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What Is Critical Thinking and How Do We Learn To Do It?

Shannon Hensley
Department of Philosophy
Claremont Graduate University
March 2002


Have you ever wondered how certain students in your classes manage to ace essay exams? Your essays look comparable, so why does the instructor give you 'C's? Are instructors horribly subjective in their grading or do they hide from you what they really want out of your writing? As a philosopher, I believe this issue is directly related to "critical thinking." Our critical thinking skills are represented in the papers we write and are often much different than good argumentation skills. My research explores what critical thinking skills are and how we acquire such skills.

Critical thinking has been defined as the ability to select pertinent information for problem solving and to formulate promising hypotheses. Such skills include the ability to identify, explore, prioritize, and integrate information. In other words, critical thinking skills are what we use when we are confronted with new information and acquire new knowledge. Critical thinking as an activity includes information management as well as problem solving. The main question I hope to answer is how people learn or acquire these skills. A better theory of how this happens will enable instructors to create classroom experiences that are geared toward such acquisition, which will reflect in students' later course work.

I have adopted a developmental psychology model for my research. Developmental theories share the basic assumption that people develop through stages, the lower stages being more simplistic and the higher stages being more complex. In fact, studies show patterns among students in how they approach new knowledge. For example, at one extreme, students believe that the world is full of specific right answers. These students tend to approach the classroom as if it were the teacher's job to give students correct answers. At the other extreme, students believe that knowledge is something individuals construct or create and the instructor is there to guide students rather than dictate correct answers.

Students at different levels of intellectual development also have different ideas of what knowledge is. The student's idea of what knowledge is will effect how she approaches learning new information. If a person believes knowledge is something that is absolutely out there in the world, then she will engage with that knowledge using certain critical thinking skills. She probably will not believe that she creates or constructs new knowledge. These students perform better on exams that ask them to reiterate information from textbooks or lectures than on exams that require students to compare or synthesize information.

My project addresses a number of issues that arise from developmental models and the scholars who have adapted them. Some educators at the post-secondary level use the model to figure out where their students are intellectually and then customize their teaching methods to meet the needs of the majority of the learners in the class. These people typically do not believe that an educator can advance students along the scale. However, I argue that if a student understands the complexity of critical thinking skills at the beginning of his college career, then he will have a better chance of advancing along the scale and becoming a life-long learner.

This project also addresses whether men and women acquire critical thinking skills differently. Because early studies interviewed only men, recent studies have sought to find out whether the stages could be generalized to a wider population. Some of these studies found that women tend to fall within stages that exemplify lower intellectual ability. I argue many cultures constrain a woman's approach to knowledge. However, rather than embrace such an approach, educators should be teaching critical thinking skills that encourage and foster more complex intellectual ability. This way the gender difference becomes a non-issue. Anyone, male or female, can move from being a student who reiterates textbook knowledge to a student who creates her own knowledge.

Finally, I propose a new critical thinking curriculum for the post-secondary level. Critical thinking across the disciplines is a challenge for students because educators typically do not agree on what it means to think critically. Agreement among instructors will be easier to establish when they are approached with a tenable theory. I use my theory of how we acquire critical thinking skills to develop critical thinking courses that will be of greater benefit to students than current ones.