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Ditch Critical Thinking. Teach Successful Thinking.

Do your students think critically? There exists a disconnect between students’ and employers’ perceptions of critical thinking ability. 79.9% of students believe they are proficient at critical thinking and problem-solving, whereas only 55.8% of employers say that recent graduates are prepared to think critically on the job (1).

Students face three primary barriers when it comes to critical thinking:

  • The Perception of Critical - Students report not knowing why they would want to be critical thinkers. The word critical is usually reserved for unfavorable situations. If somebody is being critical about you, they are being mean to you. If your friend is in critical condition, it is not looking good for him. Given this perception, it is not surprising that our students squirm with apprehension when we talk about critical thinking. Can we blame them for perceiving critical thinking as a painful endeavor?

    There is a quick and easy solution: Ditch the word critical. Students do not want to be critical. Do you know what they all want? To be successful. We want students to be successful in their endeavors, including developing their thinking skills. Let’s call it successful thinking, not critical thinking. This not only motivates students but also communicates to them with the word successful that it is goal-directed thinking. Successful thinking will help your students get where they want to go.
  • The "How" - Students are not certain how to think successfully. We often infuse critical thinking into our classes, but without a simple, structured approach, students are not sure how to go about it.
  • Self-Doubt - Many students believe they cannot think successfully. Many of my first-generation college students are uncertain about college and simply do not believe they can be great thinkers, but I know they have potential.

By explaining three cognitive processes involved in successful thinking, and by providing a simple structured approach, students can gain confidence in their thinking abilities and can begin thinking successfully immediately.

Three Cognitive Strategies to Help Students Become Successful Thinkers:

  1. Metacognitive Awareness

Metacognitive awareness sounds like a complex term, but it has a simple meaning: thinking about your own thinking. Without reflecting on your current thinking processes, you may be skimming along the surface without realizing that you need to dive deeper.

Metacognitive awareness relies on your prefrontal cortex – a key area of your frontal lobes involved in learning, memory, decision-making, and forming associations among contexts (2).

Research shows that high metacognitive accuracy, such as accurately predicting an exam grade, is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex and is correlated with an increase in gray matter volume (3). That is, improved metacognitive accuracy is associated with increased neuronal density in brain regions implicated in learning. And we all want more dense brains! Engaging in metacognitive awareness enables students to monitor and control the direction of their thinking.

Surface level thinking can be perilous.

I frequently ask students to predict their grades before taking an exam. Most students over-predict their scores because they are not engaging in metacognitive awareness. Students predict they will score 94% on an exam and are shocked when they score 72%. They are simply not thinking about how well they actually know the material.

By frequently stopping to evaluate what they are currently thinking about and how deeply they understand it, students can recover from derailed thinking and reduce the disconnect between confidence and knowledge; helping to move them forward towards more effective thinking.

  1. Curiosity

Curiosity involves asking questions and going beyond surface-level thinking. Encourage students to go on an asking spree! When students are brave enough to ask questions, be sure to reinforce that cognitive activity. By reinforcing curiosity, we are strengthening brain circuits that help promote learning.

When you are curious, you ask questions and incite learning and growth in your brain. Encouraging curiosity is a way to encourage intrinsic motivation. When students decide which questions are interesting or those that may yield informative results, they ignite an interest in the topic. In a brain imaging study using MRI, researchers found that to-be-learned material associated with curiosity was better learned and remembered than information not associated with curiosity (4). Curiosity- induced learning activates the midbrain and the hippocampus, responsible for forming new memories, and improves the connections among these regions.

In this study, participants were not naturally curious about the material. Rather, they were instructed to be curious. Even when we have students who reluctantly take our classes, there is still hope of sparking interest and natural curiosity. We can ignite curiosity and improve learning and thinking in our classrooms by asking students to generate questions about important class material.

After curiosity is ignited, students need to engage with their environment to seek out and evaluate possible answers.

  1. Engagement

Cognitive engagement entails fostering a rich learning experience by using cognitive skills such as reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving, and forming associations among concepts. This mode of cognitive enrichment fosters neuroplasticity. By constantly engaging in new, rich learning experiences, our brains age in a healthy manner.

Cognitive engagement is also a marker for higher cognitive functioning and increased structural integrity in brain areas, such as the corpus callosum later in life (5). The corpus callosum is a massive bundle of fibers in the center of your brain that allows information to move from one hemisphere of your brain to the other, and we want to keep these important information superhighways running smoothly.

Cognitive engagement changes your brain during all stages of your life. A recent study employed MRI brain scans in a training group and a control group of healthy young adults. The training group engaged in a learning task that required cognitive processes such as making inferences, inhibition, task engagement, and working memory. Working memory holds a limited amount of information and for a brief time and is necessary for helping us to make sense out of what is presently in our consciousness and what to do with that information. Results showed that the group who was cognitively engaged in a learning task had improved connections among key brain regions involved in cognition (6).

Our brains respond and adapt to task demands. Engaging in complex cognitive tasks improves brain flexibly and dynamically strengthening networks that are key in successful thinking, such as the working memory network (7).

3 Questions for Successful Thinking

Now that we know about three cognitive processes in successful thinking, we can provide our students with a simple, structured approach for applying this knowledge.

Students can begin to think successfully by asking themselves three questions:

  1. What did I learn?
  2. How do I know?
  3. What is the rest of the story?

These three questions tap the successful thinking processes of metacognitive awareness, curiosity, and engagement in an approachable manner. These questions encourage students to reflect on their own thinking processes, evaluate their knowledge, and seek out additional information.

We need to close the gap between students’ and employers’ beliefs about critical thinking. These questions are easy to remember and can help students think successfully in the classroom, on the job, or in any situation in which they want to evaluate complex information. Successful thinking is a skill that students can begin building now and take with them, into the workforce when they graduate.

By repeatedly using these three questions, we can encourage our students to cultivate successful thinking as a healthy habit that yields benefits. Your brain abides by a use-it or lose-it principle: The more you involve your brain in successful thinking and learning, the more your brain will work for you and your goals. Training your brain in successful thinking now means their minds will be better prepared to handle the demands of learning new skills and information in their chosen careers.

I gave a TEDx talk entitled Successful Thinking: It’s a Know-Brainer to help foster a discussion about successful thinking with my students. This 11-minute video provides a quick, effective, motivational tool for students to begin thinking successfully right away.

Successful Thinking: It’s a Know-Brainer


1. Inside Higher Ed.

2. Euston, D. R., Gruber, A. J., & McNaughton, B. L. (2012). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in memory and decision making. Neuron, 76(6), 1057-1070.

3. Fleming, S. M., & Dolan, R. J. (2012). The neural basis of metacognitive ability. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 367(1594), 1338-1349.

4. Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus- dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.

5. Arfanakis, K., Wilson, R. S., Barth, C. M., Capuano, A. W., Vasireddi, A., Zhang, S., ... & Bennett, D. A. (2016). Cognitive activity, cognitive function, and brain diffusion characteristics in old age. Brain imaging and behavior, 10(2), 455-463.

6. Román, F. J., Iturria-Medina, Y., Martínez, K., Karama, S., Burgaleta, M., Evans, A. C., ... & Colom, R. (2017). Enhanced structural connectivity within a brain sub-network supporting working memory and engagement processes after cognitive training. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 141, 33-43. Not a free article, but here is the link:

7. Cohen, J. R., & D'Esposito, M. (2016). The segregation and integration of distinct brain networks and their relationship to cognition. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(48), 12083-12094.


About the Author

Heather R. Collins earned her Ph.D. in Psychological and Brain Sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed five-years of postdoctoral research in brain imaging. She is presently a speaker, consultant, and Biostatistician at the Medical University of South Carolina. As Chair of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department at Trident Technical College, she taught psychology and improved teaching and evaluating critical thinking in psychology, sociology, political science, geography, and anthropology courses. Dr. Collins is passionate about communicating the impact of psychology and neuroscience on everyday life to a wide variety of audiences including college students, instructors, business professionals, and seasoned adults. Her popular TEDx Talk, Successful Thinking: It’s a Know-Brainer has 20,000+ views:

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