To teach critical thinking is to understand it

An article by Dr Angelito Calma

In the teaching and learning space in higher education, lecturers often complain about some skills that students miss, particularly when those skills are required to be showcased in various forms of assessments to indicate whether they meet desired learning outcomes or not. Skills such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, problem solving or teamwork skills are often displayed at levels not expected. Neither students nor lecturers are entirely at fault but it is safe to say that the learning and teaching process and the experiences built around this process can have significant influence on how these skills can further develop.

Take critical thinking for example. Critical thinking is regarded as one of the many important skills that business students need to develop in order to fully participate in higher education and in the real world of work. A quick scan of our program and subject offerings in the Faculty shows significant focus on this, both in expressing it as a desired outcome, skill or attribute and in the range of teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom or online.Man Thinking. Image Source:

But therein lies an issue: some instructors do not feel equipped enough to teach these skills. In developing students’ critical thinking, for example, some academics feel that it is important to teach it (Smith, 2003) but feel inadequate to train others, that there is insufficient time to develop it during the course, or find it challenging to incorporate in teaching (Kronberg & Griffin, 2000). In a study by Jance and Morgan (2013), students rated critical thinking as the most important skill (9/10) needed as a business professional but one that ranks low in terms of them currently possessing it (6/10). There are a variety of instruments available that test critical thinking skills (e.g. California Critical Thinking Skills Test). However, there is still more to do in understanding what it is and how to teach it. Some studies offer various methods to teach it (e.g., case methods; see also Brunt, 2005), but what is missing is an account of the specific dimensions or domains of critical thinking, the various critical thinking dispositions associated with it and those that are relevant for business students, and how to specifically teach those.

This is where mapping of the intellectual structure of critical thinking in business education through a systematic review can help. Systematic reviews identify key contributions to a field through exhaustive literature searches (Greenhalgh, 1997; Nicholson et al., 2018; Tranfield et al., 2003) and we can do this in examining the critical thinking in business education discipline. One of the key advantages of systematic reviews is that they can provide a detailed analysis of methods, findings and conclusions important for generalisability and heterogeneity (or lack of) of results (Greenhalgh, 1997). A systematic review is a type of ‘consolidatory contribution’ (Nicholson et al., 2018) where a large body of work is investigated and, consistent with what these authors assert, requires greater objectivity and dedicated literature review. This way, any teaching and learning activity that we embed in our teaching practice that enhance further development of students’ critical thinking is evidenced-based and specific to the business discipline.

There is work already done in outlining some of the strategies used by academics to promote critical thinking. An earlier work by McEwen (1994) compiled some of these strategies and they include the following:

  • identifying central issues
  • recognizing underlying assumptions
  • evaluating evidence or authority
  • drawing warranted conclusions
  • differentiating between fact and opinion
  • detecting inconsistencies
  • judging whether there is ambiguity in a line of reasoning
  • judging whether certain statements contradict each other
  • interpreting information
  • evaluating the strength of an argument
  • recognizing biased statements
  • drawing inferences
  • evaluating sources of information
  • distinguishing hypotheses from evidence
  • finding information
  • evaluating a line of reasoning
  • weighing evidence

Mapping can reveal what we have been doing previously about teaching critical thinking and what else needs to be done. Because mapping can cover many years of data, a good start would be to look at all the publications around critical thinking in business education since the early years. According to Google Books Ngram Viewer (Google, 2018), the books written about critical thinking peaked around the 1960s, took a dip in the 1980s and exponentially surged from there.  By extension, we could say the same about journal articles published. We could investigate how critical thinking in business education has been studied since the 1960s and provide academics a picture of what else can be done.

This work is relevant to the Faculty as we can then determine which dimensions of critical thinking we need to strategically develop and promote in our students in the Faculty, given the aims of our courses, and what strategies are best for us to use. The specific research idea on mapping critical thinking in business education can be extended to developing a suite of resources to understand critical thinking and how to effectively embed it in learning and teaching in the Faculty. A similar work that is underway is investigating the various critical thinking dispositions (Fig 1) found in research across a number of disciplines and journals (link to dynamic image here). A similar work can be done to investigate specifically critical thinking.

Figure 1. A network map of articles regarding critical thinking disposition

Figure 1. A network map of articles regarding critical thinking disposition

If you are interested in embedding teaching and learning activities to further develop students’ critical thinking or wish to collaborate with Angelito on investigating the critical thinking literature, please contact him directly or the WCLA.

Brunt BA. (2005). Models, measurement, and strategies in developing critical-thinking skills. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 36(6), 255–276.
Google (2018). Google Books Ngram Viewer. Retrieved 15 November 2018, from
Greenhalgh, T. (1997). How to read a paper: papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analyses). British Medical Journal, 315(7109), 672-675.
Jance, M. & Morgan, A. (2013). Critical learning skills for business students. American Journal of Business Education, 6(1), 25-32.
Kronberg, J. & Griffin, M. S. (2000). Analysis Problems—A Means to Developing Students’ Critical-Thinking Skills: Pushing the Boundaries of Higher-Order Thinking. Journal of College Science Teaching, 29(5), 348-3352
McEwen, B. C. (1994). Teaching critical thinking skills in business education. Journal of Education for Business, 70(2), 99
Nicholson, J. D., LaPlaca, P., Al-Abdin, A., Breese, R., & Khan, Z. (2018). What do introduction sections tell us about the intent of scholarly work: A contribution on contributions. Industrial Marketing Management, 73, 206–219.
Smith, G. F. (2003). Beyond critical thinking and decision making: Teaching business students how to think. Journal of Management Education, 27(1), 24–51.
Tranfield, D., Denyer, D., & Smart, P. (2003). Towards a methodology for developing evidence-informed management knowledge by means of systematic review. British Journal of Management, 14(3), 207-222.

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Dr Angelito Calma