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Critical Thinking Classes

Defining Critical Thinking Courses

Defining Critical Thinking Courses

written by Chris Green


Earlier this semester on our college listserv, some of my Liberal Arts colleagues shared their frustrations about designating certain courses as “critical thinking” when almost every course contains critical thinking in some version. Such frustrations are sensible given the term’s wide and varied use. To help clarify, I would like to explain what the Critical Thinking designator means in Marshall’s General Education curriculum, but, first, here is a bit of back ground about the term.

The term “critical thinking” burst onto the educational scene in 1962 [1] and forwarded a framework to train students in rational argumentation. This move was amplified by the focus on science during the Cold War, the need for higher education to demonstrate its methods, and the influx of students from varied backgrounds.

Over the last forty years, the basic mechanisms and vocabulary of such rational argumentation have become central to higher education. At the same time, the need to demonstrate the utility of higher education has continued to rise as an even wider set of Americans gain access to it.

In response, an industry of Critical Thinking has arisen, promoting the term’s cultural capital as well as increasing its proprietary feel and ambiguity. Indeed, “critical thinking” is now so widely used that one must consider its definition on a case by case basis, but after much consideration, I find the following definition works in most cases: to purposefully hone (through application, evaluation, and adaptation) the effectiveness of a skill or practice.

Working in the framework of that history, various groups of Marshall professors—always with representatives from each college—began developing a set of practices that define what “Critical Thinking” courses will mean for our purposes, a practices that will continue to evolve through use, conversation, and revision. That work came to fruition in Fall 2010 with Faculty Senate recommendation SR-09-10-(03) 49 CFAHC whose details I explain below.

Concisely summarized, a “Critical Thinking” class is a 100 or 200 level course designed to help freshman and sophomore students learn key cognitive skills, attention to which will aid their success in all their course work. This focus on the early learning of such skills complements the requirement that all general education courses now have to be either 100 or 200 level—the goal is to have students take these classes earlier rather than later. General Education Core I courses (FYS and CT) seek to bolster students’ academic success early in their college careers (during which they will take the majority of their general education courses), thus setting them up for stronger performance in other general education classes and greater accomplishment in their majors.

Critical Thinking courses promise to show their students how the disciplinary practices being introduced in that class use at least three of the following lenses: (1) reasoning, (2) representation, (3) cultural judgment, (4) information literacy, and (5) metacognitive reflection. Critical Thinking courses also show how those practices and skills relate to a primary domain of thinking (e.g., scientific or multicultural/international thinking) and at least one other domain. By having departments and professors articulate the different domains in which a CT course operates, the goal is to help everyone see the inter-related nature of courses in different disciplines.

CT courses emphasize conscious development of a few key skills by active learning rather than the accumulation of knowledge by memorization. They do so by helping students develop those skills though varied pedagogical methods that professors specify. The courses also ask students to demonstrate those skills so that the professor can assess the student’s proficiency in higher-order cognition such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

While such specifics can make one feel penned, they also offer a place from which we might start gauging and adjusting the practice and effect of General Education at Marshall. By specifying courses as Critical Thinking, Marshall’s General Education Core I classes have three major goals: (1) to help students develop skills that will foster success in all classes; (2) to help students integrate learning from different disciplines; and (3) to help students identify and apply skills they have gained to changing and varied circumstances and endeavors.

These goals set the basis for continued development and adaptation of those skills throughout the whole of students’ lives in their varied professional undertakings, social and political commitments, and personal explorations. Not only will our alumni continue to be marketable during economic changes, but they will have the skills to excel as citizens as our nation and world continue to alter.

In developing Marshall’s own version of “Critical Thinking,” the hundred plus faculty who have worked on clarifying the goals and process of General Education at Marshall hope that more of our students will complete college with an even better education (which is a high goal) and that Marshall will stand out as a university even more worthy of the population we serve.


For more on General Education at Marshall, visit: www.marshall.edu/gened.

[1] “Critical Thinking.”Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia London: Routledge, 1996. Credo Reference. Web. 19 September 2010.

The Key Concept of the Course

This course is entirely and exclusively concerned with the development of potential capacities that all of you have, even though you have not developed them, capacities in that part of your mind known as "your intellect". Most people don’t develop their intellect and use it very ineffectively and often mainly to rationalize or justify their infantile or egocentric drives.

One way to put this point is to say that most people are not in charge of their ideas and thinking. Most of their ideas have come into their minds without their having thought about it. They unconsciously pick up what the people around them think. They unconsciously pick up what is on television or in the movies.

They unconsciously absorb ideas from the family they were raised in. They are the products, through and through, of forces they did not choose. They reflect those forces without understanding them. They are like puppets who don’t know that they have strings being pulled.

To become a critical thinker is to reverse that process, by learning to practice skills that enable one to start to take charge of the ideas that run one’s life. It is to think consciously and deliberately and skillfully in ways that transform oneself. It is to begin to remake one’s own mind. It is to run for the first time one’s inner workings and to understand the "system" one is running. It is to develop a mind that is analogous to the body of a person that is physically fit. It is like an excellent dancer who can perform any dance that can be choreographed. It is like a puppet that discovers the strings, and figures out how to gain control of the way they are pulled.

Whenever you are doing a task in or for the class, ask yourself, would an independent observer watching you closely conclude that you were engaged in "taking charge of your mind, of your ideas, of your thinking" or would such a person conclude that you were "merely going through the motions of formally doing an assignment", trying to get by with some rotely memorized formula or procedure?

The General Plan

The class will focus on practice not on lecture. It will emphasize your figuring out things using your own mind, not memorizing what is in a textbook. On a typical class day you will be in small groups practicing "disciplined" thinking. You will be regularly responsible for assessing your own work using criteria and standards discussed in class. If at any time in the semester you feel unsure about your "grade", you should request an assessment from the professor.

For every class day you will have a written assignment which involves "disciplined" thinking. Out of class you will enter disciplined reflections into in a journal, using a special format.


All students must complete all of the following:

  1. 25 short written assignments, one due for every class day. Each of these must be computer - generated - so that you can easily revise them. If your assignment for the day is not completed, then you are not prepared to do the "in-class" work of the day and you will be asked to leave.
  2. 20 journal entries, all in a special format.
  3. An oral exam. This is a mastery exam. All entries must be passed to pass the exam.
  4. A final exam.
  5. A Self-Evaluation, in which you "make a case" for receiving a particular grade using criteria provided in class and citing evidence from your work across the semester.
  6. Consistent classroom attendance and active, skilled participation.


The class will not be graded on a curve. It is theoretically possible for the whole class to get an A or an F. You will not be competing against each other and there will be every incentive to help each other improve. No letter grades will be given before the final grade - unless you make a specific request to the professor. You should focus on improving your performance, increasing your strengths and diminishing your weaknesses, not in looking for a grade.

  • Final Exam: about 30%
  • Out of class writing: about 30%
  • Self-evaluation: about 20%
  • Active, Skilled Participation: about 10 %
  • Journal: about 10%
  • Penalty for Missed Classes: You may miss two classes without receiving any formal penalty (though it is clearly in your interest to attend every class and participate actively). Every two unexcused absences after the first two results in a 1/3 of a grade penalty (Hence, with four absences: if your final grade would have been C+, it would be reduced to a C; if C- it would be reduced to D+). Attendance is taken by way of "stamped in" class assignments.
Since the final grade is not based on points and is not mathematically calculated, the above percentages are approximations to suggest emphasis, not precise figures. In assigning your final grade the professor will lay all of your work out before him and match your work as a whole against the criteria passed out in class. You should read and re-read these criteria many times through-out the semester to ensure that you are clear about what you are striving to achieve.

Vague Thinking

The "mortal sin" of the class is thinking that is vague, obscure, nebulous, blurred, confused, intangible, indefinite, imprecise, fuzzy, foggy, or indeterminate. If you learn nothing else in the class, learn to be clear, precise, definite, specific, concrete, distinct, and exact in what you say and write.

Reading Resource

There is a book available to serve as a background reader for the concepts of the course. Once in a while assignments may be made in it, but for the most part it will be used for readings that will help you learn some of the basic concepts implicit in the course. The book, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, retails for $30, but is being made available for $15 only to registered members of the course. Books will be available for this price simply once in class. You will have to pay in cash or with a check made out to The Foundation For Critical Thinking. At the final exam you may sell the book back for $8, making your cost for the semester only $7.

Teaching Assistants

There will be some teaching assistants working with the professor, Richard Paul. These assistants do not assign grades, nor do they lecture. Instead, they help with tutorial work and are facilitators for in-class practice sessions when the professor is away on University work. They also administer the oral exam and conduct practice sessions when the professor is absent on official business. All class sessions are designed by the professor with specific goals in mind. There should be no relaxation of discipline and excellence of work when participating in a practice sessions conducted by the teaching assistants in the absence of the professor. Active, skilled participation in these sessions is just as important to your final grade as that of any other session.

{This article is adapted from the resource: Critical Thinking Basic Theory and Instructional Structures.}

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