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Assignment Design: Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is one of COD's General Education Outcomes.

As a faculty, we must design learning activities that provide opportunities for our students to gain the skills and abilities necessary to "effectively identify and challenge assumptions, develop and assess the viability of solutions, and provide a logically structured argument."  Our expectation is that our graduating students "can make connections between subject areas and use interdisciplinary thinking to evaluate contemporary social issues."

Facione (2020) identifies six core skills and ten dispositions associated with critical thinking:

Core Skills Dispositions
  • Interpretation: the ability to understand and express the meaning associated with information, experiences, and beliefs.
  • Analysis: the ability to identify relationships, intended and inferential, among representations of information, experiences, and beliefs.
  • Evaluation: the ability to assess the credibility of representations of a person's perceptions or beliefs, and to assess the strength of the relationships on which those representations are based.
  • Inference: the ability to identify and utilize relevant portions of representations in order to draw reasonable conclusions, or form hypotheses or conjectures.
  • Explanation: the ability to state and justify one's reasoning.
  • Self-regulation: the ability to evaluate one's own process of reasoning, utilizing analysis skills, and through questioning, correcting and validating one's results.
  • alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking,
  • trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry,
  • self-confidence in one’s own abilities to reason,
  • open-mindedness regarding divergent world views,
  • flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
  • understanding of the opinions of other people,
  • fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning,
  • honesty in facing one’s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, or egocentric tendencies,
  • prudence in suspending, making or altering judgments,
  • willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted.

The following strategies and resources can assist you in teaching, reinforcing, and assessing critical thinking.

Facione, Peter A. (2020). Critical Thinking: What It is and Why It Counts. Retrieved Oct. 8, 2020 from


From Engaging Ideas

Create Cognitive Dissonance for Students

Comparing and contrasting and deducing assumptions and implications are higher-level cognitive operations. In order to encourage students to engage with their own assumptions and consider new and different ways of thinking, Bean suggests undermining "students' confidence in their own settled beliefs or assumptions" (29).

Asking students to critique or otherwise challenge an "older mistaken or inadequate" understanding of a concept helps students build new knowledge on top of existing understandings. Bean provides the following assignment as an example:

Many people believe, mistakenly, that summer is hotter than winter because the summer sun is closer to the earth. Imagine someone who holds this mistaken belief (your kid brother, for example). Send this person an email attachment that explains why this belief seems logical, but is in fact wrong. Then offer a better explanation.

Present Knowledge as Dialogic Rather than Informational

William G. Perry's stages of undergraduate cognitive development provide us with a model for understanding how students develop critical thinking skills. The first stage in Perry's scheme is "dualism" where students believe that there is a correct answer - things are black or they are white; they are right or they are wrong. At this stage, students expect knowledge to be deposited into their heads so that it can later be regurgitated wholesale. In order to help students develop into the later stages of cognitive development where opposing views exist simultaneously and multiple interpretations are embraced, create assignments that encourage students to engage in intellectual arguments that support, reject, or modify statements of knowledge.

Teach the Academic "Moves" and Genres That Are Important in Your Discipline

If the University of Manchester's Academic Phrasebank is any indication, there are hundreds of academic writing "moves" that are common across disciplines. While these phrases might come across as overused or even stiff and awkward, they do demonstrate how writers engage in conversations with other texts.

One such example is a structure for writing argumentative and analytical essays called “They Say, I Say, My Critics Say, I Respond" from Simon Fraser University Library's "Templates for Structuring Argumentative Essays."

Bean provides similarly structured prototype templates:

  • Many scholars have argued X but I am going to argue Y.
  • Scholars have frequently asked questions, X,Y, and Z. Curiously, they have neglected to ask A. This essay poses question A and proposes a solution.

Create Opportunities for Active Problem Solving That Involve Dialogue and Writing

Bean stresses that "writing assignments" can be anything from an essay to a minute-paper. The key here is that students are engaging with a problem.

Most problem solving methods are based on John Dewey's five step model of reflective thinking wherein students:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Analyze the problem
  3. Determine criteria for an optimal solution
  4. Propose solutions
  5. Evaluate solutions

Reflective thinking helps learners develop higher-order thinking skills by prompting learners to a) relate new knowledge to prior understanding, b) think in both abstract and conceptual terms, c) apply specific strategies in novel tasks, and d) understand their own thinking and learning strategies. Students have the opportunity to question values and beliefs, challenge assumptions, recognize biases, acknowledge fears, and find areas of improvement.

Assignments that challenge students to analyze and apply information and to reflect on the impact of course content on their lives are more likely to have an impact on assumptions1.




6 Facets of Understanding:

The 6 Facets of Understanding is a non-hierarchical framework for student understanding that includes explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge.

Nilson, Linda Burzotta. Infusing Critical Thinking into Your Course : a Concrete, Practical Approach. First edition., Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2021.
Available online at

It has long been known that students need to learn critical thinking skills but the path to get there is not clear-cut. This books lays out a path forward including how to overcome the challenges that teaching critical thinking presents, identify the type of course content to which critical thinking can be applied, integrate critical thinking into the design of a new or existing course in any discipline, write assessable critical thinking learning outcomes, and select and adapt activities and assignments to include critical thinking skills practice.

Sperry, Chris, and Cyndy Scheibe. Teaching Students to Decode the World : Media Literacy and Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. ASCD, 2022.
Location: New Books ; P96.M4 S66 2022

This guide to media decoding explains how all teachers can help students navigate a complex media landscape and productively engage in a democratic society.

Online Resources


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