How to encourage the habit of critical thinking

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In this age of machine learning and automation, critical thinking is one skill that gives people the edge over machines.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what needs to be done and believed. It includes the skill to engage in reflective and independent thinking.

Critical thinkers can understand logical connections between ideas, evaluate arguments and detect inconsistencies. They can also reflect on their justification in order to evaluate beliefs and values.

Critical thinkers are needed now more than ever, to challenge existing ideas and consensus, think ‘outside of the box’, and solve new problems. 

While robots are set to take over many routine tasks, they have a harder time understanding why they do the things they need to do.

Whilst we are all capable of critical thought, this way of thinking is a skill that needs to be called upon and activated. Think of it as a muscle – we need to activate it to develop and use it. 

In this blog, I will suggest seven strategies for teachers and educators to foster the habit of thinking critically in our learners.


1. Prompt moments of critical thinking

Intrinsic motivation can come from knowing how critical thinking, or the lack of, relates to their world and has real repercussions.

Use an example from history (e.g. the Salem Witch trials) or the current world (the increase of ‘fake news’) and have learners think about the importance of asking questions and not jumping to conclusions. Have students find their own examples of misconceptions in their own world that have gone horribly wrong and identify the questions that needed to be asked.

If they can see the value of thinking critically, they are more likely to want to develop critical thought.


2. State clear critical thinking goals for learners

If we want our learners to develop critical thinking skills, make it an explicit part of their desired outcomes and make it transparent. You can learn more about how to write learning outcomes from this post.

Having clear and transparent critical thinking goals will also give learners a clear direction for their learning and allow them to self-assess their own abilities along the way.


3. Use specific activities to practice and infuse critical thinking

Stand-alone explicit teaching of CT is said to have the largest impact on one’s attitudes, dispositions and skills towards CT (Abrami et. al., 2008).

In your course, allocate time to focus explicitly on critical thinking and include activities where learners practice them thoughtfully. An example activity to practice their analytical skills could include students constructing their own multiple choice question about their topic and provide a justified reasoning for it, which their peers can provide feedback on.

Why not have a Critical Thinking club in your course?


4. Create a safe learning environment to ask questions

Not all learners will feel comfortable to ask questions, so it’s important to foster a learning environment where questions are freely invited and encouraged, no matter how simple or silly they might seem. Make it a part of the learning experience!

Consider using an inquiry-based approach where learners learn to ask further questions, search for facts and guide their own conclusions. 

As teachers, we can also model an inquisitive attitude in the way we ask questions. Opt for open-ended rather than closed questions to invite a variety of different responses. Ask learners to think of cause and effect rather than linear event-oriented actions and suggest alternatives.


5. Get students to think about their thinking (metacognition)

Concept maps are a great way to get learners to think about their thinking

All it takes are activities that encourage learners to reflect on what they have learned, evaluate their learning and express their thoughts, either verbally, written or visual. Activities include creating concept maps or flow diagrams, annotations or journal entries.

These activities allow learners to pull their thoughts together, create logical connections and represent them in their own creative and concrete way.


6. Assess for CT skills that demonstrate an ability to think critically.

Having determined that critical thinking skills are a desired outcome for your learners (strategy 2), your assessment will need to be appropriately aligned to allow your learners to authentically demonstrate those skills.

It could be a formal activity like essays, literature reviews, which explicitly focus on deep thinking, analysing information and evaluating information. It could also be debates, panel discussions and presentations where learners have to present their reasoning and justify their ideas.


7. Encourage a culture of feedback

Encouraging the practice of constructive and targeted feedback is a great way to exercise critical thinking skills. Linking feedback to learning objectives, making it specific, timely and reflecting on the feedback received is the key. You could read more on peer feedback here.

In turn, reflecting on feedback can allow learners to see things they couldn’t see themselves and improve their own thinking.

Although you  may use some of these strategies already, do you think there are ways to make them more inclined towards critical thinking? Share your ideas in the comments below!



Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D.

(2008). Instructional Interventions Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A

Stage 1 Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.


Robert H. Ennis (1993) Critical thinking assessment, Theory Into Practice, 32:3, 179-186, DOI: 10.1080/00405849309543594

The Foundation for Critical Thinking

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