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What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is NOT problem solving, is NOT creativity, is NOT information literacy, is NOT knowledge transfer, it is definitely NOT about criticizing someone's opinion. 

Critical thinking is the ability to make judgement clearly and rationally by processing, engaging and evaluating information through reflective and independent thinking. The judgement could be based on many approaches and sources such as what you have learnt, known, understood, examined, experiences, saw, and heard.
Chan, CKY (2021)

There are many definitions on critical thinking. Here are some of the definitions:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. (Scriven & Paul, 1987).

Critical thinking is the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgement. This process gives reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods and criteria. (Facione, 1990)

Critical Thinking involves three things: (1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. (Glaser, 1941)

What is Critical Thinking?

Are You a Critical Thinker?

A critical thinker is someone who is able to do the following:

  • Evaluate the situation clearly and rationally;

  • Assess alternate perspectives;

  • Process, connect and reflect on the information from many sources of evidence; and

  • Form independent judgement based on evidence or sound reasoning.

A critical thinker does not only accumulate information well, but they also know how to use the information to deduce important facts and outcomes. By conceptualizing outcomes, critical thinkers are better at problem-solving than people who simply memorize information. Because of this, employers value critical thinking, especially in roles where preparing strategy is essential.

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Are You a Critical Thinker?

Are You a Critical Thinker?
Why is Critical Thinking Important?

Why is Critical Thinking Important?

Critical thinking is significant to be taught as it is essential in one’s lifelong development, both in learning, in workplace and in life. There are a number of reasons explaining how essential critical thinking competency is.

  • Employers consider critical thinking skills as one of the most valued attributes of job candidates (Penkauskienė, Railienė & Cruz, 2019); 

  • Individuals with critical thinking competency “experience fewer negative life events” (Australian Christian College, 2021, p. 1);

  • Critical thinking competency is required for individuals to “discern falsehood and make reasoned arguments” (p. 1), especially for their faith;

  • With critical thinking competency, individuals can renew minds and cultivate wisdom;

  • With critical thinking competency, language and presentation skills are enhanced (Lau & Chan, 2021);

  • With critical thinking competency, individuals’ creativity is promoted (Lau & Chan, 2021); and

  • With critical thinking competency, one can process self-evaluation (Lau & Chan, 2021).

How is Critical Thinking Developed?

Before we look into some effective instructional strategies that help developing critical thinking, we should first understand some barriers that hinder the development of this competency.

Barriers for Students in Developing Critical Thinking Competency

The barriers mainly include (1) problem transfer and (2) didactic teaching approach.

As mentioned by Goodsett (2020), the problem of transfer is the most notable barrier for developing critical thinking competency. While students develop their critical thinking competency in certain domain successfully does not exactly mean that they are able to transfer this competency to a new context. Some reasons of the lack of transfer include: (1) memory problems and (2) the inability in recognizing what critical thinking skills should be used.

While for didactic teaching approach, In Pithers & Soden’s research (2000), it is proposed that some teaching behaviours of critical thinking may hinder students’ development of critical thinking competency. Some examples of these teaching behaviours include:

  • Simply demonstrating and explaining while teaching;

  • Interrupting students’ responses while teaching;

  • Only disapproving but not praising students while teaching;

  • Asking only recall-type questions while teaching; and

  • Believing there is a “correct programme” to teach critical thinking.

For more information about the hindrance in the development of critical thinking competency, you may refer to the research done by Pithers & Soden (2000).

Effective Instructional Strategies in Teaching Critical Thinking

Having a basic understanding on the barriers, we now look into some instructional strategies that are proven to be effective in developing students’ critical thinking competency.

Socratic teaching is one of the oldest and the most powerful teaching tactic for developing students’ critical thinking. According to Elder & Paul (1998), Socratic teaching is a question-driven instruction. In this type of teaching, students are not directly given information (answers). Instead, teachers ask questions to prompt students’ critical thinking because the underlying assumption in Socratic teaching is “thinking is driven not by answers but by questions” (p. 297). Through this pedagogy, students engage in an inquiring and probing mind set in order to draw conclusions and even generate new ideas. Through engaging in critical thinking, reasoning and logic, one is prepared for Socratic questioning.

The research of Yang, Newby & Bill (2005) can support the effectiveness of Socratic teaching in fostering students’ critical thinking. In their research, they study “the effects of using Socratic questioning to enhance students’ critical thinking skills in asynchronous discussion forums (ADF) in university-level distance learning course” (p. 163) through conducting an experiential research lasting for two consecutive 16-week semesters.  Under the experiential research, there are two planned research procedures naming Treatment I and II, in which observations are performed at appropriate times for the measurement and collection of the required data. The measurement of students’ critical thinking is conducted through applying the California Critical Thinking Skills Test, as well as using the coding scheme for critical thinking evaluation in computer conferencing to analyse class discussion content in the ADF context. The findings indicate that critical thinking skills can be enhanced through the use of Socratic questioning in an ADF context, as long as the course design, as well as instructional interventions are appropriate. This is because in an ADF context, students are given the time to conduct thoughtful analysis, to negotiate and reflect their discussions. While for teachers, they are allowed to “model, foster and evaluate the critical thinking skills exhibited during the discussion” (p. 179).

Apart of Socratic teaching, a reflective judgement model, which “builds on the idea of ill-structured problems” (Goodsett, 2020, p. 4) is also proposed by King and Kitchener (2004) to approach critical thinking. Maskey (2011) has conducted a research evaluating the relationship between critical thinking and reflective judgment by comparing two measures, the Reasoning about Current Issue (RCI) test for reflective judgment and the HESI Exit Exam for critical thinking. The samples involved in this study are senior associate degree nursing students. The findings of the study indicated a positive correlation between reflective judgment and critical thinking, though it is important to bear in mind that critical thinking and reflective judgment should be viewed as two separate concepts.  

Another instructional strategy is the inquiry-based instruction model which “promotes the metacognitive element of critical thinking” (Goodsett, 2020, p.4) to allow students identify misconceptions and knowledge gaps, so that students are able to develop the mechanisms they need to fill the gaps. In this model, it emphasizes on developing students with the habit of inquiry and as a result they know how to ask thoughtful questions (King, 1995). King (1995)’s research demonstrates examples on how inquiry-based approach can be applied for the promotion of critical thinking. For example, King tries to guide students to generate their critical thinking questions through reciprocal peer questioning, which means students take turns in asking questions to their peers and answer their peers’ questions in a reciprocal manner.

Concept mapping is also a useful instructional strategy to promote critical thinking as it allows students to expand their thinking on various issues. A research related to concept mapping is conducted under the nursing education context. In Yue, Zhang, Zhang & Jin (2017)’s research, concept mapping’s effect in the development of critical thinking is assessed. The results of the study support the effectiveness of concept mapping in improving students’ critical thinking competency.

How is Critical Thinking Developed?

How Should I Assess Critical Thinking?

Teaching and learning critical thinking are challenging but the possibility to develop critical thinking competency remains as long as effective instructional strategies are used. Once students develop their critical thinking competency, the next area we need to focus on is the assessment of their competency.


There are various types of assessments for critical thinking. According to Liu, Frankel & Roohr (2014), there are multiple themes captured by critical thinking assessments due to “the multivariate nature of definitions offered by critical thinking” (p. 4). Some common assessments include California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory, Watson–Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, Cornell Critical Thinking Test and Collegiate Learning Assessment+, etc. The key themes focused by these assessments, such as reasoning, argumentation, analysis, as well as evaluation, are always overlapped. However, there are also some dimensions that are differed in each test, such as the debate on whether decision making or problem solving should be included in critical thinking as well. 

Examples of Assessment Approaches for Critical Thinking

Case Studies

To demonstrate how critical thinking can be assessed, we look into the research conducted by Mahmoud & Mohamed (2017). In their research, they investigate “critical thinking disposition among nurses working in Public Hospitals in Port-Said Governorate” (p. 128). Through this study, they investigate on three areas, including (1) the staff nurses’ critical thinking level, (2) the “highest and lowest critical thinking subscale among staff nurse” (p. 129) and (3) whether the critical thinking disposition of the nurses is related to their job and personal characteristics. A total of 196 nurses are recruited for the study through random sampling from 3 public hospitals. The California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory is used for assessing the dispositions, with a 6-point Likert Scale as the scoring system (6 as strongly agree and 1 as strongly disagree). The findings of the study reveal that the majority of the staff nurses “are ambivalent regarding the total critical thinking disposition, according to the distribution of the scores obtained from CCTDI.

Apart from the common types of assessments mentioned above, there is also another assessment method proposed by Bissell & Lemons (2006). In their research, they develop a method to assess critical thinking under the context of an introductory biology course. Their methodology consists of four main steps, including:

  1. Write questions that requires both biological knowledge, as well as critical thinking skills.

  2. Devise a scoring rubric after documenting the content, as well as the required critical thinking skills.

  3. Submit the questions to experts of biology for a validity check.

  4. Put forward the administration of the assessment to students. Score them according to the scoring rubric.

This assessment methodology, according to Bissell & Lemons (2006), is successfully undertaken in Duke University, in an introductory biology course with around 150 students. It is found that students’ awareness on the quality of response are increased. They tend to reflect more and their critical thinking abilities are improved. 

This is a general introduction on the definition of critical thinking competency, as well as its development and assessment. If you are interested in knowing more details, you may refer to the further reading session for references.

How Should I Assess Critical Thinking?

Further Readings

If you want to understand more on critical thinking literacy, you may visit this website:

  • Critical Thinking Skills

Further Readings


Australian Christian College. (2021). Critical thinking: an essential skill for every student. Retrieved from:

Bissell, A. N., & Lemons, P. P. (2006). A new method for assessing critical thinking in the classroom. BioScience, 56(1), 66-72.[0066:ANMFAC]2.0.CO;2

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (1998). The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and learning. The Clearing House, 71(5), 297-301.

Facione, P. (1990). Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (The Delphi Report).

Glaser, E. (1942). An experiment in the development of critical thinking. Teachers College Record, 43(5), 409-410.

Goodsett, M. (2020). Best practices for teaching and assessing critical thinking in information literacy online learning objects. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 46(5), 102163.

King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 13-17.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (2004). Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood. Educational psychologist, 39(1), 5-18.

Lau. J.,& Chan, J. (2021). What is critical thinking?. Retrieved from:

Liu, O. L., Frankel, L., & Roohr, K. C. (2014). Assessing critical thinking in higher education: Current state and directions for next‐generation assessment. ETS Research Report Series, 2014(1), 1-23.

Mahmoud, A. S., & Mohamed, H. A. (2017). Critical thinking disposition among nurses working in public hospitals at port-said governorate. International journal of nursing sciences, 4(2), 128-134.

Penkauskienė, Daiva, Railienė, Asta, & Cruz, Gonçalo. (2019). How is critical thinking valued by the labour market? Employer perspectives from different European countries. Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames), 44(5), 804-815.

Pithers, R. T., & Soden, R. (2000). Critical thinking in education: A review. Educational research, 42(3), 237-249.

Scriven, M., & Paul, R. (1987). Critical thinking. In The 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, CA (Vol. 7, No. 9).

Yue, M., Zhang, M., Zhang, C., & Jin, C. (2017). The effectiveness of concept mapping on development of critical thinking in nursing education: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nurse education today, 52, 87-94.

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