Think about it: teaching thinking
In higher education, nearly everyone agrees that teaching critical thinking skills is, well, critical.
Liberal arts institutions in particular believe that teaching students how to analyze, synthesize and reflect should be a hallmark of the curricula, regardless of the student’s field.
“Critical thinking skills are important because the world of work and careers is changing so rapidly. Students are going to need the skills to bring together disparate information, think analytically and to put information together in new ways to create solutions,” said Bev Nagel, dean of the college at Carleton College.
But how do professors make critical thinking happen? And how do they know that what they’re doing is challenging students to think deeply? We asked several professors from Minnesota’s Private Colleges what specific practices they use to encourage students’ critical thinking, from assignments and syllabus design to assessments and classroom activities.
Assignments that push students to think
How a professor chooses to tackle critical thinking skills depends on the discipline, theories about teaching, teaching style and even personality.
“Teaching critical thinking skills is personal. There’s not a one-thing-fits-all model,” said Mija Van Der Wege, associate professor of psychology and director of the QuIRK program (Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge) at Carleton College. “For example, I like students to challenge me directly in the classroom, while some professors wouldn’t like that.”
She noted that teaching critical thinking skills gets easier the longer you teach, as professors put “more tools in their toolboxes.”
It can be hard to nail down a definition, and professors and institutions may even define it differently. Generally speaking, however, a classroom in which students are moving beyond basic knowledge and comprehension and actively applying, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information is one in which students are working on critical thinking.
Tom Haakenson, professor and chair of the liberal arts department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), said that to him, critical thinking means “challenging assumptions and biases, creating an awareness of them and making sure they’re explicit,” he said.
For Van Der Wege, one aspect of critical thinking is “getting students to understand how to apply things they’ve learned in class to the real world.”
So how can professors create an environment in which critical thinking occurs? Haakenson said that at MCAD, cross-disciplinary collaboration is common — and it can get the ball rolling because it automatically involves thinking about a topic from multiple perspectives. For example, he’s taught a class that combined students from the liberal arts and design departments and had them work on cross-disciplinary projects.
Using two Franz Kafka short stories, the students first wrote group essays about their meaning and then translated those words into visual representations. Doing so required them to assess what the stories meant to them and then consider carefully which symbols and images to emphasize in their artwork. Students also considered how a viewer might interpret their use of color, shape or medium, adding another layer of analysis. Read more about the Kafka Project.
“We got this really nice dialogue between the written word and the visual world. It helped students to think about how visual information is understood and what certain images are conveying. Comparing and contrasting the two produced a great discussion,” he said.
Applying theory to the real world
At Gustavus Adolphus College, philosophy professor Lisa Heldke said she’s tried lots of ways to get students to think critically over the last 25 years. Her efforts take into account Gustavus’ heavy general education requirements, which means acknowledging that many students in her classes aren’t philosophy majors while also remaining committed to her discipline.
“We’re trying to give people the tools and attitudes to be educated members of a democracy,” she said. “On some level, yes, I want students to have a firm grounding in philosophy, but I also want my students to think, why does philosophy matter as parents, employees, or PTA members?” she said.
Heldke said she tries to model the “why and how it matters” in her classes. In “School and Society,” she’s had students choose a higher education institution and analyze if and how it is realizing its mission statement. Students may pick, for example, a school for the deaf or a tribal college and then examine how its course offerings or activities compare to its mission. Students often get creative with this assignment, even calling a school’s professors and students to ask for examples, she said.
In her middle-level classes, Heldke uses secondary sources to supplement readings by well-known philosophers. Then, students may write a detailed counter-example paper of a philosophical concept; the idea is to better understand a theory by interrogating the opposite point of view, she said.
Heldke is also a big proponent of service learning to advance critical thinking, given it requires students to first understand theories and then apply that knowledge to a new setting.
“If we really believe that the liberal arts are useful as well as beautiful, we need to give students experiences to use them in real life, to figure out how things work,” she said.
She was pleased when a student volunteering at a local treatment center made a direct connection between what was happening to patients there and a theorist they were reading about. In doing so, she reconsidered her own value system, just one example of critical thinking.
Heldke also believes in reading aloud almost every day as a class, so that she can draw attention to times when an author made a choice that affected the final piece — applying a level of analysis that’s inherent in critical thinking. “It comes to be students’ favorite part of the class,” she said.
Subject-matter knowledge versus critical thinking skills
One perceived conflict in teaching critical thinking is that in focusing on how to think, students may miss out on important content. Some may think this could be more of a problem in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses, where memorizing formulas and learning concrete skills are essential.
Van Der Wege, however, who teaches statistics, doesn’t see this as an issue in her classroom. “Teaching students to deal with ambiguity across disciplines is one of the most important things we do at a liberal arts college. Students come in thinking that science is fact, but they learn that there are actually a lot of debates out there,” she said. “With statistics, finding the truth can be tricky.”
When it comes to helping students grapple with that ambiguity, Van Der Wege works to get students to consider the big picture. She uses Classroom Response Systems — clickers that let students buzz in answers and show on screen how the class responded. She said she might pose a potential study to the students and ask them to select which tests they would run.
“It forces students to commit to an answer, and then you can see the distribution of responses. We talk about how there’s not one right answer, but that it’s a matter of perspective,” she said.
This consideration of multiple points of view and purposes is a key part of thinking critically.
In philosophy classes, Heldke believes a balance between the thinking and content is possible, especially in the middle level courses. But if she had to choose, thinking skills would be paramount.
“A lot of the time, they’re struggling madly to understand what the damn text is saying,” she said. “I do try to emphasize certain details, like understanding how Locke and Descartes really disagreed, or how did a philosopher understand the world. Dates and facts are less important.”
Haakenson said he often structures classes with a lot of “facts, figures and foundational knowledge” in the first five to eight weeks of class, and then spends the last third of the term analyzing and reflecting on it. “We try to be really deliberate about how we convey information,” he said.
How do we know it’s working?
Assessment of whether students are actually learning to think critically can be a challenge, said Van Der Wege. It’s also a “developmental thing,” so younger students might take a while to understand how to do it, she said. But there are clues. “In addition to standard assessments, you can tell based on the quality of discussions and whether they’re asking good questions.”
Heldke said she knows her methods are working when a student says, “Oh, great, now I can never do ‘x’ again without thinking about your class and these theories.” Students also may self-report that her class or something they learned changed how they think or even altered their long-term career goals, she said.
At MCAD, the results can often be seen in students’ work and in their own reflection on the meaning of that work. For Audrey Moxley, a senior photography major, nearly everything she does in her advanced seminar class, from writing an artist’s statement to the weekly critiques with classmates and professors, is a practice in thinking critically. “We are taught to critically examine the work we are making and remove our own emotions or attachments to decide which images are the strongest,” she said. “We continuously make revisions to match the things we are learning about our work.”
By Erin Adler, communications associate