What Are the Best Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills?

Sheri Cyprus

The best tips for teaching critical thinking skills include understanding the analytical level of your students and placing an emphasis on writing essays. Since essays involve supporting the writer's thesis, or main idea, with supporting arguments plus research, students can be taught the difference between well-reasoned judgments and mere opinion or belief. Another way to teach critical thinking skills is to encourage students to see both details and the bigger picture by using the "forest and trees" analogy. Introducing a four-step approach to solving problems that involves recognizing the problem, exploring all options through creative brainstorming, taking time to reflect on the issues and finally eliminating solutions or ideas that won't work.

Emphasizing the process of relection is an important aspect of teaching critical thinking skills.
Emphasizing the process of relection is an important aspect of teaching critical thinking skills.

Reasoning based on valid information is a keystone of critical thinking. A good tip to keep in mind when teaching critical thinking skills is to make sure students understand how to choose valid research sources of information when doing essay assignments. If they don't, making reasonable judgments and logical supporting statements isn't likely to be possible.

Critical thinking and critical reading go hand in hand.
Critical thinking and critical reading go hand in hand.

It can be easy to believe almost any source as having reliable information unless one is taught to look for valid sources only. Not having accurate sources or facts makes it difficult to eliminate faulty solutions or ideas in problem solving. Students should learn how to disregard inaccurate or dubious information based on a lack of evidence or facts to back up the source and instead use critical reading approaches.

Teaching students to take time to reflect on a problem or issue without making a snap decision, especially one based on emotion, is crucial in communicating the concepts of critical thinking. Unless trained otherwise, many people don't actually spend time thinking and reflecting on the different sides and questions involved in a topic. Rather, they voice their opinion, which is usually fueled by emotions or past personal experience rather than on a thoughtful, wider perspective. Teaching critical thinking skills by emphasizing reflection can often be accomplished by instructing students to think about an issue or problem from many different sides.

Such creative thought, brainstorming or open thinking, usually leads to questions or connected ideas that in turn may lead to valid points about the subject or situation. Opening the topic up also tends to reveal more options in solving problems connected to it. Presenting a problem to the class for students to brainstorm and reflect on can help in teaching critical thinking skills.

As solutions are mentioned by different students, evaluating the suggestions using a critical approach can further the lesson. If the class seems to focus on either too general or too specific options, bringing up the "forest and trees" analogy may help increase the level of thought. The expression "not being able to see the forest for the trees" can communicate the message that too much attention to details is resulting in some main points being missed. The opposite scenario, "not being able to see the trees for the forest" will present another common issue when teaching critical thinking skills. Seeing only the general trend, without looking at individual cases can especially work against thinking critically, as it often leads to stereotyping through over-generalization.

Encouraging students to support their opinion with evidence is a way of teaching critical thinking skills.
Encouraging students to support their opinion with evidence is a way of teaching critical thinking skills.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - One of the most important parts of that is getting students to understand that every single piece of writing has authorial intent, even if that intent is to remain neutral.

This is a particularly good thing to teach high school students given how biased some textbooks tend to be.

Once they really grasp that there is a purpose behind everything, they will be able to start thinking about what that purpose is and what techniques have been used to promote it.


@bythewell - Rubrics are important but I think that critical thought can only really be taught by using it on established works. One thing that I notice a lot of teachers tend to get wrong is assigning some classic book or a subject with a lot of well established thought about it and then penalizing any real critical thought. No book is perfect and no one side of a conflict is completely in the right. The point of critical thought is not to identify all the features of a thing, but to evaluate and compare them.

If you assign a poem to your students and they think it's boring, that's fine. Get them to tell you why it's boring and how it could be improved without losing the inherent purpose and what other, similar works did it better and how.


Using a rubric when assigning essays can be a crucial part of teaching students to think critically about a subject. Don't just give them one and expect them to use it without guidance. Make sure you go over several essays with each student and possibly example essays with the class as well, so that they can learn to match what is expected with what has actually been produced.

A good rubric will show them the direction they have to go in and how far they should take their investigation without outright telling them what to say.

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