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Instruction that Fosters Critical Thinking and the Disavowal of Unsubstantiated Beliefs

11 Sep 2020 2:41 PM | Deleted user

By: D. Alan Bensley, Ph.D., Frostburg State University

The young people we teach are said to be the hope of the future. But if after our instruction, they tend to make bad decisions, draw faulty conclusions, commit thinking errors, and reason from incorrect information, then the future they create may not be better.  Jolley and Douglas (2014) found that when people believe the false conspiracy theory that global warming is a hoax. they may fail to respond to this existential crisis. If our former students continue to believe that an ineffective, pseudoscientific practice, such as Facilitated Communication, is effective for treating autism spectrum disorders, they may forego use of more effective treatments for autism in their own children or clients (Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2015).  When our students endorse psychological misconceptions, such as the mistaken idea that people should use more than 10% of the brain at once to improve their performance, they may find it difficult to acquire correct knowledge of the brain (Bensley & Lilienfeld, 2017).

It is safe to say that most psychology teachers hope that after taking their courses, students would critically examine and reject unsubstantiated claims, such as psychological misconceptions, pseudoscientific and poorly-supported practices, false conspiracy theories, and paranormal claims that contradict well-established psychological science. However, our own research suggests that standard psychology instruction does not produce substantial increases in critical thinking skills or in rejection of unfounded beliefs. For example, as discussed next, we have found that psychological misconceptions are reduced little after traditional instruction when instructors do not directly guide students to critically analyze and refute their false beliefs.  

Rather than using a traditional, ‘inexplicit’ approach, teachers should use explicit critical thinking instruction to improve critical thinking skills and the ability to reject unsubstantiated claims. The form of explicit critical thinking instruction we use is called “direct infusion”.  It involves directly teaching students how to distinguish arguments from non-arguments, find assumptions, evaluate the quality of evidence, and draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence while avoiding thinking errors.  Students are provided guided practice in how to apply rules for reasoning in thinking about psychology and everyday life, completing practice exercises, quizzes, and other formative assessments for which they receive feedback.  In this way, critical thinking concepts and practices are infused into psychology content instruction as part of my 2018 critical thinking textbook,between%20science%20and%20non%2Dscience.   

We have conducted multiple studies demonstrating the effectiveness of direct infusion. In a study of cognitive psychology students, we found that one class receiving explicit critical thinking instruction in how to engage in argument analysis and critical reading showed significantly greater gains on an argument analysis test and on a critical reading test than cognitive psychology classes receiving either a focus on improving memory or on acquiring knowledge of cognitive psychology (Bensley & Spero, 2014). Using examples from cognitive psychology, students in the critical thinking-instructed class were taught how to distinguish arguments from nonarguments, evaluate the quality of different kinds of evidence used in literature reviews discussing, for example, the accuracy of perception and flashbulb memories, and how to draw well-reasoned conclusions from the evidence. Students in all three groups took the same tests and quizzes except that students in the critical thinking group also received critical thinking questions, students in the directly infused memory improvement group also received questions on memory improvement, and students in the traditional, knowledge-focused group received more basic knowledge questions. The argument analysis and  critical reading tests that students took before and after instruction were well aligned with the skills that the critical thinking group were taught. These results replicated those from an earlier study in which research methods students who received explicit argument analysis instruction as part of their course performed significantly better than research methods students in other classes not receiving the explicit critical thinking instruction (Bensley et al., 2010).

In more recent studies, we have focused on the relationship between critical thinking and the rejection of unsubstantiated claims.  In one study of psychology students at different levels, we found that students who rejected more psychological misconceptions tended to have better critical thinking skills as measured by their performance on an argument analysis test (Bensley, Lilienfeld, & Powell, 2014).  In this same study, we found students who endorsed more misconceptions also tended to accept more paranormal claims and more pseudoscientific and poorly-supported practices. Students were also more inclined to take an intuitive approach to thinking about questions and less inclined to take an active, open-minded interest in psychology and value a rational-scientific approach to psychology. 

Recently, we replicated and extended these findings of individual differences in the tendency to generally accept unsubstantiated claims.  We again found that scores on measures of conspiracy theory belief, psychological misconceptions, and paranormal belief, and belief in pseudoscience and poorly-supported practices were all positively intercorrelated (Bensley et al., 2019).  Following up on these results, we found that endorsement of psychological misconceptions, paranormal beliefs, and conspiracy theory beliefs were positively intercorrelated in two new samples. Moreover, we found that a more intuitive thinking style in those students significantly predicted endorsement of more psychological misconceptions and paranormal belief in all three of these samples and significantly predicted more belief in false and fictitious conspiracy theories in the first two samples.  Taken together, these results suggest that when students accept one type of unfounded knowledge claim they tend to accept other types as well and those who accept such claims more tend to have a more intuitive thinking style.

In two other studies, we report on how we were able to improve both critical thinking skills and reduce psychological misconceptions. In the first study, students in an introductory critical thinking course received four weeks of explicit, critical thinking instruction and were taught to recognize psychological misconceptions (Bensley et al., 2015). Although students in the introductory critical thinking course improved their argument analysis skills and reduced their endorsement of misconceptions significantly more than students in another beginning course not receiving the explicit instruction, their gains were not substantial.  Consequently, we decided to test whether a longer and more intense focus on explicitly teaching critical thinking would produce more substantial gains (Bensley, Masciocchi, & Rowan, in press).  Supporting direct infusion, students in both classes showed significant and substantial gains in recognizing both thinking errors and psychological misconceptions, whether their focus was on recognizing thinking errors or more on recognition of psychological misconceptions.  However, even after showing gains in recognizing misconceptions, students remained overconfident of their knowledge of psychology.

In many of the studies just described, we have used measures that we constructed to assess critical thinking and unfounded beliefs that are available along with my textbook (Bensley, 2018); but instructors are also encouraged to design their own measures.  In a recent article, Scott Lilienfeld and I describe how instructors can develop their own measures (Bensley & Lilienfeld, in press). An important part of this procedure is to identify common beliefs (often misconceptions) that are clearly contradicted by the bulk of high-quality psychological research.  The evidence-based idea or practice contradicting it can then be pitted against the misconception or unfounded belief to construct a forced-choice type of item.  A good source for such items is the book by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Lohr, Ruscio, and Beyerstein (2010) which describes numerous psychological misconceptions and presents the evidence from psychology that refutes them. Two advantages of instructors creating their own items are that they can include those items in their measures that best correspond to the content of their courses and as they research and construct items, they will learn to avoid some of the misconceptions sometimes endorsed by instructors.

In conclusion, our research has important implications for teaching and assessing psychology students.  One is that instructors should take an explicit, critical thinking instructional approach in order to produce substantial increases in critical thinking skills and reductions in psychological misconceptions. Another is that instructors should assess students before and after instruction on measures that are well-aligned with the skills and knowledge targeted for instruction to evaluate the value added by their instruction (Bensley & Murtagh, 2012). Assessment can also help instructors to identify the unsubstantiated beliefs most frequently endorsed which, in turn, can help them decide which ones to target in instruction. Moreover, instructors should be aware that the more students endorse one type of unsubstantiated belief, the more they will likely endorse others. Those who endorse more misconceptions are likely to rely more on intuition and be more overconfident of their knowledge (Bensley et al., 2015).  In this regard, encouraging students to question what they have heard and what they think they already know about psychology, while presenting them with evidence-based alternatives to their faulty beliefs, may help them reduce their overconfidence and correct those beliefs. For more information on critical thinking and how to help students reject unsubstantiated claims, see Bensley (2020).


Bensley, D. A. (2018).  Critical thinking in psychology and everyday life: A guide to effective thinking. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Bensley, D. A.  (2020).  Critical thinking and the rejection of unsubstantiated claims. In R. J. Sternberg & D. F. Halpern (Eds.). Critical thinking in psychology. (Vol. 2). pp. 68-102. New York: Cambridge University Press. http://doi:10.1017/9781108684354

Bensley, D. A & Lilienfeld, S. O.  (2017).  Psychological misconceptions: Recent scientific advances and unresolved issues, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 377-382. http://doi.10.1177/0963721417699026

Bensley, D. A & Lilienfeld, S. O.  (in press).  Assessing belief in unsubstantiated claims. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

Bensley, D., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Powell, L. A.  (2014).  A new measure of psychological misconceptions: Relations with academic background, critical thinking, and acceptance of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.  Learning and Individual Differences, 36, 9-18. http://doi.10.1016/j.lindif.2014.07.009

Bensley, D. A., Lilienfeld, S. O., Rowan, K. A., Masciocchi, C. M., & Grain, F. (2019). The generality of belief in unsubstantiated claims. Applied Cognitive Psychology. http://doi.10.1002/acp3581

Bensley, D. A., Masciocchi, C. M., & Rowan, K.A., (in press). Comprehensive instruction and assessment of critical thinking skills, dispositions, metacognition, and knowledge. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.  

Bensley, D. A. & Murtagh, M. P.  (2012).  Guidelines for a scientific approach to critical thinking assessment.  Teaching of Psychology, 39, 5-16. 

Bensley, D. A., Rainey, C., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Kuehne, S.  (2015).  What do psychology students know about what they know in psychology?  Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 283-297. http://doi.10.1037/stl0000035

Bensley, D. A. & Spero, R. A.  (2014).  Improving critical thinking and metacognitive monitoring through direct infusion.  Thinking Skills and Creativity, 12, 55-68. http://doi.10.1016/j.tsc.2014.02.001

Bensley, D. A., Watkins, C., Lilienfeld, S. O., Masciocchi, C. M., & Rowan, K. A. (2020). The generality of dispositional predictors of belief in unsubstantiated claims.  Manuscript. Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology.Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

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