Stories from
the trenches

Why don’t students have better critical thinking skills?

U.S. faculty member, CMU-Qatar

When I decided to teach abroad, I had my doubts about whether students could handle the level of work required in CMU courses. After a few class sessions, my worries were confirmed. The students were smart, but they seemed to lack the foundational skills of my discipline. At first I thought this was due to poor preparation in high school. Then I wondered whether it was a matter of poor study habits. I gradually realized that the problem was not, in fact, a lack of fundamental knowledge or that students didn’t work hard. It was that they lacked critical thinking skills. This is not to say that students accepted everything they were told or kept their opinions to themselves; in fact, they were quite outspoken. But they were unused to the kinds of deep disciplinary analysis that I expected.

Once I realized this, I knew what I had to do. I began to identify more clearly in my own mind the kinds of questions experts in my field ask (e.g., about alternative interpretations, constraints, potential solutions, trade-offs, consequences). I then highlighted these questions explicitly and asked them repeatedly, reinforcing them until students begin asking the same questions themselves.

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