November 12, 2020


Good morning CNS Instructors,

I trust you are all staying healthy and sane.  We are in the home stretch for the fall semester.

This week’s teaching tip focuses on the cognitive science on teaching critical thinking.  This tip draws from an “Ask the Cognitive Scientist article by Daniel T. Willingham (American Educator fall 2020, attached) suggested to me by Ben Clegg (Psychology).

Most of us consider critical thinking as a skill/ability we would like our program majors to have at least improved, upon graduation.  Daniel Willingham puts forward this definition of critical thinking:

“You are thinking critically if (1) your thinking is novel—that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation; (2) your thinking is self-directed—that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else; and (3) your thinking is effective—that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions. These conventions include ‘consider both sides of an issue,’ ‘offer evidence for claims made,’ and ‘don’t let emotion interfere with reason’.” A more succinct definition he offers is the ability to “analyze, synthesize, and evaluate” information. His article focuses on effective thinking producing useful conclusions. He contends that research indicates that critical thinking ability applied to specific problems can be taught.  However, teaching the ability to apply critical thinking more generally, to new problems and across fields appears more challenging.  Research findings indicate that even experts do not perform critical thinking well outside their specialties.  One solution is teaching recognition of the key stepsT in solving a problem.  However, it is not clear that general, non-field specific critical thinking skills even exist.

To teach more field-specific teaching skills Willingham suggests these four steps:

·      Identify what’s meant by critical thinking in your domain.

·      Identify the domain content that students must know.

·      Select the best sequence for students to learn the critical thinking skills.

·      Decide which skills should be revisited across years in the curriculum.

Finally, Willingham suggests considering student age, the type of student and how critical thinking will be assessed.  He also cautions that student have difficulty learning critical thinking and instructors need to maintain patience through the process.  Sounds like we have our work cut out for us.

Joseph F. Brown, Director of the TILT Academic Integrity Program asked me to share student-focused resources found at this site: and the attached handout.

Thanks to Ben Clegg for suggesting this article.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Just one more week until fall break!

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Co-Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences