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Faculty Development Center

10 Strategies for Critical Thinking & Learning

1. Link course concepts to students' personal experience or previously existing knowledge.

  • Help students assimilate new concepts by connecting concepts to personal experiences.             
  • Engage students’ interest in a concept before addressing it formally in class or in readings.
  • “Describe times in your life when you have experienced role strain and role conflict. What are the key differences between these terms, and why is the distinction useful (Sociology)?”
  • “What are your current views toward what it means to live a full life? [Instructor assigns this near the beginning of the course; students reread their expositions at the end of the course to measure changes in their thinking.].” (Philosophy) 

2. Explanation of Course Concepts to New Learners              

  • One of the easiest ways to design critical thinking tasks is to ask students to explain core concepts to new learners.     
  • “Explain to your mother why water stays in a pail when swung in a vertical circle around your head.” 

3. Thesis Support Assignments              

  • Teacher provides the thesis: students must discover reasons and evidence to support or attack it.             
  • Give students a controversial thesis to defend or attack.             
  • This makes excellent micro-themes, practice exams, or short essay assignments.             
  • Knowledge presented as tentative can create a high level of critical thinking. 

4. Problem-posing Activities              

  • Give students the question instead of giving them the thesis.             
  • Can be used for journals, practice exams, or micro-themes. 

5. Data-Provided Assignments              

  • Teacher provides the data: students must determine what thesis or hypothesis the data might support. This can be particularly useful in sciences for teaching students how to write the “findings” and “discussion” sections of scientific reports.     
  • “To what extent do the attached economic data support the hypothesis ‘Social service spending is inversely related to economic growth?’ ”  

6. Frame Assignments              

  • Provides a topic sentence and an organizational frame that students have to flesh out with appropriate generalizations and supporting data.
  • Helps them learn about organizational strategies.
  • To see how structure can stimulate invention they must generate ideas and arguments to fill the open slots in the frame. 

7. Assignments of Role-playing of Unfamiliar Perspectives or Imagining ‘What If’ Situations.              

Tasks requiring role-playing require students to adopt an unfamiliar perspective and step outside their mental models.  

8. Summaries of Abstracts or Course Lectures     

  • “Writing summaries or précis of articles or lectures is a superb way to develop reading and listening skills, to practice decentering, and to develop the skills of precision, clarity, and succinctness (Bean, 128).”             
  • Most common length is 200-250 words but Angelo and Cross report good results with one-sentence summaries in the sciences. Or require exactly 25 words. That forces the student to think of the absolute essentials and to express them concisely.                   
  • “Write a 200- to 250-summary of Kenneth Galbraith's paper, ‘The Theory of Countervailing Power,’ which attempts to provide a theory that describes and accounts for the distribution of power. Your summary should accurately convey the content of the paper. It should be comprehensive and balanced with clear sentence structure and good transitions (Bean, 129).”                           
  • Write summaries of lectures: key points and relationships in the lectures.  

9. Dialogues or Argumentative Scripts              

  • Write a short dialogue (2-3 pages) between two opposing figures on a particular problem or issue. Be sure to respond in the role of one theorist to the arguments raised by the other.
  • This helps to assess a student’s ability to synthesize, summarize, adapt and extrapolate beyond the material. 

10. Cases and Simulations     

“Good cases generally tell a real or believable story, raise thought-provoking issues based on conflict, lack an obvious or clear-cut right answer, and demand a decision reached through critical thinking and analysis (Bean, 130).”  

Sequence used in class for simulations of cases:             

  • Assign the roles of the individuals affected by the case to students.             
  • Conduct the simulation: students discuss the case, taking their assigned roles.             
  • Provide a writing assignment. Can be a homework assignment due next period: “After hearing all the arguments, assume that you are the one who will decide the case and write a 3-4 page argument supporting your position on the issue.” Or if there is time in class have the students write a concise statement of one page outlining their position on the case.  



Bean, John C. (2001). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications, pp.130-133.