Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

The Craft of Infusing Critical Thinking Skills

01 Aug 2019 2:30 PM | Anonymous

Laura C. Edwards (Taylor University)

Much of thinking, unattended, can be biased, naïve, inattentive, and prejudiced. Alternatively, thinking can be reasoned, reflective, intellectual, and purposeful.  Scholars refer to the latter type of thinking as critical thinking. The importance and challenge of fostering critical thinking in higher education are themes that have commanded worldwide attention.  However, we are not alone in valuing critical thinking.  Employers and governmental agencies also regard critical thinking as a central pillar and one of the most desired outcomes of higher education.

If you asked me if I teach for critical thinking, I would answer, “of course I do.” Or, as a professor answered, tongue-in-cheek, when asked the same question, “what do you think I teach? Uncritical thinking?” Probing further, if you were to inquire, “How do you do actually foster CT?” My answer would have been something similar to the following:

  • I pose questions that drive students’ thought underneath the surface of things that forces them to deal with complexity.
  • From time to time, I play the devil’s advocate on controversial issues in an attempt to prompt my students to think deeper and ask essential questions.
  • When conducive to the task at hand, I attempt to present multiple perspectives – which is not hard in the field of psychology.
  • I have always been attentive to stereotypical thinking and aware of underlying assumptions and make them salient to my students.

Your turn. If I were to ask how you teach CT, how would you answer?

Certainly, how I approached the teaching of CT was not “incorrect,” and I believe my students had the opportunity to think critically during my class time. In addition, I unquestionably modeled an openness to learn and consideration of others’ perspectives, but, according to empirical evidence, my method was not the most efficacious. As I probed, it came as a surprise to me that research findings indicated the majority of professors are not teaching CT skills effectively, and that most college students’ exhibit inadequate CT achievement (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Tiruneh, Verburgh, & Ellen, 2014). 

While most professors have honed their personal thinking skills through the rigorous requirements of advanced studies, the majority do not have the pedagogical background to integrate critical thinking skills with class content. Some may lack knowledge in balancing the teaching of  CT skills with course content, and others may struggle with the amount of time required to plan appropriately (Tsui, 2008).

I was curious about what professors, whose students efficiently hone their higher order thinking, were doing. Using a mixed methods explanatory sequential design, my study identified teaching strategies employed by faculty members to infuse preselected thinking skills into course content and the positive effects on students’ higher order thinking abilities. The research involved quantitative data from students’ pretest and posttest CT skill abilities evaluations and in-depth interviews with faculty members from seven distinct departments who were trained in the infusion method of teaching CT and whose students excelled in their CT gains.

The findings provide a “Road Map” for those looking to employ CT. The infusion method embeds CT skills into the framework of class content in an explicit manner (Ennis, 1987) as to permeate all aspects of the course content.  Educators may optimize their effectiveness in infusing CT skills by adopting or adapting some of the validated strategies that emerged from the interviews. These strategies are not only supported by the extant CT literature, but also contributed to substantial gains in students’ CT skills (Edwards, 2017; Snyder, Edwards, & Sanders, in press).   The strategies for the infusion of  thinking skills include  explicit teaching and intentional implementation, systematic practice, class discussions, teaching for transfer, and fostering reflection. 

The Strategies

Be Explicit

Educators may benefit from recognizing that a simple, yet critical initial step in teaching students to think critically is identifying which CT skills they are already implicitly teaching (I chose two or three) and, subsequently, making them explicit.  Explicit means not only mentioning the skill (e.g., asking good questions), but providing students with the “how-to”, such as employing de Bono’s (1999) thinking hats.  In addition, it means helping students become cognizant of when the skills should be employed (I provide students with handouts including definitions, applications and “how-tos” and refer back to the handout throughout the semester as needed.  According to the faculty members interviewed, making the skills explicit neither required an inordinate amount of time nor affected course content. Teaching explicitly is congruent with (Elder & Paul, 2010; Halpern, 1999) findings indicating that students become more proficient in CT.

Be Intentional in the Implementation

 A critical step in the infusion of specific CT skills involved being deliberate in the process of embedding CT skills into lectures, assignments, assessments, and class discussions.  The following steps emerged from the interviews:

1) Designate a few hours during the summer to select a few familiar CT skills which fit well within class content. 

2) Prepare a packet with selected CT skills, provide definitions, and outline the steps required to achieve them and/or include them in the learning management system.

3) Deliberately embed the selected skills in the syllabus, power point presentations, assignments, and class discussions.  When professors followed these steps, they ensured the infusion method lasted throughout the semester.  Educators may be encouraged as they realize that, with a few hours of preparation, they can substantially increase their effectiveness in imparting the CT skills. 

Systematic and repeated practice

All seven professors purported that systematic and repeated practice is essential for mastering the CT skills.  Some practiced the skills with problem-solving situations; others embedded the skills in the reading assignments. One professor, whose “diagramming” was one of his selected skills, indicated asking the students to draw a diagram of the lecture at the end of each class, while another involved his students in practical research.  According to Beyer (1985), upon teaching the thinking skills, deliberate and immediate application must follow. Philosophy professor Mulnix (2010) concurred, “There is no surrogate for repetitive practice” (p. 468) in teaching CT skills.

Classroom Discussions

Discussions provided opportunities for students to think critically about curriculum content. Class debates, using concept maps and decision trees, in small groups, and think-pair-share were dominant strategies. This preferred approach is congruent with Abrami et al.’s (2015) meta-analysis, which revealed that discussion seems to be especially effective in teaching higher-order thinking whether professors utilized whole class or small groups.

Teaching for Transfer

Higher education students tend not to transfer CT skills learned in the classroom to other areas outside the classroom. Students generally will do so only if instructors provide opportunities for them to see how a newly acquired skill applies to other situations and experiences, leading to greater CT outcomes (Abrami et al., 2015). Inviting guest speakers from distinct academic fields, who explicitly relate the CT skills to their own areas, is one suggestion provided, while intentional transfer to everyday activities, such as sports or business situations, also proved effective (Edwards, 2017).

Reflective Assignments

`           Reflective assignments and exemplars, including journaling and reflective essays, helped students with metacognitive processes.  “Reflective thinking and writing afforded students the opportunity to expand their personal grasp of the thinking skills and promoted intellectual growth, leading to the enhancement of students’ CT abilities” (Edwards, 2017, p.57). 


Educators may benefit from recognizing that a simple, yet critical, initial step in teaching students to think critically is to identify which CT skills they already implicitly teach and, subsequently, make them explicit.  According to the faculty members interviewed, making the skills explicit neither required an inordinate amount of time nor affected class content. The findings and strategies presented here are, on the whole, congruent with what higher educators already know about teaching and learning. For the past three years, I have been intentional about consistently employing the strategies above in the courses I teach. These rather simple strategies provide a pathway to the complex and multifaceted process of imparting higher order thinking.  May we encourage and learn from one another as we pursue valid teaching methods that promote student growth in critical thinking.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D. I., Wade, A., & Persons, T. 

(2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of

Educational Research. 85(2), 275-291. doi: 10.3102/003465431455106

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

De Bono, E. (1999). Six thinking hats. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & Co.

Edwards, L. C., Snyder, S. J., & Sanders, A. L. (2016). Faculty development for fostering students’ critical thinking. Journal on Centers for Teaching and Learning, 8, 4-27.

Edwards, L. C. (2017). The craft of infusing critical thinking skills: A mixed-method research on implementation and student outcome. Journal on Centers for Teaching and Learning, 9, 47- 72.

Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2010).  Critical thinking: competency standards essential for the cultivation of intellectual skills.  Journal of Developmental Education, 34(2), 38-39.

Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J.  Baron & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice (pp.  9-26). New York: W. H. Freeman.

Halpern, D. F., (1999). Teaching for critical thinking: Helping college students develop the skills and dispositions of a critical thinker. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 80, 69-74.

Mulnix, J. W. (2010). Thinking critically about critical thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44, 464-479. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00673.x

Snyder, S.; Edwards, L. C., Sanders, A. (in press). An empirical model for infusing critical thinking into higher education. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching.

Tiruneh, D. T., Verburgh, A., Ellen, J (2014). Effectiveness of critical thinking instruction in higher education: A systematic review of intervention studies. Higher Education Studies 4(1), 1-17.

Tsui, L. (2008). Cultivating critical thinking:  Insights from an elite liberal arts college.  JGE: The Journal of General Education56(3-4), 200-227.

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