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The Journal of General Education 50.4 (2001) 270-286

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Assessing the Effectiveness of Critical Thinking Instruction

Diane F. Halpern (1993). Vol. 42, No. 4, 238-254.


"The country is engaged in a national debate on what students should know and be able to do and on how to measure achievement toward those goals."

(National Council on Education Standards and Testing, 1992, 7-8)

There has been a growing trend among colleges in the United States and Canada to require all students to fulfill a requirement in "critical thinking" as part of their general education program. Critical thinking is a widely used term that includes skills in applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information and the disposition to apply these skills (National Center for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction, 1991). The ability to think critically is almost always listed as one of the desirable outcomes of undergraduate education (Halpern, 1988). Although there is considerable disagreement over who should teach such courses, whether they should be "stand-along" generic courses or incorporated into specific content areas, and what sorts of thinking skills students should be learning in these courses, there is virtually no disagreement over the need to help college students improve how they think (e.g., Perkins & Solomon, 1989). The debate over thinking-skills instruction at the postsecondary level is particularly timely because the goal of increasing the number of college students who can think effectively and solve problems is one component of the National Education Goals advanced by the National Governors' Association and President Bush.

Students from North America routinely rank below those from other parts of the world in academic areas such as scientific knowledge and understanding, mathematical problem solving, and general [End Page 270] literacy (Lapointe, Mead, & Phillips, 1989). Economists and politicians argue that the poor performance of North American students is a threat to our ability to remain a world leader in science and technology. The underlying rationale for college-level courses in critical thinking is the belief that students will become better thinkers if they acquire and use thinking skills such as the ability to synthesize and analyze information, identify main ideas, cite evidence in support of a conclusion, and use probabilities. In California, for example, there is a statewide general education requirement in critical thinking for all students in the 108 community colleges and 20 state universities. Thus, in California alone, somewhere near 1 million college students are taking coursework that is designed to improve how they think. Surprisingly, there has been relatively little concern with the question of whether it is possible to improve thinking skills with instruction specifically designed for that purpose.

Framing the Question

The purpose of this paper is to answer the questions, "What is the evidence that we can teach college students to improve how they think?" The answer to this question should be of great interest to thousands of college curriculum committees who are engaged in periodic reviews or revisions of their general education program. If the evidence is positive, then they will have a rationale for instituting or maintaining a critical-thinking requirement; similarly, negative information would call the entire critical-thinking "movement" into question and could suggest that scarce general education units might be put to a more beneficial use.

The question about the effectiveness of critical-thinking instruction is very difficult to answer because of the multiple complexities involved in determining if it is possible to improve thinking skills with instruction. Like every research question, the answer that we provide is inextricably determined by the way we phrase the question and the way we look for an answer. Key elements in framing the question are considered here. [End Page 271]

Identification of Outcome Variables

Any assessment of student gains in the ability to think critically needs to be based upon an operational definition of critical thinking. Although there is no absolute agreement on what constitutes critical thinking, there is sufficient overlap in the various definitions to allow an evaluator to move beyond the definitional stage. Specific lists of thinking skills can be found...


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