7 keys for teaching students to think independently and critically

Updated: Mar 2

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

  2. Differentiate between critical thinking and problem solving

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

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

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

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

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

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.