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Critical Thinking

This page is intended to support faculty in undertaking annual Program Learning Outcome assessment with a focus on the Critical Thinking Core Competency. Faculty should freely use and adapt the definitions, criteria, and rubrics as they see fit to meet their program's priorities. 

Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is generally considered to be an "umbrella concept" that encompasses many specific skills. Descriptions of these underlying skills, however, vary among authors, often by the disciplinary perspective from which critical thinking is approached (Sweet and Michaelsen, 2012; Nilson, 2014).

For instance, Paul and Elder (2008), from philosophy and educational psychology respectively, describe the critical thinker as someone who 

  1. raises vital questions and problems
  2. formulates them clearly and precisely
  3. gathers and assesses relevant information
  4. uses abstract ideas to interpret that information
  5. draws well-reasoned conclusions
  6. tests those conclusions against relevant criteria
  7. thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought
  8. recognizes assumptions as well as implications and consequences
  9. communicates effectively with others

Halpern (2003), a cognitive psychologist, defines critical thinking as including

  1. deductive inference
  2. argument analysis
  3. hypothesis testing
  4. understanding probability
  5. decision making
  6. problem solving
  7. creative thinking

Despite the differences in the definitions, commonalities can be found.  In her blog Unlocking the Mysteries of Critical Thinking (Faculty Focus, 12/1/2014), Linda B. Nilson identifies the following as common to all definitions of critical thinking: 

  1. It involves interpretation or analysis, usually followed by evaluation or judgment.
  2. It requires that learners have mastered some subject matter to think about, so it can’t be done in a knowledge vacuum.
  3. It involves not only cognition but also character and metacognition/self-regulated learning.

Nilson also notes that critical thinking "is difficult and unnatural and takes time and effort to learn."

Critical Thinking in the Disciplines

If the descriptions above evoke the intellectual practices of your discipline, you are on track. Evidence indicates that critical thinking is most effectively taught in the contexts of disciplines (Abrami et al., 2008), as students engage disciplinary content using discipline-specific intellectual approaches to inquiry.

Indeed, Abrami et al.'s meta-analysis revealed that student gains in critical thinking were generally higher in disciplinary courses with explicit critical thinking learning goals relative to courses designed to teach critical thinking in the absence of specific disciplinary subject matter. 

Because the details of critical thinking differ across disciplines, it is important to teach students both to think critically and to transfer critical thinking skills. The latter is supported by making the intellectual conventions of disciplines transparent to students, and teaching the cues for engaging particular types of thinking skills.   

Intersections with other Learning Goals and Core Competencies

As an essential set of intellectual skills, critical thinking can be expected to intersect in important ways with student development and demonstration of nearly all Program Learning Outcomes. 

Also, as suggested by the descriptions above, critical thinking will likely involve the other core competencies, including information literacy, quantitative reasoning, and oral and written communication. 


Critical thinking can be demonstrated in assignments that require students to identify questions, pose hypotheses, articulate the scope of a problem, and analyze and draw conclusions about text, data, and/or complex issues.  Culminating learning experiences like senior theses, design experiences, and other types of degree capstones are excellent ways to engage students in integratively applying and demonstrating critical thinking skills. 

If insight into the process components of critical thinking (e.g., how information sources were evaluated regardless of whether they were included in the product) is important, assignments focused on student reflection might be especially illuminating (Association of American Colleges and Universities, Value Rubric, Critical Thinking).

In Critical thinking: what it is and why it counts, Facione, P.A (Update 2013) offers a table with "questions to fire up our critical thinking skills"

Sample Rubrics

Discipline Specific Online Resources

Chemistry:  Desigining a Written Assignment to Promote the Use of Critical Thinking Skills in an Introductory Chemistry Course (Oliver-Hoyo, 2003)

Political ScienceTaking a Step Back: Teaching Critical Thinking by Distinguishing Appropriate Types of Evidence

PsychologyA Brief Guide for Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking in Psychology (This resource provides 7 recommendations for teaching/supporting CT, for example, "Use guided practice, explicitly modeling and scaffolding CT.")

SociologyExploring Critical Sociological Thinking


  1. Critical Thinking Model for Engineering (Niewohner, 2006)
  2. Integration of critical thinking across the curriculum: Graham, J., Welch. K., Hieb, J., & McNamara, S. (2012) Critical thinking in electrical and computer engineering. Conference proceeding for the American Society for Engineering Education's Annual Conference and Exposition. 
  3. Application to a specific example: Niewohner, R. & Steidle, C. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia, Portaging leadership lessons with a critical thinking model
  4. Paul, Richard. et al (2006) Engineering Reasoning
  5. Tran, Michael (2013) Critical Thinking for Engineers


Abrami, P.C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski. E., Wadem, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim R, Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysts. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2013). It takes more than a Major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success: Overview and key findings. Retrieved on 09/14/2014 from

Glaser, E. M. (1941). An experiment in the development of critical thinking. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Halpern, D.F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (4th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hamby, B. (Spring 2013). Review of think critically by Peter Facione and Carol Ann Gittens. Inquiry: Critical thinking across the disciplines, 28(1). Retrieved from

Neslon, J. (2005). Cultivating judgment: A sourcebook for teaching critical thinking. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Paul, R. (1995). Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking. Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2008). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013b). The critical thinking community. Available at

Smith, P. (Summer 2004). Exploring reality: Cultural studies and critical thinking: Cultural studies and general education. Liberal Education, 90(3). Retrieved from

Sweet, M. and Michaelsen, L., (2012). Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Group Work That Works to Generate Critical Thinking and Engagement. Stylus Publishing, Virginia. Chapter 1, Critical Thinking and Engagement: Creating Cognitive Apprenticeships With Team-Based Learning.