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by Vera Zdravkovich, Vice President for Instruction

For several years faculty have lamented to each other and to me that the skills of students at all levels appear to be declining in the ability to interpret, compare, problem solve, analyze, and reflect─in other words, students lack the ability to think critically. We have hard evidence to support what faculty know, but our students are not an exception. Even though this is, in fact, a national trend, we are not absolved from our responsibility to do our utmost to develop, strengthen, and instill these skills in our students. Happily, critical thinking is a skill and can be taught.   

Because critical thinking can be taught, faculty are up to the challenge regardless of the definition of critical thinking that you choose; and there are many. Here is a sampling:

Critical thinking -
“. . .[is] figuring out what to believe, in a variety of contexts, in a rational way that requires the ability to judge the plausibility of specific assertions, to weigh evidence, to assess the logical soundness of inferences, to construct counter arguments and alternative hypothesis. . . ” (Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985).

“. . .[is] disciplined, self-directed, reasonable and reflective thinking that one performs when deciding what to believe or do. It is purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference as well as advocacy of one’s position. It is the art of thinking about one’s thinking in order to make it better, more clear, and more accurate. Critical thinking is evidenced by the ability and disposition to improve one’s thinking by systemically subjecting it to intellectual self-assessment” (Claremont Reading School, 2002).

 “. . .means sound thinking needed by practitioners in an academic discipline: accurate, relevant, reasonable, rigorous─whether it be analyzing, synthesizing, generalizing, applying concepts, interpreting, evaluating, supporting arguments and hypotheses, solving problems, or making decisions. An academic discipline is a system of thinking about information and its applications.  Course content should consist of helping students to learn how to find answers, solve problems, and make decisions the way practitioners in that discipline do.  Learning factual content, applying factual content, and thinking about factual content are interdependent” (Handbook, 2004).

Common elements in most of these definitions are words like interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and self-regulation. Sam Weinberg, a professor at Stanford University, says, “. . . there is no such thing as generic critical thinking. We think critically within the bounds of our disciplines, and features of thought considered critical in one field often fail to appear in another.”

You and I know that for our students to develop critical thinking skills, they need to

1.  have a clear understanding of  what it means to think critically, and
2.  be taught how to critically think. 

Now it is up to us as a team of professional college educators to help our students develop and strengthen their critical thinking skills. Administratively, “The Year of Critical Thinking” has been launched to focus attention on the need and to provide tools for addressing it.

The first Handbook of Critical Thinking Resources written by Prince George’s Community College faculty members is available in print and on the Web. The second edition of the Handbook will include even more examples of critical thinking techniques that faculty use in the classroom.

Expert guest speakers address the need for critical thinking. At our fall “Kick Off Day,” Dr. Rosemary Haggett, director of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, emphasized the requirement for being educated in the 21st Century. On College Enrichment Day, Dr. Barbara Millis addressed the ways and means of critical thinking.

Terry Bridger’s Critical Thinking Institute, working with faculty liaisons from each department, is providing pedagogical examples of discipline-specific critical thinking methods. At each Critical Thinking Institute meeting, faculty liaisons learn more about critical thinking techniques to share with their department colleagues. 

Melinda Kramer and her Critical Thinking Team are exploring ways to incorporate more critical thinking in the curriculum.

Alicia Juarrero’s online courses, “A Study of Critical Thinking, Parts I (fall semester) and II (spring semester),” address what critical thinking is. The fall course, in which 28 faculty, staff, and administrators are enrolled, emphasizes the role of logical arguments in daily life, in conversation, and across various disciplines. In this course, faculty have the opportunity to design critical thinking exercises or projects for their students.

Throughout the semester, critical thinking workshops are being conducted, and in spring semester, a critical thinking conference will be held.

 A 1997 study commissioned by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing underscores the need to provide the tools faculty need to improve the critical thinking of students. It states that “while most colleges and universities recognize the importance of critical thinking, effective instruction for critical thinking is not occurring on a broad scale. Among the faculty surveyed for that study, 89% claimed critical thinking to be a primary objective of their instruction, but only 19% gave a clear explanation of what critical thinking is and only 9% were clearly teaching for critical thinking on a typical day in class” (Paul, Elder, & Battell, 1999).

I would be remiss if I did not point out that critical thinking does not exist in vacuum. It links explicitly with the ability of students to communicate orally and in writing, to read, and to assume civic responsibilities. 

As we become more knowledgeable about teaching critical thinking skills, we also need to consider how best to apply them. Studies show that explicit instruction in how to think critically enhances students’ abilities. A number of options are being considered, among them: creating courses that specifically address critical thinking; developing modules in existing courses to focus explicitly on critical thinking processes; infusing critical thinking in ALL courses. Certainly none of these options is mutually exclusive. Many studies and  excellent examples of critical thinking in different disciplines (e.g., history, reading, nursing, psychology, business are available. I have shared some examples that I came across with the appropriate department chairs. We, too, have examples of critical thinking exercises at our college as provided in the Handbook of Critical Thinking Resources, with more to come.   

Department chairs are studying the options and will make recommendations next semester. However, whatever method we choose, this option can only succeed if all faculty are well versed in critical thinking and willing to actively pursue it.

We have our work cut out for us. To improve the ability of our students to critically think will not be easy. As Paul (1992) says, “For students to gain critical thinking skills, faculty will have to change the way they present materials and change who does the presenting in their classrooms.  They must learn to ask more open-ended questions–why, how, and what if–and coach students through the process of learning how to answer them.” 

The gauntlet has been thrown. I have no doubt that faculty will meet the challenge and succeed in improving our students’ critical thinking skills. To do less would diminish us as professional college educators and deprive our students of the education that they came to college to receive.

Claremont Reading Conference Yearbook 2000. (2000). Harper 30A, Claremont Graduate
     University, Claremont, CA, pp. 58-59.

PGCC Faculty (2004, August). Handbook of critical thinking resources. Largo MD. Prince
     George’s Community College.

Nickerson, R., Perkins, D., & Smith, E. (1985). The teaching of thinking. Hillsdale, N.J.:

Paul, R.W., Elder, L., and Batell, T. (1997). California teacher preparation for instruction in
     critical thinking: Research findings and policy recommendations
. Sacramento, CA: California
     Commission on Teacher Credentialing.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 1 

Fall 2004