Across the nation, colleges and universities strive to develop high level critical thinkers. How does this happen? In Student Success in College: Doing What Works! 2nd Edition, students can explore how to develop these skills. This process considers both cognitive and non-cognitive skills needed in order to become a critical thinker. Here’s a brief overview of the process:

Foundational Conditions:
Before developing high level critical thinking skills, three foundational conditions are needed. In essence, these are pre-requisite skills for engaging in high level cognitive tasks.

1. A Content Knowledge Base
While memorization and remembering are not the end goal of college, these cognitive tasks play a very important role in developing critical thinking skills (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Ozuru, Dempsey, & McNamara, 2009). Neuroscience research shows us that learning is incremental, demonstrating the importance of establishing a strong knowledge base (Goswami, 2008).

Teaching Strategies: To build content knowledge, professors can emphasize important points during lectures, frequently use quizzes and reading assignments so that students are interacting with the content on a regular basis, and consider requiring the use of resources such as publisher provided online tools.

2. High Self-Efficacy
Research has consistently demonstrated that self-efficacy is a strong predictor of successful outcomes (Chemers, Hu & Garcia, 2001; Lynch, 2006). Students who believe in their ability to successfully complete a task will be more likely to persist even when they encounter difficulties or failure. Since critical thinking tasks are challenging, high self-efficacy is important.

Teaching Strategies: The best way to build self-efficacy is through successful experiences. Professors can help students increase their self-efficacy by assigning tasks that they can successfully do with support (and then provide that level of support). Providing effective feedback to students is another way to help students build self-efficacy.

3. Desire and Drive
Motivation is important in all tasks, especially critical thinking tasks that will likely require high levels of effort. In particular, intrinsic motivation has been linked to success (Goodman et al., 2011). Students who care about and commit to challenging tasks are more likely to put forth the effort needed to be successful (Turner & Husman, 2009).

Teaching Strategies: Explaining the importance or rationale for assignments, offering choice, and assigning tasks that have real world value and meaning can increase student motivation, setting the stage for critical thinking skills.

Learning Conditions:
Once the foundational conditions are met, students need to experience learning conditions that will promote critical thinking skills.

1. Challenging Learning Tasks
High goals are most likely to lead to high levels of success (Latham & Locke, 2006). College courses need to incorporate academically rigorous tasks that have been carefully crafted to develop high level critical thinking skills.

Teaching Strategies: Questioning and complex, cooperative learning tasks can be powerful ways to challenge students to think more deeply about content. Teaching students how to set challenging goals will also promote higher level learning.

2. Effective Support
Students are more likely to achieve at high levels when they are supported. This is particularly important when students encounter a challenging task. Students need to know what type of support is available and how to access the help when needed.

Teaching Strategies: Assisting students with developing the skills needed (i.e. how to find and read scholarly sources) to successfully complete the learning task and communicating your belief in their ability helps set the stage for critical thinking.

Once these foundational and learning conditions are met, critical thinking will naturally happen! To further explore this process, look for (expected to publish in 2015):

Bers, T. Chun, M., Daly, W. T., Harrington, C., Tobolowsky, B. F., & Associates. (in press). Foundations for critical thinking. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Dr. Christine Harrington is a Professor of Psychology and Student Success and Director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ. She is also the author of Student Success in College: Doing What Works!, Second Edition. Prior to teaching full time, she worked in the Counseling and Career Services Department, providing disability services and career, academic, and personal counseling. You can also visit Dr. Christine Harrington’s website.

Share how you help students become critical thinkers in the comments below.

Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. A. (2001). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.

Chemers, M., Hu, L., & Garcia, B. (2001). Academic self-efficacy and first year college student performance and adjustment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 55–64. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.1.55

Goodman, S., Keresztesi, M., Mamdani, F., Mokgatle, D., Musariri, M., Pires, J., & Schlechter, A. (2011). An investigation of the relationship between students’ motivation and academic performance as mediated by effort. South African Journal of Psychology, 41(3), 373-385.

Goswami, U. (2008). Principles of learning, implications for teaching: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3-4), 381-399.

Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2006). Enhancing the benefits and overcoming the pitfalls of goal setting. Organizational Dynamics, 35(4), 332-340. Retrieved from Business Source Elite Database.

Lynch (2006) Motivational strategies, learning strategies, and resource management as predictors of course grades. College Student Journal, 40(2), 423–428. Retrieved from Academic Search Premiere database.

Ozuru, Y., Dempsey, K., & McNamara, D. S. (2009). Prior knowledge, reading skill, and text cohesion in the comprehension of science texts. Learning and Instruction, 19(3), 228-242. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2008.04.003

Turner, J. E., & Husman, J. (2009). Emotional and cognitive self-regulation following perceptions of failure and experiences of academic shame, [special edition on Self-Regulation] Journal of Advanced Academics, 20(1), 138-173.