Why Is Critical Thinking Difficult to Teach?

95% of chief academic officers surveyed in the US see critical thinking as a vital skill for student success. A quick survey of any institution’s stated goals will likely reveal critical thinking as a desired outcome. And yet, 74% of employers say that recent college graduates are not well prepared to think critically in the workforce.

So, why is critical thinking so hard to teach?

Daniel T. Willingham’s seminal 2007 article on the subject is often cited in the materials published over the past decade. In it, Willingham draws on extensive research pointing to the fact that critical thinking is difficult to define, hard to transfer from one setting to another, and challenging to measure and assess.

His point about assessment is echoed in this 2014 report on the state of critical thinking assessment in higher ed. After all, when definitions of critical thinking vary from school to school, or even department to department, setting institutional benchmarks can be a tricky endeavor.

After reviewing the research, it appears there are a few agreed-upon best practices that can lead to the most effective deployment of critical thinking instruction.

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: Critical thinking is not a one-off skill. It requires practice to master, and it works best when introduced in a variety of settings so that students can learn how to transfer the skill to novel situations.
  2. Reinforce Critical Thinking with other Skills: Willingham makes the point that critical thinking is ineffective without an individual’s factual knowledge of a given subject, and their ability to find/evaluate information to help them solve problems and make decisions.
  3. Consistent Assessment Helps Improve Instruction: 60% of provosts said that getting faculty to use assessment results was their top priority. However, the lack of consistency in both instruction and assessment makes faculty buy-in a challenge. Accurate measurements with actionable results are key to closed-loop assessment. 

Improving critical thinking instruction is an obvious benefit for students, academic institutions, and businesses looking to hire graduates with a broad range of skills. New technology is making it easier to teach critical thinking consistently, as well as assess student gains accurately across departments. For a practical example of how schools are accomplishing this, watch this webinar recording featuring Dr. Stephanie Dance-Barnes, who was able to teach strong critical thinking skills in her biology courses, while also meeting her university’s focus on measurable, real-time assessment throughout the curriculum.

Further reading:

  • Kuh, G. D., Jankowski, N., Ikenberry, S. O., & Kinzie, J. (2014). Knowing what students know and can do: The current state of student learning outcomes assessment in U.S. colleges and universities. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
  • Liu, O. L., Frankel, L. and Roohr, K. C. (2014), Assessing Critical Thinking in Higher Education: Current State and Directions for Next-Generation Assessment. ETS Research Reports Series, 2014: 1–23. doi:10.1002/ets2.12009