There are entire courses on critical thinking, helping college students learn to go beyond common sense and deeply consider the implications of an idea through the application of logic and reason. But teaching critical thinking skills can be important to any class, and asking students to apply those skills can help them gain a deeper understanding of the course material. In addition to the excellent textbooks that flesh out the application of logic and statistics to teaching critical thinking, here are some concrete examples of critical thinking exercises you can use in your courses.

Why teaching critical thinking is important

“Critical thinking is the cornerstone of higher education, the hallmark of an educated person,” wrote John Chaffee in his Thinking Critically, 11th edition. He went on, “The prospect of expanding students’ thinking implies expanding who they are as human beings—the perspective from which they view the world, the concepts and values they use to guide their choices, and the impact they have on the world as a result of those choices” (Chaffee, xv).

Teaching critical thinking to your college students means not only giving them tools, but also helping them discover how to think beyond the media they consume. Giving students a grasp of how to understand statistics, for example, enables them to interpret news data, look for bias, and explore the ways in which the data is used to support a point that may or may not be true. Those skills are not just useful in their careers, but in their personal lives as well.

Critical thinking lesson ideas

A key technique in critical thinking is to avoid lecturing your students. Enabling them to explore scenarios gives them the time to create the cognitive process they need to further develop their critical thinking skills.

A writer for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies Web site offered some discipline-specific examples of critical thinking exercises in “Teaching Critical Thinking,” such as:

  • Biology: College students should already be aware of the scientific method before their introductory level biology courses, but utilizing the scientific method can help students engage their critical thinking skills. “As students learn the scientific method, they build the foundation of research skills used for future work,” the contributor noted, pointing out that those skills include describing and defining an issue, applying that knowledge, and making deductive and inductive inferences.
  • Mathematics: Divide students into groups to solve a problem without giving them the full instructions on solving it. Instead of telling the students how to solve it, ask them questions: What steps are you taking? Why are you taking this approach?
  • Engineering: Dividing students into teams, ask them to slow down the problem-solving process into steps, comparing their results with other student teams, or with an imaginary team you’ve created for the exercise (which may come up with the correct solution, or may not!).
  • Literature: For beginning literature students, ease them into literary analysis by starting them out with an exercise: use a metaphor to describe one of the characters. Build on this by asking them to explain why they chose the metaphor.

A writer for the St. Petersburg College Critical Thinking Gateway offered tips for designing “Critical Thinking Games” that require students to “analyze, evaluate, synthesize information from various sources, or solve problems in order to find the answers.” One style of game is the simulation, in which students tackle an imaginary problem relevant to the course, using information and skills that are part of the course curriculum. At various points in the simulation, the students see the results of their decisions, which impact any further decisions they must make.

How do you teach critical thinking skills in your courses? Share your ideas below.

Reference: Chaffee, John. 2015. Thinking Critically, 11th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.