If you’re like the majority of college instructors, you teach critical thinking skills in your course. However, you might also be looking for some additional ideas and activities that help students build those skills.

In Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writingauthors John Mauk, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk help students learn how to recognize and understand the techniques and strategies performed by skilled academic writers, and then execute and develop these techniques in their own work. The three activities below, taken from this book, can serve as writing prompts that get students thinking—and writing—critically and creatively. After students complete the writing activity, you could also use these questions as the starting point for classroom discussions, which could further encourage students to employ their critical thinking skills as they articulate their ideas and respond to their classmates’ work.

Evaluating and using various sources

Think about the present condition or state of a particular practice like Facebooking or a public trend like voting among college students. Do some online research on your topic and find out what others are saying about it. Try to find the thoughts of both average people and scholars in the most relevant discipline (communications or culture studies). In an essay, describe the trend [by using the following steps]: apply a supportive source, draw from a vital source, and synthesize. Develop a thesis about your topic that takes various viewpoints into account. Keep going back to your sources, letting them inform each new idea you develop. Search for insights in your sources and apply them, in the form of summary, quotation, or paraphrase, as you develop your points. (Cite sources according to the documentation style your instructor specifies.) (Mauk et al., 68-69)


Applying concepts

Living in a society means adopting, and probably wrestling with, some basic concepts, such as freedom, responsibility, patriotism, justice, nature, childhood, adulthood, and terrorism, and more specific concepts, such as religious freedom, free market capitalism, corporate responsibility, and social justice. Consider one of these concepts and discuss how it influences your thinking or daily life. (74)


Understanding arguments

Architecture on college campuses makes claims. The structures and geography indirectly assert ideas about learning, education, enlightenment, freedom, and so on. The paved roads winding their way through a commuter campus might say, “Thanks for coming. See you next time.” The immense stone columns on a library might say something about the immensity of an intellectual tradition. Or the flashing lights of a student union might assert something about an institution’s timeliness or trendiness. In a small group, consider a piece of architecture (a statue or building) on your campus. Closely inspect the details and find a pattern that suggests an argument. Do the details add up to some point about education, freedom, learning, hardship? Also consider the context. What is the relationship between the subject and the surroundings? Do they complement one another or oppose one another? Try to express that argument in writing. (106-107)


What activities and strategies do you use to help students develop their writing and critical thinking skills? Share them in the comments.


Reference: Mauk, John, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk. 2014. Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

© 2014 Cengage Learning.