And even within a given discipline, different instructors may have different interpretations of critical thinking or different goals with respect to how they want students in a particular course to engage in critical thinking (e.g., reading texts critically, evaluating sources, critiquing their own work with an eye toward revision). Because of the many possible interpretations of critical thinking, it is all the more important to articulate what you mean by critical thinking and clearly explain it to your students.


Define critical thinking for your context and share your definition with students.

Address students' misconceptions about critical thinking.

Model your approach to critical thinking.

Reinforce your definition of critical thinking.

Define critical thinking for your context and share your definition with students.

What does "critical thinking" mean to you? Reflecting on your answer to this question is well worth the effort. Not only can generating a precise definition help you communicate more clearly with your students, it can lead you to identify important aspects of critical thinking that you (and your students) might otherwise miss. As you define critical thinking, consider what component skills are involved? What qualities do you associate with effective critical thinking? Are there good and poor examples of critical thinking that can help to hone your definition? Once you have articulated a precise definition of what critical thinking means to you, there are many ways to share that definition with your students. For example, you could give students a list of qualities you associate with critical thinking (e.g., evidence is garnered for each piece of an argument, alternative perspectives are considered and discussed, scope of the argument is clearly delineated). Or, you can define critical thinking via examples. One colleague collected examples of effective essays from past students and explained to the current class what made these good examples of critical thinking.

Address students’ misconceptions about critical thinking.

Because students’ conceptions may differ significantly from yours, ascertaining how students view critical thinking can help you address any mismatches or misconceptions head on. For example, you could take time on the first day of class to have students talk about their interpretations of and experiences with critical thinking, or ask students to "think critically" on a short task. The responses that tend to emerge from such exercises highlight the need (to you and students) for establishing what constitutes critical thinking in the current course.  Then you can take the opportunity to discuss your interpretation relative to students’ and resolve any mismatches.

Model your approach to critical thinking.

Here, as in many situations, it is often better to show than to tell. So, when the opportunity arises, demonstrate how you engage in critical thinking. Try to "think out loud" for students (for example, how would you narrow down a research question that’s too broad, explore different design options for a client, or critique a reading). There may be questions you typically ask yourself or issues you often consider; if so, share those questions/issues with the class. When students see the steps you take in critical thinking, they can begin to engage in those steps as well.

Reinforce your definition of critical thinking.

One way to communicate your definition of critical thinking is to let students know when they are not meeting it. Once you have clearly articulated to students what constitutes critical thinking in your course, you can hold them to engaging in that kind of critical thinking and give them feedback when they do not. For example, in homework assignments, you can require students to back up their claims with evidence and then evaluate their performance based on how well they do so. Similarly, in class discussion, if a student makes an argument based on emotion rather than evidence, you can acknowledge their contribution but gently point out what is needed to make that argument an example of good critical thinking. Then, asking that student or recruiting the class to improve the argument not only clarifies your definition of critical thinking but ensures that students are practicing it.

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