Before the start of term this fall, I sat through two days of professional development with colleagues from a variety of disciplines. When the facilitator asked us what we wanted our students to be able to do after leaving our classes, one phrase that came up again and again was critical thinking—we want our students to leave our classes with stronger critical thinking skills than they came in with. The facilitator pushed back, asking us what we meant by that and what it looked like in our classrooms. There was a collective pause in the room. Lots of different ideas were thrown around, and at one point the facilitator asked us if we thought our students knew what it meant to think critically—cue the crickets.

Critical thinking gets held up as a key, perhaps the key, achievement of Higher Ed—particularly in the humanities where it occupies a prominent position in many course objectives and department mission statements. And yet, as John Schlueter at Inside Higher Ed points out, “We don’t know what critical thinking actually is, and we can’t be sure that it even exists.” Sensational though his statement may be, Schlueter goes on to discuss the very real research debate about whether or not critical thinking skills can be transferred from one discipline to another, and whether or not they’re a general set of skills that students can apply outside a given classroom experience. Given that 60% of managers say new college graduates are lacking in critical thinking skills according to PayScale, at the least we may not be doing as good of a job as we hope to here.

We want our students to leave our classroom with these skills because we as humanities instructors care about training our students not only for their careers, but also to be informed and engaged citizens. Now I take time to consider what’s meant by critical thinking skills and how we can best teach them to our students.

So, in my classes this year, I’ll be trying to engage with this question of critical thinking skills more by discussing it with my students. I’ll be asking them what they think it means to think critically and why this is important—sharing my own thoughts along the way. Instead of hoping the careful scaffolding of assignments, dissection of arguments and ideas, assigning of self-directed learning projects, etc. models critical thinking for my students, I’ll tell them more specifically that these assignments are designed to engage them in this area. My goal here will not be to resolve the cognitive debate, but rather to engage thoughtfully with my students in a dialogue and consider the problem together.

What does critical thinking mean in your humanities classroom?

Read Part One: Why the Humanities Matters in Higher Education

Read Part Three: Teach Your Humanities Students to Communicate through Reading and Writing

Read Part Four: Bring Digital Humanities to Your Classroom

Read Part Five: Major in Humanities—Build on Creativity Skills

Elizabeth Martin is an Instructional Specialist in the Writing Studies Department at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a staff writer for American Mircoreviews & Interviews. She received her M.F.A. from William Paterson University. Her journalism has appeared in Parsippany Life, Neighbor News and The Suburban Trends. Her creative writing has been published by Neworld Review, Hot Metal Bridge and Menacing Hedge, among others. She’s the recipient of two New Jersey Press Association awards. Currently, she’s at work on a collection of essays.