Strategies that Support the Development of Critical Thinking

Claudia J. Stanny
critical thinking
A brain attuned to the world around it

Critical thinking is hard. Like other important cognitive skills, critical thinking requires practice.  We don’t learn to think critically by memorizing a set of rules. We must practice these skills in a variety of contexts and learn to think critically about a variety of contents (Nelson, 1999). Moreover, because critical thinking creates intellectual and emotional challenges for students, they may resist adopting critical thinking skills, just as they resist other threshold concepts (Land, 2014).

College students often begin their studies as dualist thinkers, who believe that knowledge is certain and learning is a matter of accumulating the corpus of “facts” which authoritative sources determine to be true (Perry, 1970). These students arrive on campus with experiences and expectations about learning that emphasize memorizing and repeating facts without questioning their credibility.

Some students resist thinking critically because dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty is uncomfortable. The notion that scholars accept knowledge tentatively, depending on the current state of evidence, including criteria such as what “counts” as evidence, can be disconcerting, especially for students accustomed to a culture that expects authority to be believed and followed without question.

Critical thinking requires that students evaluate the quality of evidence based on specific disciplinary contexts. They must learn to apply these criteria to specific models and theories. Moreover, students must develop a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Most disconcerting of all, they must determine when to continue using a model known to be “wrong.” For example, Nelson (1999) notes that Newtonian laws of motion make accurate predictions when applied on a small scale but are clearly wrong when applied on a large scale. Students are often puzzled and might even be disturbed when an instructor requires students to learn and apply a model and also tell them that the model is flawed.

Nelson (1999) offers several strategies that instructors can use to overcome these challenges and support student acquisition of critical thinking skills.

  • Confront uncertainty head-on. Devote class time and exam questions to the nature and process of reasoning in the discipline. Discuss the evolution of thought about models and what scholars currently believe in terms of how alternative explanations and perspectives have been evaluated and defended. Make the process of critical thinking in the discipline explicit as part of your discussion of content. Discuss why scholars describe the state of the world as they now do rather than just present the current thinking.
  • Articulate the disciplinary criteria used to construct an argument and support an interpretation. These discussions may include criteria for evidence, disciplinary values (what are important questions to try to answer), and how scholars in the discipline construct and evaluate arguments.
  • Make big ideas accessible to students. Complex material can be daunting to novices. Experts can zero in on key details rapidly, but novices have difficulty deciding which details are important and which ones are marginal. Create outlines or guiding questions that direct student’s attention to the most important concepts.
  • Help students learn to appreciate the value of learning from mistakes. Create low-stakes assessments or allow students to retake early exams to enable them to directly experience successful acquisition of a new skill or mastery of a challenging concept after experiencing an initial setback. These experiences promote a “growth” mindset that supports internal motivation (Dweck, 2008).
  • Create opportunities to practice through structured small-group discussions.  Create a reading assignment that students complete before the small-group discussion in class. Ask students to summarize the author’s argument, evaluate the support for the argument the author provided, determine criteria for evidence and the amount of proof required, and decide whether the author’s argument was adequate (Rabow, Charness, Kipperman, & Radcliffe-Vaslie, 2000). Structure the small-group discussion around the completed assignment. Grade the work based on student preparation (completeness of the reading assignment) and participation in the discussion. Give students explicit guidelines on expectations for the discussion, which might include assigned roles such as note taker, devil’s advocate, facilitator who ensures that every student contribute.



  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
  • Rabow, J., Charness, M. A., Kipperman, J., & Radcliffe-Vaslie, S. (2000). Learning through discussion (3rd ed). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Land, R. (2014). Liminality close-up. Thought paper presented for HECU7 at Lancaster University. []
  • Nelson, C. E. (1999). On the persistence of unicorns: The trade-off between content and critical thinking revisited. In B. A. Pescosolido B. A., & Aminzade, R. (Eds.).  The social worlds of higher education: Handbook for teaching in a new century. (pp. 168-184). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  • Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Claudia J. Stanny is Director of the Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the University of West Florida.

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