Pre/Views: This is Critical Thinking

By Vicki Tolar Burton, WIC Director

Critical thinking is desired by employers, acclaimed as one of the OSU “Learning Goals for Graduates,” and required in every course in the Baccalaureate Core, including Writing Intensive courses. However, my observation of hundreds (thousands?) of OSU syllabi and assignments across the Baccalaureate Core suggests that critical thinking is one of the least explicit aspects of most college courses. From Skills level Mathematics and Writing to Science and the Arts to advanced Synthesis, Difference, Power, and Discrimination and WIC, teachers appear to assume that students know what critical thinking is and when they are being asked to do it. I’m not sure about that.

The Bacc Core Committee (BCC) has wisely refrained from imposing a generic definition of critical thinking across all general education courses, asking instead that faculty in the disciplines define for themselves and their students what comprises critical thinking in their discipline or field. We often see syllabi that never mention critical thinking, much less articulate what it might look like in the subject area of that course or where in the course students will practice it.

My modest proposal is this: Let’s start talking with our students about critical thinking, helping them understand what it is in our discipline. Let’s identify on the syllabus assignments that promote critical thinking (CT, like a menu’s chili pepper alert?), and let’s share with students criteria for evaluating critical thinking. Let’s introduce assignments by saying, “This assignment is going to challenge your critical thinking because you’ll need to x, y, and z.” After a good class discussion, we can ask students to call out the critical thinking they heard and then fine tune their findings. We can make it okay for students to ask, “Was that critical thinking?” Answering that question requires critical thinking!

There is, of course, debate about the definition of critical thinking, and there are multiple meanings in circulation as well as multiple teaching strategies.

The OSU Learning Goals for Graduates defines critical thinking like this: “As an OSU graduate, you will evaluate and synthesize information from multiple sources and perspectives to make informed decisions and solve problems; you will exhibit intellectual curiosity, including the disposition and ability to engage in evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking.”

Barry Beyer identifies ten cognitive operations that can be used individually or combined for critical thinking:

  1. Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
  2. Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, or reasons
  3. Determining the factual accuracy of a statement
  4. Determining the credibility of a source
  5. Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
  6. Identifying unstated assumptions
  7. Detecting bias
  8. Recognizing logical fallacies
  9. Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning
  10. Determining the strength of an argument or claim (Beyer 57)

As teachers of Writing Intensive courses as well as other courses know, formal and informal writing can be a powerful tool for critical thinking. The 2014 document Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing includes the following discussion and suggestions for teaching critical thinking through writing, reading, and research.

“Critical thinking is the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis. . . .

Teachers can help writers develop critical thinking by providing opportunities and guidance for students to

  • read texts from multiple points of view (e.g., sympathetic to a writer’s position and critical of it) and in ways that are appropriate to the academic discipline or other contexts where the texts are being used;
  • write about texts for multiple purposes including (but not limited to) interpretation, synthesis, response, summary, critique, and analysis;
  • craft written responses to texts that put the writer’s ideas in conversation with those in a text in ways that are appropriate to the academic discipline or context;
  • create multiple kinds of texts to extend and synthesize their thinking (e.g., analytic essays, scripts, brochures, short stories, graphic narratives);
  • evaluate sources for credibility, bias, quality of evidence, and quality of reasoning;
  • conduct primary and secondary research using a variety of print and nonprint sources;
  • write texts for various audiences and purposes that are informed by research (e.g., to support ideas or positions, to illustrate alternative perspectives, to provide additional contexts); and
  • generate questions to guide research” (Framework)

To further the discussion of critical thinking across the curriculum, we include in this issue excepts from, “Critical Thinking: Multiple Models for Teaching and Learning,” an article published in this publication in 2004 in which Aubrae Vanderpool and Tracy Ann Robinson provided an overview of research on critical thinking at that time. Apologies ahead of time for the fact that some of the internet links cited are no longer active. Nevertheless, the article provides helpful models and suggestions.

I propose that we make 2017-18 the Year of Critical Thinking. You will see more about critical thinking in this publication and in WIC events ahead. What would help you in teaching for critical thinking? In using writing to teach critical thinking?  Please send your ideas to .

Works Cited

Beyer, Barry. Developing a Thinking Skills Program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. 2011.






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