How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills: Can it be Taught?

Critical thinking is considered to be one of the most important skills in today's world. It is a crucial skill to have in both academic and career pursuits. Whether you are solving a word problem on a test, or performing brain surgery, an ability to analyze and problem solve is essential. Critical thinking requires the individual to evaluate a question or situation, and dissect each aspect, leading to a possible answer or decision (Bezanilla et al., 2019) 

 Critical thinking skills include:

  • Observing 
  • Analyzing 
  • Organization 
  • Inference 
  • Problem-solving 
  • Decision making


 In today's educational system, there is more of an emphasis on students' critical thinking skills, as it leads to a higher level of understanding, and ability to problem-solve, regardless of the topic. (Bezanilla et al., 2019) Professors struggle with knowing how to improve critical thinking skills in students, and students struggle with finding the tools required for this deeper level of analysis. 


It is difficult to say whether or not critical thinking can be taught, but it is safe to say it can be acquired. There is not a 5 step process in order to become a critical thinker. However, critical thinking is achieved through a variety of channels that require students to actively engage in a deeper level of thinking and analysis. Kritik offers many channels in which students are able to exercise and build on their critical thinking skills. In this article, we provide the Kritik guide for how to develop critical thinking skills in your teaching pedagogy. 


The benefits of peer to peer evaluation 

Peer evaluation has become increasingly popular in educational institutions in recent years. The benefits of peer evaluation are clear, as students are given the freedom to engage in the assessment process. Kritik is a peer to peer evaluation platform that allows students to anonymously evaluate their classmates' work based on a unique rubric created by the instructor. 


When students evaluate each other's work, it introduces two important components of critical thinking.. First, it gives the student the opportunity to exercise their analytical skills. By analyzing the work based on the rubric, it offers them the questions “How” “where”, and “what” (Shpeizer, 2018). Rubrics are a great tool in fostering critical thinking because the criteria typically assess different levels of critical thinking (pertaining more for subjective courses), which makes students more aware of what each level should look like. They will have to make the connection between their peers' work and the rubric, forcing them to analyze the work through a unique lens. 


The second benefit is that it gives the student a chance to re-think their own work. Thinking usually stops once the student hits submit, however, with peer to peer evaluation, it gives them a second opportunity to think about their work.They may start to question whether or not they implemented a certain criteria or if they could have done it better, and how. They will also get a sense of how they are being critically evaluated, and take that with them in their next assignment. Peer evaluations may point out flaws in their own work that they otherwise wouldn't have noticed .It also allows them to see a different perspective on the same topic, which may or may not change their own views, but enhance them.  


Feedback 

 Feedback is the last step in the peer assessment feature. Our one-of-a-kind feedback-on-feedback feature works in two ways, as students give and receive feedback on feedback. First, students evaluate the feedback they have received from their peers' evaluation of their work. Kritik provides a rating scale in which students are able to rank how critical and motivational their peers' evaluation is. This helps the student to analyze the level of critical thinking and thought that went into their peers evaluations. In turn, this helps them to understand what constructive and critical evaluations look like, and implement these practices into their own peer evaluations. 


Secondly, students will receive feedback on their feedback. By seeing how their feedback has helped their peers, this will motivate them to provide even more critical feedback in the future. If they do not receive positive feedback on their feedback, kritiks platform provides online resources for the student to use to take a look at, and learn how to better structure their evaluations. Students receive a feedback score throughout the semester, incentivising them to use a higher level of critical thinking when participating in feedback, in order to get a high score.  Overall, the feedback feature works to build critical thinking skills in students through a non-traditional practice, yet still focusing on analytical and evaluation skills. 


Online Discussions 

Discussions are an effective way to foster critical thinking. When we discuss either in real life or online, we engage in a meaningful conversation, sharing and analyzing ideas. Our discussion feature allows both students and professors to post a question, and discuss answers and opinions, forcing deeper thought. When students post a question pertaining to a specific topic or issue, this gives them the opportunity to think of a meaningful question, going beyond the obvious assumptions. This gets the student to think of the possible answers and defences that can arise. 


By students engaging with one another in these discussions, it allows them to reflect on not only the question, but their peers' answer. They are able to not only form their own opinion and response, but explain why and how they have arrived at their answer. Having to discuss an answer forces the student to think deeper on the “whys” and hows”, and ultimately gets them to look back on their thought process (Shpeizer, 2018). The thought process is important because it tells us how we have arrived at an answer, and this can be important in terms of logic and reasoning. Consistent engagement in the discussions will also generate new ideas and form new opinions from students, allowing them to see possibilities that they may have missed. This is important as seeing new perspectives can be taken into other assignments and even other classes. Overall, it expands their knowledge. 


Critical thinking through writing 

Discussions also exercise writing skills. Writing skills are vital in critical thinking as being able to explain complex thoughts and ideas through written communication shows effective use of a deeper level of thinking and thought organization (Shpeizer, 2018). Online discussions are a great way to build on this skill as students constantly bounce back and forth with one another, analyzing each other's perspectives and sharing their own via writing. 



Team based learning - Encouraging critical thinking through student collaboration 

Group work has always been an interesting task for students. It involves solving problems with a group of students you may, or may not know so well. There is typically the leader and the followers, leaving very little room for real collaboration. However, Kritiks team based learning feature allows students to collaborate with their group members in a way that fosters meaningful conversations and critical thinking. Either by the professor or kritiks platform, students will be placed into groups with various skills and backgrounds, and remain in the same group for the duration of the semester. With a variation  amongst the students, this allows for each student to see a variety of viewpoints and be evaluated at a high average skill level. By seeing different perspectives on a topic, it gives each student the opportunity to critically think about their group members' responses, and how they came to those conclusions. This can spark new ideas and reinvent old ones. Group work also challenges students (McInerney, 2003) . With various perspectives will come opposing opinions, which will have students conversing about their view point and why they stand where they do. They will build on effective communication skills whilst explaining their perspectives in a logical format. Having a group with different skills allows for students to experience several skill sets which is an opportunity for exposure and learning, but also take note of what they need to work on.



Preparing students for the professional world

The future of critical thinking is bright. Critical thinking practices that are implemented in school prepares the student for life after, and the challenges they may face. Critical thinking will start to become less of a challenge, and more of an immediate reaction to tough problems and situations. 

Students will have an easier time facing challenges in the professional world, ultimately giving them better opportunities, and a higher chance of success (Shpeizer, 2018).

Questions to Encourage Critical Thinking

Here are a few questions that prompt students, teaching them how to develop critical thinking skills.

  • How do you know this? 
  • How would your perspective be different, if you identified with the opposing side? 
  • Why does this matter?
  • Can you provide an example? 
  • How does X effect/apply to Y? 

McInerney, M. J., & Fink, L. D. (2003). Team-based learning enhances long-term retention and critical thinking in an undergraduate microbial physiology course. Microbiology education, 4, 3–12.

Shpeizer, R. (2018). Teaching critical thinking as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. Research in Education, 100(1), 32–49


Bezanilla, MJ., Fernández-Nogueira, D., Poblete, M., & Galindo-Domínguez, H. (2019). Methodologies for Teaching-Learning Critical Thinking in Higher Education: The Teachers View. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 33.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2019.100584.

Madison Tsoutsoulas
Education Researcher

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