Encouraging Students to Think Critically


Brief Description

One goal that all teachers have for their students is to get them to think carefully about complex topics. The best way to do this (according to teaching scholars like Ken Bain and James Lang) is to first stimulate students with an interesting question and then structure an experience where they can test out their beliefs regarding that question. This template demonstrates one way for teachers to structure learning experiences such as this.

When to Use the Thinking Critically Template

Teachers can use this template not only during a lesson on the topic of critical thinking, but any time they want to rethink how they traditionally deliver information to students. Education scholars encourage teachers to think of themselves as “learning facilitators” rather than fall into the traditional definition of a teacher as someone who transfers knowledge to students.

When you can think of an interesting question that students can take some time grappling with, then this template can help you structure an activity (synchronously or asynchronously) that will guide students in a structured way (rather than simply asking students to “think about this”). The survey components (steps 2 and 5) will help students see what they and other students think about your question, and then help them see how opinions have changed once additional information has been introduced. This should set them up for a quality discussion.

What are the Steps?

Introduction of the Question: it is up to instructors to “step back” from what they want content they want students “to know” or “to memorize” and consider a bigger picture: how can what I want students to learn fit within a larger, complex and interesting question?

Survey 1: find out what students already think about your question. This can be eye-opening to the instructor and help guide your future question creation. If most students are of the same opinion, your question could be an opportunity for them to question their beliefs and learn to be more careful thinkers.

Introduction of Alternative Information: this is where you can really draw students in. Present them with videos, articles and other media that you know will surprise them. Professor Ken Bain refers to these as “expectation failures” - in other words, information that is contrary to what they previously believed.

Group Discussion of both what students originally thought about the question and what they think of the new information you presented in step 3.

Survey 2: after a period of time for discussion or personal reflection, now is the time to survey learners again with the exact same question you gave in step 1 to see if and how opinions have changed regarding the question.

Reflection: at this point instructors can show learners how they responded to surveys 1 and 2.

Zoom out so everyone can see both scales to determine if there has been any movement in their opinions from survey 1 to survey 2. This is a great time to ask what caused some learners to change their minds and why others didn’t.


Hi. I am an educator and host of the long-running The Psych Files podcast. I love edtech and how it can be used to engage students in the learning process.
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