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7 keys for teaching students to think independently and critically

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Seven Keys for Teaching Students to Think Independently and Critically
It's not enough to just cover the content. Teach students to think.
As a teacher, you might have been told that critical thinking is one of the main goals you should aim to teach your students. But how do you get them there? Let's look at seven tips that will help you assess what your students know, and help guide them through the process of understanding information and arriving at a conclusion on their own.

Teach your students to think independently and critically

You might not be a psychologist or a behavioral scientist, but you are a teacher. So, the ability to look at material from different angles and challenging students to think critically is a skill that has helped a number of the influential teachers forge an everlasting impression on their students.

Critical thinking is not just about questioning, it’s also about knowing where to challenge your students so they solve problems, reflect, and come up with their own solutions and opinions.

If you want to become a better teacher, here are seven tips that will help you assess what your students know, and help guide them through understanding information and arriving at a conclusion on their own.

1 | Understand what critical thinking is and how you can help students achieve it

Critical thinking is a process of thought that aims to evaluate claims and make decisions in a logical manner. It is learning to ask the right questions, not just the easy or the obvious ones. Critical thinking requires us to be impartial and to recognize our own biases. Being able to think critically is essential in today’s society, where many sources of information bombard us. For students, critical thinking must be learned early on and practiced every day as part of their academic and social development.

How to teach critical thinking to students correctly and effectively is a fundamental challenge for all educators. As teachers, we often start our classes with the best of intentions, but then the demands of the school year steal our time from planning thoughtful lessons and we focus primarily on content delivery. We may spend so much class time on new and review material that we neglect training students in how to transfer what they learn in the classroom to real life.

Critical thinking is a skill that students will use throughout their lifetimes. It is a way of thinking that relies on logic and evidence to think about and solve problems.

The most effective way to teach critical thinking is to provide practice in identifying, analyzing, and solving problems. These activities can be effective with any subject, from science to math to social studies.

The key is for students to know how to analyze a problem and provide an answer that is logical and supported by evidence.

Critical thinkers

  • ask questions,

  • make observations,

  • gather information,

  • reason logically,

  • evaluate the information they have gathered,

  • consider alternative explanations or solutions,

  • clarify their ideas,

  • and communicate the results of their reasoning.

Critical thinkers also recognize that there may be different ways of solving a problem or reaching a conclusion. They know there are limits to what they know and what they can explain simply because there are limits to human knowledge.

They are aware of biases in themselves and others that might affect reasoning. They strive for objectivity — "considering all sides" — and rely on facts more than emotion or personal belief when making decisions.

How to help students become better critical thinkers

As a teacher, you can help shape your students' critical thinking skills. Encourage them to develop questioning minds, so they'll ask good questions and find answers on their own. Help them make observations, gather information, and reason logically. Challenge them to develop alternative explanations or solutions to problems. Guide them in clarifying their ideas and communicating their results.

The ideas below can help students become critical thinkers:

Help students develop questioning minds

When you discuss a topic, encourage students to ask questions about it. Ask them questions yourself, too — not just factual ones, but open-ended ones that get them thinking, such as:

  • Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

  • What do you think about this?

  • What do you wonder about that?

  • What does this remind you of? What do you predict will happen next?

  • How could you solve this problem?

  • Who could we ask for more information about this topic?

  • What would happen if . . . ?

Help students develop observation skills

Encourage them to look closely at what they're studying — whether it's an object or a relationship between objects — and describe what they see in detail. Pay close attention to your students’ descriptions of what they observe. Are they simply naming an object? Or are they also describing its color, size, and shape? Are they also describing the object's position in relation to other objects?

Challenge students to develop alternative explanations or solutions to problems

Create learning experiences that allow students to think critically and solve problems creatively. This allows them to see multiple solutions that may not be obvious at first glance. It also helps students see problems from a variety of perspectives, which will help them develop academically and socially. Ask students what they think might happen next, why something is the way it is, or how someone else might feel about a given situation.

Guide students in clarifying their ideas and communicating their results

A student who thinks independently can "figure out" the answer to a problem rather than simply parrot it back to you. He or she takes ownership of the learning experience and shows his or her understanding through essays, research papers, tests and quizzes, presentations, interviews and other means. These students are also better prepared to deal with problems that arise when they are required to use their knowledge in the working world.

Provide opportunities for reflection

When you ask students questions about their experience with an activity or lesson, you may find out ways you can improve your teaching methods or strengthen an activity's impact on students' learning. Encourage students to think about how your lessons link to other concepts they've learned previously or will learn later on.

Ultimately, teaching students to think independently is about supporting them along the path of critical thinking skills development. Gather key research and best practices, provide examples and opportunities during class discussions, and refrain from making judgmental statements that may lead to a less-than-valuable outcome.

This will lay a solid foundation for students to develop their social skills to enhance their ability to reason through different situations requiring independent thinking. Be patient; the larger their toolkit of critical thinking skills, the more flexible they will be able to think on their own.

2 | Differentiate between critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are two different things, and they require different approaches. Critical thinking involves looking at a problem and then analyzing it and breaking it down to its component parts. Problem solving, on the other hand, involves the creation of a solution to a problem.

Critical thinking has gained a lot of traction among schools and teachers. More and more educators are looking to teach students how to think critically. They have made changes in their curricula and have added programs in order to teach students how to think, not what to think.

However, teaching critical thinking does not mean providing an easy road for students to be critical of everything. There is a still a need for teaching students how to solve problems. It is essential that we differentiate between two important skills: critical thinking and problem solving.

What do people mean when they talk about critical thinking?

"Critical thinking" is a buzzword you hear frequently in education, but it's a vague term. When people talk about critical thinking, do they mean asking questions, engaging in a discussion, or coming up with an argument? What does it mean to be "critical"?

How can teachers help their students use critical thinking skills? One way is by helping students distinguish between problem solving and critical thinking.

One common misconception about critical thinking is that it is the same thing as problem solving. While there are certainly some similarities between the two, critical thinking represents a deeper approach to solving; it considers context, perspective, and implications in a more profound way than problem solving does.

Problem solving helps students go through a step-by-step process to find the answer, while critical thinking helps them identify and analyze the problem.

Problem Solving: The process of finding the solution to a problem

It involves clearly identifying the problem, determining what information is needed to solve it, collecting that information and developing a solution.

Critical Thinking: Analyzing information and evaluating arguments in order to make informed decisions.

Critical thinkers ask questions like "What is this argument based on?" and "What are other points of view on this topic?" Teachers can help students develop critical thinking skills by exposing them to different points of view about controversial topics. They can also encourage students to consider multiple perspectives by showing how two opposing viewpoints can be supported by different pieces of evidence or logic.

Good critical thinking skills are undeniably valuable, but not everyone develops them naturally. Teachers must be aware of the differences between critical thinking and problem solving to support all students. Critical thinking and problem solving can be largely differentiated by level of abstraction (critical thinking is generally more abstract) as well as type of response (critical thinkers also tend to generate more solutions).

By encouraging students to use critical thinking techniques at each stage of the problem-solving process and helping them distinguish between these two similar, but distinct, processes, teachers can foster more independence in their students.

3 | Teach your students to question data, sources, and the claims of others

The best thinkers question everything. They have supreme confidence in evidence, skepticism toward arguments and conclusions, and a willingness to consider alternative explanations for what holds true in the world. In other words, they don't just accept things as facts. Helping students become critical thinkers is a key ingredient of high-quality learning, and it is vital to our society's well-being.

Teaching students to think independently and critically is becoming increasingly important. As the world evolves, so must students' skills of analysis and problem solving. Teaching students to question data, sources, and the claims of others will help them become savvy consumers of information in our digital age.

The ease of internet access means that students have access to a plethora of information and websites that are both reliable and unreliable. They can also be given a large number of sources that can be used to prove or disprove a claim.

While most students learn skills that will help them interpret and understand information that's presented to them, too many do not get a chance to practice these skills.

Teaching students to think critically is a skill that takes time and effort to master. As a teacher, you have the chance to help your students become critical thinkers by modeling this type of thinking in your own classroom.

Here are three strategies that can help:

Encourage students to question what they read, hear, or see

Have them identify the claims being made in reading passages and question the reasoning used to support those claims. You can also ask them to look at sources of information (such as graphs or charts) and consider how reliable they are.

Model critical thinking in your own teaching

When you make a claim or argument, be prepared—and willing—to back it up with evidence. Be sure you know how credible the source is and whether any evidence supports your reasoning. If there is no evidence, reconsider making the claim.

Model asking questions about assigned readings and other assignments

If a student asks a silly question, encourage them to think about why it's silly, rather than shushing them. Ask them questions such as "What do you mean by that?" or "What makes you think that?" This will encourage students to think more deeply about what they are reading and hearing from others.

When students can gather information, analyze it, and make decisions based on their findings, they're learning how to think critically. Critical thinking enables students to take charge of their own learning and problem-solving skills. It also teaches them to be more open to new ideas and information, which prepares them for a world in which information is widely available but not always trustworthy.

As educators, we can use the educational resources available to us to inspire independent critical-thinking. However, the biggest part of teaching this is simply encouraging students to ask questions and question their answers. Through that process alone, they can find new ways in which they can show their ability to think critically and independently.

4 | Teach your students to identify fallacies when presented with information or arguments

You can buy all the books you want on critical thinking, but nothing will set your students up for success quite like teaching them how to identify logical fallacies.

When your students are presented with information, claims, or arguments, they should be taught to identify fallacies the same way they’re taught to identify grammatical problems in their writing. It’s important that people can recognize bad reasoning so that they can avoid being duped by poor arguments or fallacious claims.

Tempting though it is to skip over fallacies in our quest to teach students how to construct sound arguments, doing so would miss a valuable opportunity to help them develop critical thinking skills.

Fallacies are errors in reasoning that render an argument invalid or unsound. The important thing for students to grasp is that a fallacy isn't necessarily a lie — it's simply a mistake in reasoning that undermines an argument's validity. Sometimes the fallacy will be due to carelessness or ignorance, while other times it will be intentional on the part of the arguer.

All students should be taught how to think critically and independently, and how to avoid common logical fallacies.

For example, students should know that the following statements can be misleading:

  • Experts agree that...

  • Studies show that...

  • It is well known that...

  • It is common sense that...

  • I believe that...

  • I think that...

  • Many people say that...

  • This is obvious because...

  • This is clear because...

Here are just a few of the most common errors in logic:

  • Red Herring—a statement that is intended to distract attention from the main issue in a conversation. Example: "I can't believe you think that global warming isn't real! What about all of those scientists who support it?"

  • Ad Hominem—an attack on another person's character instead of his or her argument. Example: "You're just saying that because you're insane."

  • Straw Man—misinterpreting an argument so it's easier to attack. Example: "You say we need more gun control? So you want to take our guns away?"

  • Begging the Question—assuming something to be true without providing evidence for it first. Example: "We should raise taxes because we need more money for infrastructure."

To be able to think critically and to come to the most accurate conclusions possible, we must first teach our students how their thinking can be manipulated. It is not enough to simply identify one fallacy or another; we ensure that they understand the reasons underlying these fallacies so that they may learn how to avoid them.

5 | Guide your students through the process of arriving at their own conclusions

As humans, we are extremely susceptible to certain biases and social pressures that can prevent us from arriving at accurate conclusions. Sometimes our previous experiences and knowledge allow us to make reasonably accurate judgments, but many times our first instincts are wrong. That’s why critical thinking is so important — it allows us to put aside the influences floating around in our heads and instead rely on actual evidence to arrive at an honest conclusion.

It is important to teach students how to think for themselves. Having independent thinkers prepares them for the working world, where they will have to deal with a myriad of situations and people. Students must learn that not everyone sees things the way you do, and that it is okay to have different opinions.

The following steps can help students learn how to think for themselves in the classroom:

Give them lots of opportunities to participate

While you are teaching something new, put students into small groups so that they have a chance to ask questions and share their ideas. This also gives them a chance to think about what they have learned on their own time. This will also give them a chance to hear other perspectives, which is important in learning how to think critically.

Encourage discussion in your classroom

You want your students to know that there are many ways to interpret an idea or situation and encourage them to speak their minds when they feel comfortable doing so.

Answer questions with questions

Asking questions is a good way of getting students talking with each other and interjecting their thoughts into the discussions. Questions encourage critical thinking and help you gauge where the student's understanding of the material may be lacking.

By answering questions with questions, it forces them to come up with their own answers, leads to powerful dialogue among your students, and encourages your students to explain their reasoning behind their answers and to share their thoughts with each other.

It is natural for students to want to know the correct answer, and to not want to look foolish or be wrong. But if others surround them who will also benefit from hearing multiple perspectives, it can spur an intriguing discussion that encourages learning and discovery, instead of just regurgitation.

Encourage students to find their own solutions and agree or disagree with the work of others. This will help them learn how to work in teams, differentiating themselves from everyone else who does not know how to interact properly with others.

6 | Provide activities that encourage your students to think independently and critically

Academic success involves not only developing important content knowledge, but also the ability to apply that knowledge to different situations. Teaching students to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations will help them develop flexible thinking and strategies for problem-solving, regardless of the subject area or discipline.

Many students come to school with little, if any, critical thinking skills. They are used to getting information "plugged in" for them, and do not develop the ability to solve problems independently. We cannot expect our students to continue learning if we continue to teach them in ways that do not foster independent and critical thinking.

The best way to teach students to think critically is to think critically yourself. It's important to be aware of one's own biases and acknowledge them when planning lessons, particularly if you have a particular point of view or agenda.

Idealism can be good, but there will be moments that challenge your perspective. You must be ready to shift your views in response to new evidence. In order to teach students how to do this, you must first do it yourself.

How do we do this?

  • Planning: The first step is to plan ahead so you can remain flexible and responsive during the lesson.

  • Incite curiosity: A primary task of the teacher is to motivate and engage students' curiosity. If students are engaged in the material, they are more likely to think for themselves about it. This requires anticipating their questions and addressing them as the lesson unfolds.

  • Assign tasks: Critical thinking involves analysis and synthesis of information, both skills that require practice. Assigning specific written or oral tasks is one way to challenge your students' critical thinking skills and help them develop these skills for themselves.

  • Make connections: When you provide multiple examples of how new ideas relate to earlier topics, you are encouraging students to make connections between what they already know and what they are learning. Providing a clear example of how an idea relates to a previous one helps students to see the relationships between ideas and encourages them to make their own connections.

It's critical for teachers to provide activities that encourage independent and critical thinking in their classrooms. These activities provide a venue for students to practice these essential skills, and teachers can use them as an opportunity to engage and interact with their students.

Doing so will allow for greater opportunities for dialogue about the goals of these types of assignments, which can aid in improving both student learning and teacher instruction.

7 | Encourage your students to develop confidence in their skills as they improve over time

Thinking is the foundation of all learning. More than anything else, students need to learn how to become independent thinkers who can make their own decisions and solve problems on their own.

As students grow, they will become stronger thinkers. This can take time and can sometimes frustrate students who may feel stuck in the same type of thinking. So how do you get the independent and critical thinking started? Start with some "seed" techniques that nurture this growth.

Encourage positive self-talk

It's important for students to realize that they can learn and master new material. When they think positively about their abilities as learners, they are more likely to take risks, accept challenges and persevere when faced with difficulty. Students who believe in themselves will be better able to advocate for themselves, seek resources to support learning, and accept constructive criticism from others.

Provide opportunities for independent practice and reflection

Students need time to reflect on what they have learned, go back over information, study materials or problems and make sense of it in a way that helps them learn the material well. Make sure that your students have time during class each day for independent practice or reflection so they get used to working on their own as well as with others to learn material.

Provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of the concept or skill

Students often do not improve unless given many opportunities to demonstrate knowledge or skills; therefore, it is important that you provide a variety of ways for them to show what they know and can do.

Many teachers agree that a key to developing critical thinking skills is helping students to develop independence and confidence. The benefits of this type of learning are better long-term recall, recognition of patterns and appropriate use, and of course the reality that students who develop strong critical thinking skills enable flexibility in being able to engage in divergent thinking when they encounter situations or problems they have never faced before.

Teaching students to think critically takes time and effort, but it can open up the world to them and equip students with the skills to succeed

In today’s environment, where instant gratification is prevalent, critical thinking takes time — and that’s something that every teacher has to keep in mind. However, with patience and the right tools and methods, you can help your students think critically about the world around them. And when they reach this point of independent thinking, you’ll be able to sit back and know that you have been a catalyst for their success.

Of course, critical thinking isn’t a skill that interests or appeals to all of your students. But whether or not they realize it, they will almost certainly benefit from developing these skills. This doesn’t just mean that they’ll be better prepared to write the next day’s essay assignment, but also that they can effectively tackle any question that might come up in their future.

So take some time to teach your students about critical thinking and independent thought. Your students might not enjoy the exercises at first, but these skills are ones that will serve them well for years to come.

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