How to Improve Student Critical Thinking Skills

  (Updated August 25, 2022)
Victoria Donohue and Kelly Muic
Victoria Donohue and Kelly Muic
Victoria Donohue: High school math teacher; M.Ed. Curriculum and Instructional Technology and Administrative Leadership — Kelly Muic: Grade school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership and Administration, Point Park University, PA
A thoughtful young girl thinks, spray painted gears on the wall behind her head to symbolize complex thinking.

Why are Student Critical Thinking Skills So Essential?

There are many skills that are essential for students to have in order to better themselves and their learning. Many of these skills should be taught at an early age and practiced as they grow and develop. Skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking are vital to students inside and outside the classroom.

Critical thinking skills are especially important for students to develop. Students need critical thinking skills in many situations such as trying to solve a math problem, figuring out the best way to go from their house to work, or solving any type of puzzle.

These skills are essential to help students learn:

So, how do you know if critical thinking is happening in your classroom? Some of the most obvious ways you will know if your students have acquired this skill would be the following observable actions.

  • Students ask deep probing questions about a topic. They connect novel ideas to background knowledge.
  • Students identify and understand the importance of a topic as well as acknowledge the inconsistencies in a theory or explanation.
  • Students can create a rational and sensible argument about a topic and use reflective thinking often and with ease. When students use critical thinking skills, they are able to systematically apply creative problem solving that assists in selecting the soundest decision.

Discussions/Debate

Class discussions are an important method in developing students’ critical thinking skills. Providing students with a safe forum in which to express their thoughts and ideas empowers them to think deeply about issues and vocalize their thoughts. For example, an English teacher might provide pre-reading exercises for students to complete for homework.

These questions can then be used as a springboard to generate a group discussion. To challenge the students more, the questions could be controversial in nature to allow for passionate students to think critically on an issue as they express their ideas.

For instance, before teaching Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, the teacher may ask questions like:

  • Are there are times when euthanasia (mercy killing) is justified?
  • Is it more socially acceptable for females to love their female friends than it is for males to love their male friends?

While these questions ultimately are relevant to the text, before reading the novel, students must interpret these questions from a personal standpoint and evaluate their own feelings and philosophies.

Once the students complete the questions, there can be a class discussion or debate on each topic. For the discussion to succeed, the teacher must be an impartial facilitator to their discussion, often playing the proverbial “devil’s advocate” to keep the conversation dynamic and engaging. This discussion approach allows students to not only voice their opinions but also to hear the opinions of their classmates and further assess their own understanding of the topics.

This method allows for critical thinking both before the exercise as students complete the questions and then during the exercise as they debate their classmates in a group dynamic. In addition, the questions posed for the group discussion lead directly to another tool for developing critical thinking skills: making real-world connections.

Real-World Connections

It is imperative as a teacher to push students to make real-world and personal connections to the material being covered. If students make these connections, they are more invested in the subject matter and more inclined to analyze and think critically about their work.

As an example, a teacher may take a text written 80 years ago and ask the students to modernize the work; they can keep the same themes and conflicts yet bring the work to a modern-day setting. This exercise allows students to better relate to the text and understand how they might react if put into the same situations as many characters.

Another example is asking students to identify specific mathematical topics in areas in their lives that do not include the classroom. Something such as slope can be identified with how students can go from one floor of the school building to the next. Geometric figures are demonstrated with any building that exists. Specific mathematical or physical laws can happen at any point of their lives.

When students are able to identify these instances, it helps them to make a better connection to the learning. These connections force students to examine and analyze on a more critical level because suddenly the material is much more relatable. These real-world connections challenge students to develop the vital critical thinking skills.

Has the Pandemic Affected Student Critical Thinking Skills?

After navigating through two years of the pandemic, students need to develop critical thinking skills now more than ever. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is no substitute for in-person classroom instruction. As a result of online learning, many students lost the ability to think critically as many of the assignments didn’t allow for that type of learning.

In many ways, students forgot how to be students, and teachers forgot how to be teachers. With the height of the pandemic now behind us, it is imperative that we rebuild critical thinking skills and again teach students how to approach material in an analytical sense.

How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills in Students

Teachers can challenge their students to discover information about the topic being discussed and gain pre-knowledge as mentioned in the example above. Suppose students can access knowledge prior to the lesson or learning new content. In that case, it can help them to develop the necessary skills for the lesson as well as give them the confidence to learn and practice the newest material. This helps to develop their critical thinking as well as have a better connection to the content.

There are many ways that teachers can help develop student critical thinking skills.

Safe Learning Environments

One of the ways is to create a safe learning place in which students feel comfortable to ask questions. When students ask questions, it helps them to better understand the content and analyze the information better.

Active Participation

Another way that students can develop their critical thinking skills is to be active participants in the lesson and help to collaborate. If a teacher can create an atmosphere where the students work together, participate in the learning, and learn from one another, then students can begin to develop these skills.

Connections with Previous Knowledge

Students can use prior knowledge from previously learned material to make connections to the present topics. If students can build off what they already know and apply it to what they are currently learning, it can help them to see the connections as well as analyze the newest information. Students, also, can work backwards to solve problems. Students can take the question, example, and the answer and work backwards to discover how to go from the start to the end.

Mistakes and Learning from Them

Although some teachers do not like to give the answers to students, this process can actually help them to evaluate the problem better and to learn how to solve it moving forward. One last way students can help develop their critical thinking skills is to take chances, use the guess-and-check method when in doubt, and just try to discover a possible solution. So often, students want to be right, and they want to know that they are right; this happens often at the secondary level.

Many of these students are scared to fail and do not want to take risks. Teaching students that it is okay to explore and make mistakes can help them improve their critical thinking skills and confidence. Life is about discovering and exploring and when the students understand that those are important skills to have in life, it can help them to analyze better within the classroom setting.

Instructional Strategies

Think about the instructional strategies that you use most often — I am referring to your “go to” tools in your toolbox of instructional strategies. Do these strategies develop deeper learning competencies in your students? For instance, do your students have opportunities to use student choice and voice when working on assignments? Students should be able to create their own projects, define goals, develop their learning plan, and communicate their achievements to a broader audience.

When students can make choices and direct their own learning, they become more dedicated and engaged students. An instructional strategy that develops deeper learning competencies (especially critical thinking) is project-based learning.

Student critical thinking skills are many of the important skills they should develop to help them in different aspects of their lives. Through being challenged and encouraged to take different approaches, students can begin to learn and develop these skills. Through learning how these skills can be applied in the classroom as well as the real-world, it helps them to understand better. This not only helps them within the classroom setting but also for life after school.

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