Improving College-Level Critical Thinking Skills

By Sara Rathburn

"We should be teaching students how to think. Instead,
we are teaching them what to think.
- Clement and Lochhead, 1979

While critical thinking encompasses many components, in general it refers to the ability to think effectively about a subject, to properly understand and evaluate material, and to make reasonable decisions.

People who think critically have the ability to ask appropriate questions, gather relevant information, sort efficiently and creatively through information, reason logically with it, and come to reliable and trustworthy conclusions about the material, problem, or situation in question (van Gelder, 2005).

How can we help our students learn and/or improve their critical thinking skills? First, they must engage in the activity itself. Some suggested activities include:

  1. Reading: Assign persuasive essays, articles, and other readings that force students to evaluate various forms of material.
  2. Writing: Assign written responses to assigned reading material in which questions must be answered, logical reasoning and analytical understanding demonstrated, and reasonable conclusions drawn.
  3. Discussion: Provide a subject-oriented debate forum for students wherein they may openly discuss and recognize various arguments, judge the credibility of source material, point out the logical fallacies, and talk about how to transfer the information to other situations.
  4. Engaging in Science: Critical thinking is scientific thinking—exploring a subject scientifically provides a way in which to apply reasoning to questions and problems encountered in virtually every academic discipline.
  5. Give feedback on student reading, writing, discussions, and their ability to engage in science. If one of your over-arching learning-outcome goals is to improve higher-order thinking skills, then your accurate, timely feedback is critical.

And finally, know that acquiring critical thinking skills takes time. Developing them takes practice, and not just in one, but in multiple settings. It is never too late to assist students on the life-long journey of critical thinking.



Clement, J., and Lochhead, J. (1979). Introduction to research in cognitive process instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Cognitive Process Instruction.

van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 53. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from


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