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Teaching critical thinking

Cath Senker

We know that first-year students arrive at university with uneven critical thinking skills. Some will have taken A level History and assessed the reliability of evidence, while others may have studied Maths or pure science and never had to write critical essays. International students from countries with different pedagogic traditions to the UK might be unfamiliar with the need to formulate their own opinion.

Keen students will look for guidance themselves. They will locate the study skills section of their university website or library. But the students most likely to need support are often the least likely to seek it.

A skill we can teach

Tutors can teach critical thinking to all students, and it is best to introduce it from the start of their university journey. Offering skills training at the beginning of the course provides a framework for students who are new to critical thinking and helps more experienced students to achieve highly.

Recently, I have been working with the Academic Skills team at the University of Sussex on a critical thinking mini-module. Aimed at first-year undergraduates, lecturers can tailor the materials to their discipline.

I must have been hungry the day I started on the student section of the module, because it revolves around buying biscuits. I wanted to demonstrate how we use criteria in our daily lives to make decisions. Using an everyday example can help to demystify critical thinking and clarify the concept. I will describe part of the section.

Critical thinking at the shops

Here are some criteria you might adopt when facing the biscuit aisle.

• Price – you might be on a tight budget and want the cheapest biscuits
• Quality – perhaps quality is important to you, so you’re prepared to pay a higher price for a tastier snack
• Type – you might prefer plain, fruity or chocolate biscuits
• Quantity – big packet or small packet?
Maybe social reasons affect your decision. You might opt to buy a big tin of biscuits so you can share them with your housemates. It’s a kind thing to do and will help you make friends.
• Ethical considerations – maybe you buy vegan biscuits because you want to avoid animal products. You might want to avoid biscuits containing palm oil, owing to the environmental damage caused by palm-oil plantations.

Barriers to critical thinking

However, you might not be completely objective when you make your decision.
There could be barriers that affect your critical thinking.

Personal bias

You might buy a well-known brand rather than the supermarket version, convinced the biscuits are better quality. Yet the ingredients are exactly the same.


Group think

Maybe you choose the biscuits you know that your friends or family eat. You are following what others do, rather than thinking for yourself.


Closed mind

Perhaps you buy the biscuits you have always eaten without considering any other options.


Time pressures


You are in a hurry, so you grab a brand you recognise or the cheapest big packet. There is no time to consider your decision.


You probably won’t think for long about buying a packet of biscuits. But in your university studies, coming to a decision about ideas, theories and evidence takes time.

You’ll need to try to be objective and avoid bias when you’re making decisions. This is a key part of critical thinking.


I used the ‘critical thinking at the shops’ example as the basis for a checklist to help students to adopt a critical approach to their studies.

Awareness of bias

Try to be aware of your own personal bias. It may help to reflect on whether this is shaped by aspects of your identity, such as your gender, social class, ethnicity or nationality.


Avoid group think


Be aware of the influences of your peers and relatives, your family background and culture and avoid group think. Look for information from other sources.


Adopt an open mind

Listen to other people’s viewpoints, even if you disagree with them. Don’t judge before you’ve heard what they say.


Assess the information

Spend time assessing the information you hear and read. Always ask questions about it. Discuss ideas with others and work out what you think.


Critical thinking in different disciplines

As a follow-on task, students consider how to use critical thinking in their own discipline.

Natural scientists might focus on the skills required to read and evaluate primary research papers. They learn to compare their own research to previous work. Historians will hone their ability to critically examine primary sources. In all disciplines, it is essential to be able to justify or challenge theories based on the evidence.

Of course, this introduction to critical thinking is just the first stage. Tutors can revisit the topic regularly as their students’ academic experience grows during their time at university.

18 February 2021

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