Brian Redekopp

Introduction: Thinking Critically

In Fall 2018 I had the pleasure of participating in WID with a wonderful group of dedicated and dynamic teachers from across the college. A guiding theme for our reading and discussion was a question fundamental to good teaching:  how can we help students to “think critically,” and what does this mean?

For a few years I’d taught a Humanities 101 course incorporating material based on what John Bean in Engaging Ideas calls a “psychometric” notion of critical thinking: critical thinking consists of various intellectual abilities (“competencies”) such as identifying the premises and conclusion of an argument, identifying types of argument, evaluating the strength of arguments and explanations, and recognizing fallacies (20). These abilities are taught apart from any particular subject matter, and my task was to instill these abilities through practice exercises and to assess students’ attainment of these abilities through tests involving the same sorts of questions. Successful students would then come away from the course with improved intellectual skills applicable in any field and in their day-to-day lives.

While research shows that the psychometric approach can indeed be effective (Hitchcock), I’d long felt some misgivings about it, misgivings that WID helped me better to articulate:

  • Critical thinking textbooks tend to emphasize an “appraisal” approach, i.e. one that develops critical thinking skills by analyzing and evaluating readymade discourse, as opposed to creating one’s own. I’d felt this makes the student more a spectator than a participant in intellectual work, and I’d worried this makes critical thinking less engaging and enjoyable than it might otherwise be.
  • The psychometric approach, particularly when combined with the appraisal approach, tends to emphasize a certain negativity: students develop critical thinking skills by recognizing various defects in arguments and explanations. So despite taking pains to point out the positive senses of “critique” and “critical”, my psychometric/appraisal approach taught students to be critical thinkers primarily in the sense of being on the lookout for mistakes in the discourse of others. This stands somewhat at odds with the more positive ideal of developing critical thinkers who “value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves“ and who are committed to, and lovers of, inquiry” (Hitchcock).

Our work in WID, especially our study of Bean’s Engaging Ideas, has been invaluable in my ongoing efforts to develop courses based on an understanding of critical thinking as a creative attempt to solve engaging problems, one that calls upon the knowledge and methods of specific disciplines. Below are some of the key principles of this approach to critical thinking, with links to some of the corresponding pedagogical material I’ve developed so far.

Problem-Based Design

A fundamental principle that WID solidified for me is to design courses and assignments primarily as responses to problems, with the choice of material geared accordingly. As Dewey argued, we should try to create intrinsic motivation for students by presenting them with problems that will grip them, if possible problems that arise from reflection on their own experience (Bean 3). I have been particularly inspired by the idea of trying to begin class periods with a “cause for wonder” that leads naturally to some question or problem (Bean 3). This is usually not very difficult to do in philosophy, which as Socrates remarked, “begins in wonder” at something we normally take for granted—for example that physical matter can think, that we can know things, that we make free decisions, that we take life so seriously even as we are aware of our own insignificance, and so on.

My most successful attempt at a problem-based approach to course design has been in my Introduction to Philosophy course, where I have developed the following template: the first six weeks or so are spent closely reading a philosophical text and discussing two or three major problems that arise in it; next we examine how other philosophers have responded to these problems; and finally the students choose one of the problems and write their own philosophical text, in the same genre as the text studied at the beginning of the course. For example, in its current iteration the students first read all of Descartes’ Meditations, with a focus on the questions of the existence of God and the nature of the self. Then we look at how philosophers in various times and traditions have tackled these questions. Finally, each student writes their own Cartesian-style meditation on one of the questions. Different genres of text and different problems can easily be slotted into this format; I’m looking forward to beginning the course with one or more of Plato’s dialogues, focusing on problems such as the nature of knowledge, virtue or justice, with the course culminating with students writing a dialogue of their own.

At the level of assignments, I have experimented with different versions of a “philosophical journal” assignment. Here students choose a philosophical problem that interests them and then explore their ideas in response to this problem throughout the semester, writing informal entries both in and outside of class. Once again, the idea is to foster critical thinking through exploration of a problem that is both personally compelling and that requires the resources of a particular discipline, in this case philosophy.

Disciplinary Problem-Solving

Some of the in-class writing for the philosophical journal involves trying out certain philosophical techniques, such as defining concepts by identifying necessary and sufficient conditions or testing out ideas dialectically. Here I’m trying to implement a second principle of teaching critical thinking, which is to have students respond to problems using disciplinary knowledge and methods. In our discussions in Fall 2018 there emerged the lovely idea of “inviting” students into one’s discipline, that is, helping them to practice ideas and ways of thinking that might initially seem quite foreign and strange. This helps them to understand knowledge as an ongoing, methodical, and conversational activity, as opposed to an abstract set of “facts” to be memorized (Bean 22).

One simple way I’ve attempted to invite students into the discipline of philosophy is through a short library research assignment. In addition to having them get a sense how conferences and academic journals work, I also use this assignment as a chance to illustrate the idea that disciplines have “moves,” e.g. framing one’s own views as a contribution to the overall debate (“they say/but I say”); introducing a new question (“many have asked/but they have neglected to ask”); pointing out the need to refine a position (“OK, but”); and distinguishing between different meanings of a concept

(Bean 31).

Thinking Means Writing

One often encounters the mistaken notion that writing is about creating a sort of package for thoughts formulated independently of writing—one first formulates thoughts, then uses the written word as an instrument to communicate these thoughts. In reality, while writing indeed communicates the results of critical thinking, it is also integral to the process of critical thinking itself (Bean 24). To think well, there is no way around the messy, challenging process of articulating one’s thoughts through writing, which means rough, exploratory sketches and much revision.

To help students in their critical thinking—and to help them appreciate that thinking/writing is a struggle, albeit a rewarding one—I try to incorporate many opportunities for informal, exploratory writing into my courses. This can be as simple as having them free-write for 10-15 minutes at the end of class on their thoughts, reactions or questions about an idea or problem, or it can be slightly more structured, as when I have them attempt a Socratic exploration of a question. Such exploratory writing has proven especially rewarding in connection with art, as in my Fall 2019 Introduction to Arts and Culture course in the ALC program, on the theme of art criticism. I chose this theme partly as a means to workshop many of the ideas for informal writing I’d gained from WID the previous semester, and I found that various informal writing exercises in response to art were an excellent way to engage students in different approaches to interpreting and evaluating art.

The other key aspect of teaching critical thinking as writing—revision—is more difficult to implement because of the challenges involved in managing the grading load. After a couple of dissatisfying attempts at having students meaningfully revise first drafts in response to my written feedback, I’ve developed a streamlined, more time-efficient approach to feedback that is actually more conducive to encouraging meaningful revision. First, I’ve found that grading is less grueling and more meaningful if I think of myself not as a critic, but as a coach (Bean 149). This means emphasizing what is strong or promising about the submission and suggesting ways to improve. Second, I try to keep the comments minimal in number and general in nature, so instead of providing many comments about particulars, I provide just two or three longer comments about the fundamentals, such as structure, strategy and the overall thesis and argument (Bean 335). Third, I require students to meet with me individually to discuss these comments before submitting the final product. (A 10-minute Zoom meeting looking at the paper together works very well.) I’ve become convinced that a face-to-face conversation is a much more effective way to communicate what is meant in a comment than simply leaving it to the student’s interpretation. This, along with the opportunity to get to know the student and really hear from them, makes the meetings a much better use of time I would have otherwise spent in writing detailed comments unlikely to be well understood.

Rhetorical Questions

A principle that is both easy to implement and very rewarding is to pose the problem for the writing assignment in terms of a rhetorical framework. This means that the assignment requires students to reflect on different aspects of a communication situation: (1) the purpose of their text, e.g. to inform, to explain, to persuade, to clarify; (2) its real or imagined audience, especially any pertinent attitudes, preconceptions, or biases of this audience ; (3) its format or genre, and how best it should be organized to achieve its purpose with its audience; and (4) its task or topic, i.e. the disciplinary problem to be tackled in the text (Bean 40). In this way learning a discipline reflects what goes on in the actual discipline—and in most any professional context—where the problem to be solved is also a problem of how best to communicate a proposed solution (Bean 51). Thus the rhetorical framework provides students with both disciplinary and more general training in communication, as well as making assignments more interesting and enjoyable—not only for them to write, but also for me to read.

Here are some of my attempts to incorporate a rhetorical dimension into problems for writing assignments.

Thinking Together

In our final session of the semester Ian walked us through how to create a course website using  WordPress. With a little extra help from Ian later on, in Winter 2021 I began using WordPress as a platform for my Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophy and Culture courses. In addition to providing course information and links to philosophy resources, the primary function of the WordPress site is to provide a forum for students to post weekly reading responses and other work and to receive feedback. This creates a shared space that enhances the course in several ways.

In terms of evaluation, students can get a better idea of the criteria for good work by looking at posts from other students along with my feedback. Responding to their posts also provides me with an excellent opportunity to coach them in their thinking, i.e. to point out what is strong in their writing, to ask questions to stimulate further thought, and in general to validate and encourage their abilities as thinkers and writers. The public format also serves as an excellent way to bring to life the idea of critical thinking as disciplinary, dialogical problem-solving—not only are students able to see how other students approach the problem, but I can also display their posts in the classroom to stimulate further exploration of the ideas. In this way the students’ thinking and writing can become more meaningful and communal, and a more genuine experience of what critical thinking is all about.

Works Cited

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Wiley, 2011.

Hitchcock, David. “Critical Thinking.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2020,












Last Modified: December 7, 2022