How to Teach Critical Thinking to College Students


Feb 26, 2023
How to Teach Critical Thinking to College Students

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The complex and wonderful aspect of teaching critical thinking is there are endless ways to execute it. Teachers can instruct critical thinking strategies through any discipline by encouraging agency and curiosity in the classroom. How to teach critical thinking to college students isn’t complex — it’s all talk.

Learning how to teach critical thinking to college students specifically opens possibilities for thought experimentation and innovation in a student’s chosen field. So, how can teachers push students to think critically naturally? Follow these steps in a safe discussion environment to see how college students can thrive intellectually. 

Making Students Explain How Concepts Work

Though it’s a teacher’s job to ask students questions, sometimes this eliminates part of the learning process. The question may contain a foundation a student understands but not one wholly representative of the subject matter. For example, asking literature students how a motif in fiction represents feminism can’t be answered thoughtfully without understanding feminism.

Therefore, before diving into tangentially related concepts — where you may have assumed the students have equal understanding — make them explain ideas and their inner workings. Just as teaching a subject helps teachers better understand the topic themselves, having students more deeply unfurl concepts will allow them to stretch what the concept contains.

In the above example, ask students what feminism means and how it works in society. It may reveal students from different backgrounds and experiences associate seemingly unrelated concepts to feminism, such as the environment or poverty. As they explain, they must provide evidence for why these connections matter — not only expanding their critical thinking, but introducing new connections to other students who never would have thought that way.

A strategy like this also opens the door for more discourse — opposing ideas, patterns, and connections create more pathways to think more critically about everything from the point of archaeology to why calculus exists. Vague concepts like that beg college students to think critically since human minds attempt to overcome assumptions for intangible topics, especially social or political issues.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Start discussions by asking why. Why is something happening? Why is it important? Why does it matter if this person conveys the thought? Then, you can move into asking more open-ended questions. What else or what if? How do we not see the whole picture? Where is this thought coming from? The beauty of these kinds of questions is they yield countless responses.

Much like asking students to explain concepts, asking open-ended questions introduces new perspectives to the discussion. However, asking the questions prompts more varieties of thinking surrounding topics students may need more experience with. 

For college students studying history, it’s common to ask where and when events occurred — they rarely expect professors to ask why modern historians highlight certain figures or events. You could also ask them how we see historical events trickle into the modern age.

The best way to foster open-ended discussions for critical thinking is to promote the idea there are no wrong answers so long as they’re supported by solid argumentation. Encourage creativity and students to defend sides against their preconceived notions by brainstorming with other students or using technology to interact with new concepts. 

Define Fallacies in Argumentation

Critical thinking cannot bloom in a college setting unless students understand the limits of critical thinking, including fallacies. Do your students know what is a trustworthy source and when to question their validity? Can they analyze an article with a fine-toothed comb, picking facts worth noting versus opinions?

Informing them how to navigate false information disguised as truth will reveal ways for them to be more conscious consumers of media and more analytical of their arguments. Once a trend begins and they pick apart what they read and hear, they can self-reflect on how they speak and argue too.

Defining lapses in critical thinking also includes analyzing personal and global biases. Outline the links between how everything influences their ability to think critically, such as:

  • Personalities
  • Upbringing
  • Behaviors
  • Environment
  • Media consumption

Once students recognize the negative affectors of argumentation, critical thinking can shine as poor writing, and speaking practices dissolve for more productive discussion.

Critical Thinking is a Teachable Skill

Have you ever wondered how to teach critical thinking to college students? Unsurprisingly, it’s all about communication and trust. Let students witness other perspectives in motion to learn to unravel complex and foreign ideas. Teaching critical thinking this way will nourish minds that challenge norms and progress humanity toward a more empathetic future.

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