Ideally, students’ progress through a degree program will build and inspire progress in their conceptual and cognitive development. As an instructor, you likely have a goal of helping students along this trajectory via the activities you design for your class.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, contributor Jane S. Halonen offers 10 useful strategies for helping students refine their thinking skills — and helping you reach your course goals. While you likely have many strategies of your own, you may benefit from the suggestions she makes, which we’ve summarized below:

  1. Make an explicit statement in your syllabus regarding your goal of helping students learn to think, and provide a clear description of what that means in light of the discipline or subject area you’re covering.
  2. Explain your course’s pedagogical framework, so that students have a clearer sense of your expectations. This way, they’ll know that you expect more from them than reciting what they’ve read or memorized.
  3. Build opportunities to practice thinking into your class sessions. Encouraging students to tackle ideas and ask questions will have a lasting impact.
  4. Remain open to students’ questions — and allow student-to-student interaction around those questions.
  5. Verbally acknowledge students when their comments demonstrate good thinking. Recognizing the comment as a good example helps the class as a whole.
  6. Encourage students to assess the quality of their own contributions.
  7. Incorporate a selection of thinking challenges designed to enhance the engagement of the group of students you have in the class. You have a diverse audience of learners — this will help engage more of them in quality thinking.
  8. Make the decision to cover the most relevant content at a level that deepens students’ thinking development — rather than rush through everything you’ve planned, simply to get through it all. This can help ensure students have a deeper understanding of key content, versus a superficial understanding of more content.
  9. Work through students’ resistance to more advanced learning challenges with patience. It takes time to learn to think in new ways!
  10. Regularly ask students what they think and why — verbalizing these points will help them appreciate the progress they’re making. (pp 312-314)

By applying these strategies, you’ll provide an environment that teaches students to improve their thinking skills, and encourages reflection.

Content adapted from Svinicki, Marilla and McKeachie, Wilbert J. 2011. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Have additional suggestions for working with students? Feel free to share them in the comments.