Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking
Everyone from administrators to employers is calling for better critical thinking in today’s college graduates. It’s tempting to think critical thinking will just happen as students make their way through our classes. However, if we don’t specifically teach students to use critical thinking strategies, our students will not necessarily gain these skills in our classes. To be sure students develop these skills, we have to be intentional and strategic about teaching them. For Politics and Government professor, Jim Moore, this work begins at the very beginning. Each August, Jim gets twenty new freshmen in his First Year Seminar course, and he is determined to help them develop critical thinking skills that will be a foundation for upper-level coursework and the world beyond Pacific.
Jim teaches critical thinking intentionally as a discrete skill, and his approach to teaching critical thinking drives from one key premise: critical thinking is developmental. Through a process of cognitive development and brain maturation, students become capable of higher and more sophisticated kinds of critical thinking. Critical thinking is not a skill you can force, but it is one you can foster. In Jim’s classes, this is achieved by two key components: Tools and Practice.
In order for students to understand and eventually engage in academic discourse about a topic, they need tools. In Jim’s courses, those tools are theoretical frameworks, like Dialectical Theory, for example, or Liberal Idealism. If a student can look at a particular political figure, a historical event, or some other phenomenon through a theoretical lens, they are not just expressing their personal opinions about the topic. Instead they are analyzing the topic and talking about that analysis, rather than their own feelings. Jim finds that this positions students to be objective thinkers engaged in intellectual discourse, as opposed to individuals arguing with others with whom they disagree.
But the ability to use theoretical frameworks as analytical tools does not happen overnight–it is a developed skill, so Jim provides students many opportunities to practice. The technique Jim has developed for this practice is something he calls an SSA – Summary, Synthesis, Analysis. After a learning experience (reading an article, attending an event, viewing a file) compose a short write-up, an SSA, for that learning experience. They begin by writing a brief Summary of the experience, which is usually a familiar task for students. Then they write a Synthesis connecting that learning experience to other things they have read or experienced. Synthesis tends to be more difficult than summary, but not as challenging as the Analysis section, in which Jim expects the students to apply theoretical frameworks they’ve learned about in class to a text or an experience. It takes a long time to develop effective analytical skills, so Jim doesn’t expect college Freshmen to be good at analysis right away, but using analytical frameworks helps students get there faster. Jim also gives them feedback on their SSA write-ups as they go along, and that helps, too.
The goal, ultimately, is to help our students develop into scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and citizens who can do the critical thinking required to innovate solutions and navigate the challenges of a complex future.