Fostering Critical Thinking

Perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced so far in my teaching career is getting students to produce original, interesting, and thoughtful ideas. Students often see school as a black or white, right or wrong type of institution. The teacher gives them the right answer, and all they have to do is remember it and reproduce it in essays and exams. This is, of course, not how things work in the Literature domain. There are no right or wrong answers. There are critical interpretations based on a close reading of the text and one’s own life experience, expressed carefully in logically satisfying arguments. But almost every time I’ve sat down to read a group of papers, I find the few ideas that I’ve shared in the class regurgitated back at me in almost every single essay. It can be an exasperating experience. It is very easy to ask questions like:


  • What is wrong with these students?
  • Why are they just repeating everything I’ve said?
  • Are they not capable of thinking?
  • Are they really this lazy?

Students, of course, have eight other classes to think about, not to mention jobs, families, friends, needy smartphones. Some of them are lazy. Some of them don’t care.

But rather than putting all the blame on students, some of the things we investigated in WID are:


  • How can I design lectures, class discussions, group discussions, and minor and major assignments in such a way that students don’t have a choice but to flex their critical thinking muscles?
  • How can I design the above so that students will want to flex their critical thinking muscles?
  • What is a critical thinking muscle, and how does it get flexed?

One way I’ve traditionally attempted to promote critical thinking is through a lot of group discussions and class discussions, and a minimum of lecturing. I would prepare study questions, which I would have students answer in groups. Still, I always felt like I wasn’t using group work in the most effective way possible. The study questions involved questions that I was interested in, but often closed the door to avenues of thought that I hadn’t considered. As far as group discussions go, somewhere in our WID research we came across the statistic that teachers end up talking 85% of the time during class discussions, which sounds about right to me. In this way, class discussions function almost like lectures, which is obviously a problem. Therefore, more questions arose:


  1. How do we discuss a piece of literature in class, and have each student come up with his or her own interpretation?
  2. How do I lead students in critical discussions without inundating them with my thoughts and opinions about what we’re reading?

One thing I do is provide a lot of positive feedback, both in discussions and in written work, for students who contradict what I say, as long as their interpretations are based in solid evidence from the text.

Another thing I’m trying to do is relinquishing control over discussions. I have many things to say about the novels we read. I have read them numerous times, thought about them, written about them, contemplated how I would teach them. In the past, I always felt it necessary to go over every point I had in detail with my students. Of course they didn’t come up with their own ideas—they didn’t have space to! I was asking for them what they thought, but always making sure to get through what I thought was important. What I plan to do going forward, is to present the material to them, go over some key themes and ideas in broad brush strokes, and let them fill in the rest for themselves.

Below are a few aspects of critical thinking as related to literature, and how I attempted to work my students’ critical thinking muscles:

Reading Closely

In order to get students to understand how the process of writing an essay works, I told them that the process of writing an essay on a novel begins the moment they it and read the first page. I stress that the more work they do while reading, the less work they will have when it comes time to write their essays.

I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the course talking about highlighting, underlining, and annotating their texts. I scanned a few pages from my own book and showed the class what they looked like. I prepared some overhead transparencies of a few pages and we underlined passages and annotated the margins together. Then I would split the students into groups, and have them work on underlining and annotating a few assigned page
Here’s an example of an annotating group activity I did:

Generating Ideas

John C. Bean, in his book Engaging Ideas, places a lot of emphasis on the value of exploratory writing. He considers these to be “thinking-on-paper” activities that are “typically loosely structured and tentative, moving off in unanticipated direction as new ideas, complications, and questions strike the writing in the process of thinking and creating” (120). I used these short, brainstorming-type activities a lot in my class this semester, and plan to use them even more thoroughly in future classes.

Having students write in class is a great way to break up the monotony of a lecture or a discussion. It forces all students to participate, right away. Many students are shy and not confident in their ideas. By writing down their ideas, I can show it to them afterward and say, “see, you did this. You can write well. You can come up with good ideas.” Again, I tell them that the ideas they come up with in their exploratory writing will often find their ways into their essays. Therefore, but coming to class and participating, they are already progressing with what will become their major projects.

These types of writing are also very easy to grade. Often, I just skimmed through them, trying to locate interesting ideas. Students were graded on meeting length requirements, and displaying that they had read the material closely.

In the future, I plan to work on more reading response assignments. For each reading the students complete, I will post a question or two, and have them consider it. In the future, I’d like to use online blogs as a way for students to post their ideas about what they’ve read, and to get inspired by other students’ ideas.

Here are a few exmaples of exploratory writing exercises I used this semester:

Exploratory Writing Exercise #1

Exploratory Writing Exercise #2

I structured this one in a way to get students to make connections between different parts of the novel we were reading:

Reference Letter

I used this one as a way for students to make connections between the novel and their own lives:

Relating Novel to Students’ Lives

This is activity I created to get students asking questions about the novel we were reading:

The Favourite Game Question Carousel

I asked students to write a poem about their communities as a way to get them more engaged with the theme of our course, as well as to help them get over their fear of poetry:

Community Poem Project

Working in Groups

Bean devotes an entire chapter to the effective use of group work. He has some really great advice on how to get more out of classroom group work.

First of all, he suggests that the best size for a group is five members, and to assign groups randomly (196). In the past, I have experimented with different sized groups, and most of the time have had students choose their own groups. I think that choosing groups randomly works better than having students create their own groups. Students tend to work with their friends, which leads to a higher probability for goofing off and not staying on task. In terms of the number of students, I think five works well. It doesn’t completely solve one fo the biggest problems of group work: a couple of people end up doing all the work, and the rest of the group sit there doing nothing. But, for some reason, five does seem to work better than four or three, so I think I’ll stick wtih that.

Five is a good number also because there is a good chance that a few of the students will disagree about some matters. Forcing the students to consider the different sides of a conflict is an excellent critical thinking exercise: “By showing students how conflict generates creative thinking, the teacher can help students welcome disagreements and see how a watered-down compromise that no one really likes is less valuable than a true synthesis that seems better than either of the original views” (Bean, 198).

Considering Different Sides of an Issue

I spend a lot of time getting students to consider the complexity of issues that we look at in class. They are often content to pick a side, and then look for evidence to defend it. I try and explain that argumentation rarely works like this. Nothing is every completely one thing or completely the other. Shades of grey are inherent in any intellectual discussion. Students sometimes have a hard time with nuance, so structuring activities that force them to look at things from different angles can be very productive: “The best teaching strategies for accelerating students’ growth are tasks that ask students to consider multiple points of view, to confront clashing values, and to imagine, analyze, and evalute alternative solutions to problems” (Bean, 28). Training students in the practice of congnitive dissonance leads to more sophisticated class discussions, and, eventually, better essays. One technique I’ve had success with is to make a statement, and have them either (mostly) agree with it or (mostly) disagree with it. Then I make them explain why, exactly, they agree or disagree with it.

Here’s an activity that was inspired by an exercise Bean describes in his book:

Considering Both Sides of an Issue

Problem Solving

Another thing that Bean preaches is to frame questions and assignments as problems. This, he argues, is a way to get students more engaged, and have a better footing for how to proceed with a task. All critical inquiry, and writing, is a form of problem solving. More sophisticated academics inherently understand analysis as a form of problem solving. College students could probably benefit greatly from having their assignments posed as problems. Bean writes that “[p]art of the difficulty of teaching critical thinking…is awakening students to the existence of problems all around them” (3). This was quite eye-opening for me. I realized that I could get more interesting writing from my students by posing questions as kinds of problems, rather than open-ended and broad questions that are very difficult to respond to. This opened the possibility of real-world, role-playing-type essay prompts.

Consider my prompts for an essay the students had to write about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz:

Essay Topics