Integrating Critical Thinking into the Curriculum

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

Critical Thinking and the College Curriculum

Improving students' critical thinking is a vital aspect of undergraduate instruction, as scholars in both private and public sectors have observed. (Arum & Roska, 2011; Hart Research Associates; 2008 and 2013; Spellings, 2006).Critical thinking is a multi-faceted concept that is valued in undergraduate education in at least three cardinal ways:

  1. The capacity to think critically is valued in traditional liberal arts education as it helps individuals think broadly about the human condition, appreciate the esthetic aspects of life, and cultivates civility, slowness to judgment, and moral conduct (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2013; Ferrall, 2011).
  2. Critical thinking is also valued in professional training wherein individuals must make clinical decisions such as those in the fields of nursing and health care (Benner, et. al. 2010; Higgs, 2008).
  3. Critical thinking is valued as a form of formal logic that prepares individuals for careers as philosophers and teachers of philosophy (Salmon, 2013).

This tutorial will explore:

Defining Critical Thinking

While there are multiple definitions for critical thinking, there exists a consensus on the idea that critical thinking is a willed, cognitive activity dedicated to making reasoned judgments by conducting analysis and by monitoring our own thought processes and emotional responses (Brookfield, 1987; Ennis, 1964). In a 1991 Delphi Study (Facione, 1991), experts concurred that good critical thinking included the cognitive skills in 1) interpretation, 2) analysis, 3) evaluation, 4) inference, 5) explanation, and 6) self-regulation. The study also declared:

There is a consensus that one might improve one’s own critical thinking in several ways. The experts agree that one could critically examine and evaluate one’s own reasoning process. One could learn how to think more objectively and logically. One could expand one’s repertoire of those more specialized procedures and criteria used in different forms of human thought and inquiry. One could increase one’s base of information and life experiences.

Paul and Elder (2011) declare that critical thinkers routinely explore eight elements of critical thinking:

  1. The purpose of assertions
  2. The question at Issue
  3. The Information required to assess the quality assertions
  4. The interpretation of assertions and their inferences
  5. The concepts involved in understanding assertions
  6. The assumptions contained in assertions or their interpretations
  7. The potential consequences of assertions
  8. The point of view of those making assertions and their alternatives

Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

Some have argued that there are general cognitive skills and strategies that can be applied in various domains and that transfer readily from discipline to discipline and subject to subject (Ennis, 1989), while other insist that others claim that critical thinking can only be taught in the context of a particular subject as there are many different ways to think critically and unique facets to discrete subjects (Peck, 1990). For a century, research on the topic of knowledge transfer has embraced the idea that knowledge—including procedural and conditional— does not transfer automatically from studies in one domain to the next, which suggests that if knowledge is to transfer from one domain to the next, instructors must explicitly prompt and guide students’ thinking (Perkins & Solomon, 1989).

Noteworthy is the fact that students who think critically in one subject often perform the same cognitive tasks as they perform in other subjects, which indicates that although each discipline might have its own unique approach to critical thought with its unique benchmarks distinguishing high levels of scholarship and proficiency from the low levels, some elements of critical thinking have defied the gravity of subject specificity and orbit around many subjects (Paul & Elder, 2011). The logic that at least some elements of critical thinking are rather universal is reflected in the logic that educators expect that after they graduate, students will apply critical thinking skills to problems they have never before faced (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007; Halpern, 1998). In addition, critical thinking is at the core of literacy and reading comprehension skills, and in turn, these skills are at the heart of education at all levels (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001; Beck & Carpenter, 1986).

Critical thinking has been integrated across the college curricula in liberal arts and vocational programs alike as research indicates:

  • Adams, M. H., Whitlow, J. F., Stover, L. M., & Johnson, K. W. (1996). Critical thinking as an educational outcome: An evaluation of current tools of measurement. Nurse Educator, 21(3), 23-32.
  • Brown, K., & Rutter, L. (2008). Critical thinking for social work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Gorzycki, M. Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2013). Historical Thinking. Bringing critical thinking explicitly into the heart of historical study. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Siller, T. J. (2001). Sustainability and critical thinking in civil engineering curriculum. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 127(3), 104-108.
  • Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Life Science Education, 11, 113-120.

How to Integrate Critical Thinking into the Course

  1. Introduce students to scientific methods used in the discipline, the standards against which the veracity of claims are assessed, and dedicate class time to exercises during which students may rehearse their skills and critique their work
  2. Target specific cognitive tasks associated with thinking critically, such as:
    1.  Evaluating the strength of evidence offered for claims in various reports, studies, or editorials
    2.  Identifying the implications of assertions or actions
    3.  Detecting the bias of assertions and evaluating the merit of alternative points of view
    4.  Reviewing one’s or one’s peer’s composition to critique the clarity, logic, and organization of text
    5. Comparing and contrasting two or more sources addressing the same idea, event, or issue
    6. Identify and test the assumptions embedded in certain beliefs or attitudes related to civic or personal life
  3. Dedicate class time to address the differences between exemplary and mediocre thinking and engage students in activities that will help them improve their sensitivity to the quality of their own thinking

Table 1 illustrates how critical thinking tasks may be integrated into reading assignments. As the table suggests, there are elements of critical thinking and cognitive tasks that are associated with high level thinking that are common to multiple disciplines.

Table 1: Integrating Critical Thinking Tasks into Reading Assignments in History, Health Education, and Chemistry



Health Education


Identify author's purpose

What was the Suetonius' purpose for composing the "Lives of the 12 Caesars" and how might his intentions have influenced his work?

What was the purpose of the study of air quality conducted by the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, 2010? What issue in particular motivated researchers to examine air quality?

Describe the purpose of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change's report (2013) and how it might have influenced its assertions

Assess the quality of evidence used to support claims

Identify three key conclusions drawn by Barbara Tuckman in "The Guns of August" and argue whether they are sufficiently supported with facts and thorough analysis and interpretation

Identify the assertions made about smoking in Bartecchi and MacKenzie (1994) and determine whether the evidence for them was based on sufficient research of sufficient numbers and types of populations

Identify the central claim regarding the chemical foundations of depression in Lebowirz, et. al. "Fixable or Fate?"(2013) and determine whether their conclusions are adequately supported

Describe the significance of the author's assertions

Describe the significance of statements made about China in the  of the Treaty of Nanjing, 1839

Describe the significance of research conducted by Kim and Chang (2011) on the relationship between obesity in children and sugar intake; what are the short and long-term implications of the study?

Describe the significance of Rosebaum & Leibel's conclusions in "Brain Reorganization and Weight Loss" (2012) with special attention to the weight management of children under age 18

Assess the accuracy of the author's assertions

Assess the accuracy of Falah's description of the causes of Arab-Israeli conflict as presented in "The 1948 Israeli-Palestinian War and its aftermath" (1996). 

Identify the evidence offered to support the accuracy of the Centers for Disease Control's 2010 study of the prevention of Hepatitis B and compare it to three other studies

Describe the accuracy of claims made in Bostrom, et. al. (2012) Oxadiazoles in medicinal chemistry and identify the steps required to verify findings

Identify alternative perspectives to those offered by the author and explain why these may be credible

Compare Posner's thesis (1993) about the assassination of John F. Kennedy with those of  Crenshaw (1992), Lane (2011), and McBride (2013) and and determine which author has made a more credible argument

Compare and contrast the assertions in Baggett, et. al (2010) regarding the unmet health care needs of the homeless with the assertions in Samuels (2011) and Kulik (2011); identify the elements that make assertions credible and which cause the reader to question the potential bias of reporting

Identify Barron's (2012, Ecological impacts of deep water horizon oil spill: implications for immunotoxicity) perspective and assertions regarding toxicity resulting from oil spills in oceanic environments and  alternative perspectives and conclusions

Identify the implications of assertions

Identify the implications of McNamara's observations and assertions in "The Fog of War" (2004) on the current war on terrorism

Identify the implications of the findings of Meridith, et. al, (2013) regarding caffeine use as they regard public policy, child-rearing and schools

Identify the implications fo findings in Zhang, et. al. (2012) A review of sample preparation methods for the pesticide residue analysis in foods.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is:

  • Predicated on the belief that humanity has a moral purpose and is endowed with reason that makes discernment and scientific inquiry into the good possible (Chesters, 2012).
  • A form of dialogue that aims to expose faulty logic and reasoning made weak by emotions and impulsiveness According to Robert Reich, Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, (1998), there are four fundamental principles embodied in the Socratic Method:
  1. The Socratic method is open-ended; it is not a conversation that is steered in a particular direction to arrive upon a single conclusion or consensus, it fostered respect for ambiguity and complexity, and its direction was organic, following whatever line of thought occurred to participants
  2. Teachers and students are participants in the Socratic Method; both raise questions, both are challenged to clarify and justify their assertions
  3. As used by Socrates and many of his protégé, the Socratic method was first concerned with the moral life and with exploring what it meant to live rightly and abide by goodness
  4. The Socratic Method regarded the classroom as an environment in which conflict was inevitable and in which students expected that the instructor would argue with students and perhaps routinely shame them by exposing flaws in their perception, judgment, or reasoning, for the purpose of replacing cluttered and reactionary thinking with sound habits of deliberation, inquiry, and reasoning

 The Socratic Method can be adapted to promote critical thinking, oral communication skills, and writing skills.  Here are some examples:

  • When explicitly taught and modeled by instructors and students, Socratic questioning in asynchronous discussion forums in online courses improves the quality of critical thinking represented in forum postings (Yang, Newby, Bill, 2005).
  • Case studies in online courses and traditional courses stimulate students’ interest by using actual events to prompt analysis and problem-solving. By cross examining solutions, students and instructors may explore the depth of students;’ understanding of stakeholders and their interests, the law, ethics, and alternative solutions (Brooke, 2006).
  • The online forum presents an opportunity to foster more in-depth discussion than traditional class time as the conversation online may continue beyond the limits of class meetings and may simultaneously involve multiple participants. As a guide in discussions, the instructor may direct and re-direct students thinking and corral their reasoning in ways that target the higher level cognitive skills as represented by Bloom’s taxonomy (Whitely, 2006).
  • Being prepared to participate in lessons wherein the Socratic Method is used requires students to learn to think as does the master, which means that they must learn to raise questions as they read and prepare themselves for class (Heeren, 1990). By prompting students to generate questions based on their reading or other activities, instructors may explicitly direct students’ attention to the fact that scholars routinely consider the assumptions embedded in assertions, the potential biases and lacunae of statements, inferences, accuracy of claims, and alternative views.


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Additional Resources