On Critical Thinking

Several years ago some teaching colleagues were talking about the real value of teaching psychology students to think critically. After some heated discussion, the last word was had by a colleague from North Carolina. “The real value of being a good critical thinker in psychology is so you won’t be a jerk,” he said with a smile. That observation remains one of my favorites in justifying why teaching critical thinking skills should be an important goal in psychology. However, I believe it captures only a fraction of the real value of teaching students to think critically about behavior.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Although there is little agreement about what it means to think critically in psychology, I like the following broad definition: The propensity and skills to engage in activity with reflective skepticism focused on deciding what to believe or do

Students often arrive at their first introductory course with what they believe is a thorough grasp of how life works. After all, they have been alive for at least 18 years, have witnessed their fair shares of crisis, joy, and tragedy, and have successfully navigated their way in to your classroom.

These students have had a lot of time to develop their own personal theories about how the world works and most are quite satisfied with the results. They often pride themselves on how good they are with people as well as how astute they are in understanding and explaining the motives of others. And they think they know what psychology is. Many are surprised- and sometimes disappointed- to discover that psychology is a science, and the rigor of psychological research is a shock. The breadth and depth of psychology feel daunting. Regardless of their sophistication in the discipline, students often are armed with a single strategy to survive the experience: Memorize the book and hope it works out on the exam. In many cases, this strategy will serve them well. Unfortunately, student exposure to critical thinking skill development may be more accidental than planful on the part of most teachers. Collaboration in my department and with other colleagues over the years has persuaded me that we need to approach critical thinking skills in a purposeful, systematic, and developmental manner from the introductory course through the capstone experience, propose that we need to teach critical thinking skills in three domains of psychology: practical (the “jerk avoidance” function), theoretical (developing scientific explanations for behavior), and methodological (testing scientific ideas). I will explore each of these areas and then offer some general suggestions about how psychology teachers can improve their purposeful pursuit of critical thinking objectives.

Practical Domain

Practical critical thinking is often expressed as a long-term, implicit goal of teachers of psychology, even though they may not spend much academic time teaching how to transfer critical thinking skills to make students wise consumers, more careful judges of character, or more cautious interpreters of behavior. Accurate appraisal of behavior is essential, yet few teachers invest time in helping students understand how vulnerable their own interpretations are to error.

Encourage practice in accurate description and interpretation of behavior by presenting students with ambiguous behavior samples. Ask them to distinguish what they observe (What is the behavior?) from the inferences they draw from the behavior (What is the meaning of the behavior?). I have found that cartoons, such as Simon Bond’s Unspeakable Acts, can be a good resource for refining observation skills. Students quickly recognize that crisp behavioral descriptions are typically consistent from observer to observer, but inferences vary wildly. They recognize that their interpretations are highly personal and sometimes biased by their own values and preferences. As a result of experiencing such strong individual differences in interpretation, students may learn to be appropriately less confident of their immediate conclusions, more tolerant of ambiguity, and more likely to propose alternative explanations. As they acquire a good understanding of scientific procedures, effective control techniques, and legitimate forms of evidence, they may be less likely to fall victim to the multitude of off-base claims about behavior that confront us all. (How many Elvis sightings can be valid in one year?)

Theoretical Domain

Theoretical critical thinking involves helping the student develop an appreciation for scientific explanations of behavior. This means learning not just the content of psychology but how and why psychology is organized into concepts, principles, laws, and theories. Developing theoretical skills begins in the introductory course where the primary critical thinking objective is understanding and applying concepts appropriately. For example, when you introduce students to the principles of reinforcement, you can ask them to find examples of the principles in the news or to make up stories that illustrate the principles.

Mid-level courses in the major require more sophistication, moving students beyond application of concepts and principles to learning and applying theories. For instance, you can provide a rich case study in abnormal psychology and ask students to make sense of the case from different perspectives, emphasizing theoretical flexibility or accurate use of existing and accepted frameworks in psychology to explain patterns of behavior. In advanced courses we can justifiably ask students to evaluate theory, selecting the most useful or rejecting the least helpful. For example, students can contrast different models to explain drug addiction in physiological psychology. By examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing frameworks, they can select which theories serve best as they learn to justify their criticisms based on evidence and reason.

Capstone, honors, and graduate courses go beyond theory evaluation to encourage students to create theory. Students select a complex question about behavior (for example, identifying mechanisms that underlie autism or language acquisition) and develop their own theory-based explanations for the behavior. This challenge requires them to synthesize and integrate existing theory as well as devise new insights into the behavior.

Methodological Domain

Most departments offer many opportunities for students to develop their methodological critical thinking abilities by applying different research methods in psychology. Beginning students must first learn what the scientific method entails. The next step is to apply their understanding of scientific method by identifying design elements in existing research. For example, any detailed description of an experimental design can help students practice distinguishing the independent from the dependent variable and identifying how researchers controlled for alternative explanations. The next methodological critical thinking goals include evaluating the quality of existing research design and challenging the conclusions of research findings. Students may need to feel empowered by the teacher to overcome the reverence they sometimes demonstrate for anything in print, including their textbooks. Asking students to do a critical analysis on a fairly sophisticated design may simply be too big a leap for them to make. They are likely to fare better if given examples of bad design so they can build their critical abilities and confidence in order to tackle more sophisticated designs. (Examples of bad design can be found in The Critical Thinking Companion for Introductory Psychology or they can be easily constructed with a little time and imagination). Students will develop and execute their own research designs in their capstone methodology courses. Asking students to conduct their own independent research, whether a comprehensive survey on parental attitudes, a naturalistic study of museum patrons’ behavior, or a well-designed experiment on paired associate learning, prompts students to integrate their critical thinking skills and gives them practice with conventional writing forms in psychology. In evaluating their work I have found it helpful to ask students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own work- as an additional opportunity to think critically-before giving them my feedback.

Additional Suggestions

Adopting explicit critical thinking objectives, regardless of the domain of critical thinking, may entail some strategy changes on the part of the teacher.

• Introduce psychology as an open-ended, growing enterprise. Students often think that their entry into the discipline represents an end-point where everything good and true has already been discovered. That conclusion encourages passivity rather than criticality. Point out that research is psychology’ s way of growing and developing. Each new discovery in psychology represents a potentially elegant act of critical thinking. A lot of room for discovery remains. New ideas will be developed and old conceptions discarded.

• Require student performance that goes beyond memorization. Group work, essays, debates, themes, letters to famous psychologists, journals, current event examples- all of these and more can be used as a means of developing the higher skills involved in critical thinking in psychology. Find faulty cause-effect conclusions in the tabloids (e.g., “Eating broccoli increases your IQ!”) and have students design studies to confirm or discredit the headline’s claims. Ask students to identify what kinds of evidence would warrant belief in commercial claims. Although it is difficult, even well designed objective test items can capture critical thinking skills so that students are challenged beyond mere repetition and recall.

Clarify your expectations about performance with explicit, public criteria. Devising clear performance criteria for psychology projects will enhance student success. Students often complain that they don’t understand “what you want” when you assign work. Performance criteria specify the standards that you will use to evaluate their work. For example, perfonnance criteria for the observation exercise described earlier might include the following: The student describes behavior accurately; offers inference that is reasonable for the context; and identifies personal factors that might influence inference. Perfonnance criteria facilitate giving detailed feedback easily and can also promote student self-assessment.

Label good examples of critical thinking when these occur spontaneously. Students may not recognize when they are thinking critically. When you identify examples of good thinking or exploit examples that could be improved, it enhances students’ ability to understand. One of my students made this vivid for me when she commented on the good connection she had made between a course concept and an insight from her literature class, “That is what you mean by critical thinking?” There after I have been careful to label a good critical thinking insight.

Endorse a questioning attitude. Students often assume that if they have questions about their reading, then they are somehow being dishonorable, rude, or stupid. Having  discussions early in the course about the role of good questions in enhancing the quality of the subject and expanding the sharpness of the mind may set a more critical stage on which students can play. Model critical thinking from some insights you have had about behavior or from some research you have conducted in the past. Congratulate students who offer good examples of the principles under study. Thank students who ask concept-related questions and describe why you think their questions are good. Leave time and space for more. Your own excitement about critical thinking can be a great incentive for students to seek that excitement.

Brace yourself . When you include more opportunity for student critical thinking in class, there is much more opportunity for the class to go astray. Stepping away from the podium and engaging the students to perform what they know necessitates some loss of control, or at least some enhanced risk. However, the advantage is that no class will ever feel completely predictable, and this can be a source of stimulation for students and the professor as well.

References and Further Reading:

Halonen, J.S. (1995). The critical thinking companion for Introductory psychology. NY: Worth Publishers.

Halpern, D.F. (1989). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ:

Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mayer, R., & Goodchild, F. (1990). The critical thinker: Thinking and learning strategies for psychology students.

Meyers, C. (1986). Teaching students to think critically. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Smith, R.A. (1995).

Challenging your preconceptions. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks Cole.

Observer Vol.9, No.4 July/August, 1996

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