Critical thinking and the art of asking a good question

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. This week I want to dive into a topic that we can all relate to, regardless of the discipline we work in, both in our roles as teachers and learners, in our professional and personal lives. As we navigate through a huge amount of information on a daily basis, it is very important to apply a critical thinking filter in order to find and process data and make decisions. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to effectively embed critical thinking elements in our courses, both in terms of learning activities and in the context of assessment. I wrote down some ideas and, as usual, curated a set of resources that provide inspiration for designing inquiry-based activities that train students’ critical thinking skills. I hope you find them useful, and I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences. Enjoy the rest of the week!

Critical thinking is a very useful skill in everyday life. For students it is a crucial element of their personal and professional development path. If you give a quick thought to your courses, chances are that critical thinking does feature, either explicitly stated among the learning objectives or as a criterion in your assessments. And like with every skill, the more students practice it, the better they get at it.

Embedding critical thinking in course design

In order to be able to better integrate the practice of critical thinking, think of the following 5 elements which can be used as guidance both in designing activities and in setting up and evaluating assignments:

  1. Identifying/ defining the problem or the issue: this is the starting point for the majority of learning activities, be it individual or group-based, oral or written; a clear and concise “diagnosis” is the first prerequisite to any task, be it the research question of an essay or the problem definition in a Problem-Based Learning exercise;

  2. Proposing own hypothesis/ perspective: based on the problem definition, this is the activity where students formulate the framework for their work; in the case of an essay it could be stating the hypothesis, while in project-based learning this is when students sketch out the overall framework for their project;

  3. Finding and analysing data/ resources: this is essentially a research task: students build up the evidence in support of their hypothesis; as straightforward as it sounds, this stage brings about a few challenges: the students need to be discerning as regards their choice of resources, what they evaluate as relevant and trustworthy; moreover, they need to develop a method to process all the information in an efficient manner and integrate what is relevant in their above mentioned framework;

  4. Integrating other perspectives: a very important aspect of critical thinking is the awareness regarding various existing points of view on any given topic or situation; while having formulated and substantiated 2 their perspective with evidence, the students also need to place it into the “bigger picture” and argue on how it relates with other approaches; here we can talk about other actors in the same process but also, why not, perspectives belonging to other disciplines; making sense of these various connections which are not always obvious is a very good test for a critical mind;

  5. Formulating conclusions and reflecting on implications: last but not least, consolidating on all the above-mentioned points, students should, at this point, be able to eloquently come to a conclusion based on the evidence gathered and analysed, that either confirms or contradicts their initial hypothesis.

In the '“Resources” section you will find a variety of ideas for activities that train and assess students’ critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking and knowledge management in the “post truth” era

With the proliferation of online information sources and bearing in mind the “fake news” and “post truth” debates, the importance of training critical thinking among students becomes more and more apparent. However, this exercise becomes also more challenging, as students are nowadays naturally immersed in a virtual environment that is by definition rich in information and messy and of which they need to learn to make sense in order to operate efficiently.

We often assume our students are proficient in evaluating and managing online information. And more often than not, we are wrong. That is why we need to put online media literacy and knowledge management skills at the heart of the learning process. Here is some food for thought on the topic, including examples of learning activities and resources for developing online media literacy.


There are many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on this topic; they might serve as a useful complementary sources of information and ideas for your courses. Here are just two examples: