How to Improve Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Kelly Muic
Kelly Muic
Grade school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership and Administration, Point Park University, PA
Pondering woman in front of a chalkboard with lightbulbs and ‘critical thinking’ on it.

What are Critical Thinking Skills?

Critical thinking is one of the most valuable life skills a person can possess. It is the ability to think logically, clearly, and rationally. Critical thinking is actually a mindset used to reason and reflect in a systematic way. It enables us to think about a topic in an objective and critical manner, helping us to understand various points of view. For teachers, it serves as the hallmark of knowing when students shift from dependent learning to independent learning, something we all want our students to be able to do.

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 most sound decision.

Why are Critical Thinking Skills Important for Students?

Our lives are full of events that involve non-stop problem solving and decision making. We are inundated with information from various media outlets and social media platforms. What is the best car to buy? Who should I vote for? People need to know how to sift through all this information and decide what are reliable and credible sources of information to use in their daily lives. And we want to be able to do this in a thoughtful and logical manner.

Critical thinking enables us to analyze, interpret, reflect, evaluate, infer, and explain information to be able to solve problems and make decisions. That is why critical thinking is an essential component of deeper learning. Deeper learning can be described as the capacity for learning how to learn (Martinez & McGrath, 2014). In order to achieve deeper learning, students must develop certain competencies: mastery of essential academic content, work collaboratively, have an academic mindset, communicate effectively, think critically and solve complex problems, and be self-directed in their education (Alliance for Excellence Education, 2011). When students can think critically and direct their education, they are leading their own learning and will need to continue to do so throughout their life.

How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills in Students

To truly improve and develop critical thinking skills in students, you must commit to an honest reflection of your existing teaching practices. You can begin this journey with a careful analysis of your current instructional strategies, no matter what grade level or subject that you teach.

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 Relationships

Next, think about how well you know your students. Do you know their personalities? Their families and living situations? It is difficult to teach effectively if you do not have a firm understanding of who your students are and what your students know or do not know.

In addition, getting to know your students well greatly assists in differentiating assignments and developing engaging lessons that truly interest your students. In addition, evaluate the climate of your classroom. Is your classroom a safe learning space where students can take risks, make mistakes, and are still able to learn?

Rigor in the Classroom

What is the level of rigor used in your classroom? If you review the tests, quizzes, and assignments you give students, it would be easy to see the level of higher-order thinking that you are requiring of your students. Are assignments and assessments full of memorization-intensive (a.k.a. low level rigor) questions? Simply ask yourself, could anyone with access to the internet search and find the answers? If the answer is yes, the rigor needs to be adjusted. Also, reflect if you assess students on the questions they ask in addition to the answers that they provide.

Student Engagement

The journey continues as you next evaluate who talks the most in your classroom during instructional time. Students should be heard more often if you are promoting independent learning and a student-centered classroom. What kind of talk is happening? Are you lecturing or providing opportunities for student-led discussions? Do students have opportunities to work in small groups or with partners to be able to teach and learn from one another? All of these conditions help develop critical thinking skills.

Now think about this reflective journey of your educational practices. Would you have been able to reflect on your current teaching practices if you did not have critical thinking skills? Critical thinking is an important life skill that everyone needs to develop no matter what path is chosen. As educators, we have successfully accomplished our work when we can easily observe our students as active learners instead of passive recipients of information. That is when we know we have developed critical thinkers.

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2011). A time for deeper learning: Preparing students for a changing world (Policy brief). Retrieved from

Martinez, Monica R. & Mcgrath, Dennis. (2014). Deeper learning: How eight innovative public schools are transforming education in the 21st century. New York, NY: The New Press.

*Updated November, 2020
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