Cut Through the Buzz: 8 Ways to Teach Critical Thinking

February 21, 2019 Gregory Feist

Critical thinking has long been the buzz-word in education, from primary schools up through graduate programs. That, in fact, is one of the problems—it is so ubiquitous that it carries with it all the cache and excitement of a slice of white bread.

But the truth is that we do live in a world, more now than ever, that requires the ability to think critically — to see and know when information presented is dubious or honest, accurate or intentionally fake, biased or impartial. Not only do fake news, reviews, and information affect our elections, but they also influence our attitudes, social networks, beliefs, and actions. And while the phrase critical thinking might be a little stale to us educators, its actual importance is essential. What we teach our students matters. Showing our students how to process information and how to evaluate the soundness of an idea or argument is probably the most important skill we can impart to our students. Teaching them not just what to learn, but how to learn!

As a Professor of Psychology, whose research focuses on the nature of the creative personality and the psychology of science and scientific thinking, I have the luxury of teaching critical thinking skills without hardly ever using the word. Here are at least 8 different strategies for bringing critical thinking skills into the classroom:

  1. Challenging Your Assumptions / Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Assumptions are the starting points of our thinking and reasoning. They are what we take for granted and don’t really question. The ability to reflect and be clear about what your assumptions are is the first and most crucial step toward becoming a critical thinker. A primary theme of my classes and in my textbook Psychology: Perspectives and Connections is to teach students to challenge their own and other people’s assumptions. I also use the phrase “Don’t believe everything you think” quite regularly. Just because we believe something doesn’t make it true and understanding that is the first step in challenging assumptions and stepping outside of our own mindset.

Not only does this help with critical thinking, but it also helps with creative thinking. Creative people have the ability to “think outside the box”, which really means seeing things from a different perspective and intuitively breaking out of mindsets that prevent novel and original ways of thinking and solving problems.

  1. Discuss Components of Critical Thinking / What Does It Actually Mean?

Except in my Critical Thinking Seminar, I seldom use the phrase “critical thinking”. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify what I mean by the phrase and what I want my students to understand it to be. Typically, this comes down to asking students some important questions:

  • How do you know that?
  • What logic or evidence supports that idea or belief?
  • How do I (we, you) know that?

In short, critical thinking involves the skills of knowing how to analyze, evaluate, and interpret information.

  1. Explaining Science vs. Pseudoscience

In its simplest form, scientific thinking involves the ability to separate belief (theory) from evidence. Those not trained in the scientific method all too often fall prey to stopping inquiry with their assumptions and confusing belief and evidence. They mistake belief for evidence.

One important way to get students to think critically about science is to contrast it with claims that pretend to be scientific but eschew the scientific method, namely the pseudosciences. As Gregory Derry wrote in What is Science and How It Works, we know something is a pseudoscience when its practitioners:

  • Do not progress in their thinking or knowledge in a cumulative fashion over time;
  • Are not internally skeptical (they do not challenge their own assumptions);
  • Use faulty logic and have no clear explanation for how something works (no mechanism);
  • Dismiss out of hand known established evidence/facts.
  1. Evaluating Scientific Evidence

Because I am a research psychologist (not a clinician), I frequently utilize scientific literature in my classes to provide weight and examples in my lectures. But introducing this material also means teaching my students to evaluate, examine, and critique the quality and methodological rigor of the evidence presented. Some ways to encourage discussion and teach students to ask critical questions of what they are reading include:

  • Was it a good vs. poor study (e.g., representativeness of the sample; sample size, reliability, and validity of the measurements)? The devil is always in the details.
  • Were the conclusions tied closely to the evidence?
  • Was the study peer-reviewed?
  • Did the authors go beyond the evidence?
  1. Establishing Fact vs. Opinion

We all need to be clear on the distinction between fact and opinion. The simplest way to think about facts and opinions is to understand that facts are impersonal, and opinions are personal. Opinions belong to people and hence they are neither right nor wrong. You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Facts don’t belong to anyone. Establishing this concept with students early on is critical in order to form a foundation for questioning information and thinking critical thinking.

  1. Uncovering Fake News and Misinformation

One of the most pressing needs for critical thinking comes from the most ubiquitous of all sources of information—the internet. Fake news, fake photos, fake social media posts, fake product reviews, fake videos, and fake political ads are just a few of the kinds of misinformation that we confront every single day.

The current generation of students—the Millennials and iGen—never really knew of time without the internet and social media. Mobile phones, apps, and social media are their standard modes of communication and they need to know how to identify misinformation when it appears. A few telltale signs that news or information may be fake are when they have:

  • URLs that are bogus (such as abcnews.com.co)
  • Bylines with authors who are not real people
  • Dates of post that came before events discussed in the text
  • Been uncovered as fake by snopes.com, factcheck.com, urbanmyth.com, or hoaxslayer.com
  1. Defining Faulty Reasoning

Biased reasoning is endemic to the human condition. Even well-educated people fall victim to various forms of bias. Two common forms of biased reasoning and information processing are confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Confirmation bias occurs when we select and attend to information that we like or that supports our ideas and we ignore information inconsistent with our beliefs. Even scholars do this in writing articles, where they develop a thesis and discuss only the literature that supports their argument and ignores literature that doesn’t fit the narrative. Similar to, but distinct from, confirmation bias is motivated reasoning, whereby we reason about the information that confirms our beliefs in a relatively uncritical and accepting way but are very skeptical of and critical toward information that challenges and contradicts our beliefs.

Defining these topics and framing them as a trap we all fall victim to can help students be more alert to the possibilities of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning in their own thought proc

  1. Faulty Memory and Perception

A few principles of human thought have emerged over the last few decades; they include the realization that human memories are much more malleable and inaccurate than any of us would like to admit and that our attention and focus do not typically expand beyond one thing at a time.

The truth is our memories are not objective accounts of events; they are inherently reconstructive and change each time we remember something we actually change the memory. It’s important to make it clear to students that confidence in human beings’ memory and attention span (e.g., multitasking) is not always warranted; they should always take the opportunity to question assumptions and probe for factual information.

For Further Reading

Derry, G. (2002). What Science is and How it Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Feist, G.J. (2006). The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Feist, G.J., & Rosenberg, E.L. (2018). Psychology: Perspectives and Connections (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kiely, E., & Robertson, L. (2016, November 18). How To Spot Fake News. Factcheck.org.
Kunda, Z. (1990). The Case for Motivated Reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.
Wilson, J. (2013). Trust You Memory? Maybe You Shouldn’t.

About the Author

Gregory Feist

Gregory J. Feist is Professor of Psychology at San Jose State University (PhD, 1991, University of California at Berkeley). He is widely published in creativity and the psychology of science. His book Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind was awarded the William James Book Prize by the American Psychological Association (APA). His research in creativity was recognized by an Early Career Award from Division 10 of APA, a division for which Feist later served as President. Finally, Feist is co-author of the Psychology: Perspectives and Connections, Theories of Personality, and co-editor of the Handbook of the Psychology of Science and The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity and Personality Research.

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