A Method for Teaching Critical Thinking

by Tonia Malone on July 16, 2010

Crit•i•cal think•ing (noun), the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion (Dictionary.com, 2010).

Should undergrads be able to think critically? According to the Cal Poly University Learning Objectives (ULOs), our graduating students need to have this skill.

When students graduate from Cal Poly, they should be able to:

  • Think critically and creatively
  • Communicate effectively
  • Demonstrate expertise in a scholarly discipline and understand that discipline in relation to the larger world of the arts, sciences, and technology
  • Work productively as individuals and in groups
  • Use their knowledge and skills to make a positive contribution to society
  • Make reasoned decisions based on an understanding of ethics, a respect for diversity, and an awareness of issues related to sustainability
  • Engage in lifelong learning

Unfortunately, many undergrads do not have critical thinking skills and need multiple opportunities to practice and master their abilities.

“Unless the pedagogical role of faculty includes modeling, coaching, questioning, reflection, and task structuring, it will be difficult for online discussions to escape the superficiality of classroom talk (MacKnight, 2000).” Faculty do not always have classroom time for discussion that can foster critical thinking, but online discussions can offer additional opportunities for your students to build enduring understanding (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) and critical thinking skills.

If used correctly, an online discussion can allow students to take their ideas to the next level with reflection, collaboration, and peer tutoring. So how do you create an online discussion that can do all this? First, let’s look at the mechanics of a good discussion (Martyn, M. 2005):

  • Require students to participate
  • Require students to reply to other posts
  • Grade student efforts (provide rubrics and netiquette)
  • Involve learning teams
  • Structure discussions
  • Require a hand-in assignment
  • Post open probing questions and scenarios that require learners to use their own experiences
  • Relate the discussion to course objectives

Faculty can create effective online discussions by asking the right questions that focus on analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating (higher level cognitive domain). Faculty must model expected behavior and monitor discussions to encourage the students to go beyond their current knowledge by asking for clarification or elaboration. The student can provide examples, reasons, evidence, assumptions, implications, and consequences related to the question(s).

The discussion can be around a topic covered in class or something the students read. Write questions that probe for reasons and evidence (Richard. P, 1993), such as:

  • What do you mean by _____?
  • How is this related to ______?
  • Could you give an example of _______?
  • What is the evidence of _________?
  • Could you explain your reason for ________?

Have the students answer the questions by a set date, and then require replies from their peers three days later. Make sure to inform the students that their replies must have a number of sentences, reference materials, no texting, and use proper capitalization. Review their posts and correct or provide additional information when needed. Ask the students to subscribe to the forum or thread so that they can continue to participate in the discussion after the required post/replies.

Teaching critical thinking though an online discussion is an important step towards advancing teaching and learning. If you would like to learn more about using the discussion board, please feel free to contact Tonia Malone or Luanne Fose in the CTL for an appointment.



Dictionary.com. 2010.
Retrieved July 15, 2010, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/critical+thinking

ULO’s, 2010.
Retrieved July 15, 2010, from http://www.ulo.calpoly.edu/

MacKnight, C. B. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussion.
Educause Quarterly, Number 4 2000, 38-41.

Wiggins & McTighe, (1998). The Understanding by Design Handbook.
Identifying Enduring Understandings. Chap. 4.

Martyn, M. (2005). Using Interaction in Online Discussion Boards.
Educause Quarterly, Number 4 2005, 61-62.

Richard, P. (1993). Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World
Retrieved July 15, 2010, from http://ed.fnal.gov/trc_new/tutorial/taxonomy.html

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