Confusion about Critical Thinking


Why do students struggle so much with critical thinking? First, critical thinking involves higher-order thinking. It begins with understanding course principles; then it goes several steps beyond this foundation to applying, evaluating, and synthesizing knowledge. Second, critical thinking can be a fuzzy term. For students to be successful, they need to know what kind of analysis is expected, and they need to be skilled at that analysis in the first place.

Point of Confusion: Students see words in an assignment that clearly require some form of analysis or higher-order thinking but are unsure of what that analysis looks like.

For example, any assignment that requires students to make an argument requires at least some level of critical, analytical thinking. Often, students try to let their sources do all the analytical work for them, simply quoting the best phrases of experts. In other cases, students do not pay attention to the subtleties of assignment language. Consider, for example, the different implications of common wording for analytical assignments (analyze, evaluate, examine, discuss, describe, compare, synthesize, consider, reflect, respond, etc.)

Again, clarifying expectations does not require undue faculty time. Some options for heading off this kind of confusion though might include:

  • Name the type(s) of analysis that is required or recommended. Often, this is obvious, as with an exegetical course. In some cases, it may be less obvious to students. If students frequently focus too much on the obvious or lean too much on rehashing others’ positions, it may be worth the time to clarify this in class briefly and direct students to relevant resources.
  • Model this kind of critical thinking and show examples, which might include highlighting how readings demonstrate the thinking students should imitate. The advantage here is that comments on good writing and good analysis can potentially be inserted, very concisely, into existing lectures or discussions about course content.
  • Discuss who uses this type of analysis, when, and why. Reflect on when students may have already seen something like it—or how it differs from their default approaches.
  • Offer informal, low-stakes practice sessions in class or via short assignments.
  • Offer immediate, brief feedback on their initial practice (instead of reserving the lion’s share of feedback for major papers that occur later in a course).
  • Partner with the Writing Center and library to offer students additional practice outside of class.