What is critical thinking?

Believe it or not, this is not the easiest question to answer, but its kind of important if, for instance, you are formally assessing student CT in your course to try and measure if you are having any effect on it. Or maybe writing a teaching guide for adjunct instructors offering advice on how to encourage CT in their class. Some teachers think that any question involves CT; this teacher says that CT is happening when a question addresses higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and that its difficult to assess if you are using multiple choice questions. Ultimately though, it is very very difficult to know when you are measuring it.

Take this question, for example:

Streptococcus is a bacteria that can cause disease in humans. The following graph summarizes the reported cases of drug-resistant, invasive streptococcal disease in the United States from 2007 – 2009. Scientists working for an air conditioning company have published a study suggesting that the increase in air temperature during the summer is what drives down the rates of this infection. They point to this graph, saying that it proves their case

a. Does the data shown in the graph prove the scientists’ hypothesis?

b. Briefly describe an alternative hypothesis for the reduction in cases during the summer.

Clearly some critical thinking is involved here, but what if someone hypothetically answers “yes” to the first question (it “proves” the scientists case) but then offers a plausible alternative explanation in the second? The fact that they can come up with an alternative explanation says “critical thinking yes!”, but then why do they accept this data as proof for the hypothesis in the question? I guess this person would be unclear about what the word “proof” means? Or does the second answer cancel out the first?

For my end-of-semester analysis, I am tempted to use questions like this and look only at the ability to find alternative explanations for assessing if my class’s CT skills have gone up or down (even though most likely it takes multiple semesters to improve one’s CT skills).


About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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