Activities For Critical Thinking For College Students

There are entire courses on critical thinking, helping college students learn to go beyond common sense and deeply consider the implications of an idea through the application of logic and reason. But teaching critical thinking skills can be important to any class, and asking students to apply those skills can help them gain a deeper understanding of the course material. In addition to the excellent textbooks that flesh out the application of logic and statistics to teaching critical thinking, here are some concrete examples of critical thinking exercises you can use in your courses.

Why teaching critical thinking is important

“Critical thinking is the cornerstone of higher education, the hallmark of an educated person,” wrote John Chaffee in his Thinking Critically, 11th edition. He went on, “The prospect of expanding students’ thinking implies expanding who they are as human beings—the perspective from which they view the world, the concepts and values they use to guide their choices, and the impact they have on the world as a result of those choices” (Chaffee, xv).

Teaching critical thinking to your college students means not only giving them tools, but also helping them discover how to think beyond the media they consume. Giving students a grasp of how to understand statistics, for example, enables them to interpret news data, look for bias, and explore the ways in which the data is used to support a point that may or may not be true. Those skills are not just useful in their careers, but in their personal lives as well.

Critical thinking lesson ideas

A key technique in critical thinking is to avoid lecturing your students. Enabling them to explore scenarios gives them the time to create the cognitive process they need to further develop their critical thinking skills.

A writer for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies Web site offered some discipline-specific examples of critical thinking exercises in “Teaching Critical Thinking,” such as:

  • Biology: College students should already be aware of the scientific method before their introductory level biology courses, but utilizing the scientific method can help students engage their critical thinking skills. “As students learn the scientific method, they build the foundation of research skills used for future work,” the contributor noted, pointing out that those skills include describing and defining an issue, applying that knowledge, and making deductive and inductive inferences.
  • Mathematics: Divide students into groups to solve a problem without giving them the full instructions on solving it. Instead of telling the students how to solve it, ask them questions: What steps are you taking? Why are you taking this approach?
  • Engineering: Dividing students into teams, ask them to slow down the problem-solving process into steps, comparing their results with other student teams, or with an imaginary team you’ve created for the exercise (which may come up with the correct solution, or may not!).
  • Literature: For beginning literature students, ease them into literary analysis by starting them out with an exercise: use a metaphor to describe one of the characters. Build on this by asking them to explain why they chose the metaphor.

A writer for the St. Petersburg College Critical Thinking Gateway offered tips for designing “Critical Thinking Games” that require students to “analyze, evaluate, synthesize information from various sources, or solve problems in order to find the answers.” One style of game is the simulation, in which students tackle an imaginary problem relevant to the course, using information and skills that are part of the course curriculum. At various points in the simulation, the students see the results of their decisions, which impact any further decisions they must make.

How do you teach critical thinking skills in your courses? Share your ideas below.

Reference: Chaffee, John. 2015. Thinking Critically, 11th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

There are few buzzwords in K-12 right now as big as "rigor." The Common Core has been hailed by advocates as a more rigorous set of standards, but a big question that keeps popping up is how to measure that rigor. A good place to start is with evidence, which is what many of the new tests plan on incorporating into their structure. 

Using evidence — the ability to support and explain your point — is not only a good way to measure rigor, but an important skill for students to learn. It gives insight into a person's train of thought and how they came to their conclusion, additionally opening opportunities for more innovative, but also structured, thinking patterns.  

Placing emphasis on how a student backs up what they believe, and not "the answer," takes pressure off of a student to get the "right" answer — or what they think the teacher wants to hear. This, in turn, encourages students to be creative with their thinking. Through emphasis on evidence, teachers can facilitate an environment where deep, critical thinking and meta cognition are the norm. 

Below are some activities to help teachers incorporate curiosity, evidence, and critical thinking into their classrooms.  

1. Gap Fill In

Students are shown a picture, projected in the front of the room, if possible. At the top of their paper, students should write: "What is happening in this picture?" At the bottom of the page, they should answer (very simply, in 1-2 sentences) with what they believe is happening in the photo.

In the middle of the page — and this is why it's called "Gap Fill In" — students write down all of the steps they took to arrive at that answer. Students are encouraged to write down the evidence they see that supports their conclusion.  

GOAL: This activity not only uses evidence, but supports meta cognition skills by asking what prior knowledge brought you to your conclusion. This is a good activity to Bell Work or "Do Now."

Example Gap Fill In image (images should be modified to match grade level)

2. Fishbowl 

Set up an inner circle (or fishbowl) and an outer circle in your classroom. Students should not be sitting in this setup yet, but rather in their regular classroom seats. The class should be presented with a question or a statement and allowed to reflect individually for a few minutes.

During this reflection period, count the class off into small groups by 3s, 4s, or 5s.

Students should now transition to the fishbowl setup. In the numbered groups, have students facilitate a conversation while others on the outside observe without comment. (For example, a teacher may have all 1s go to the fishbowl, while the rest of the class sits in the outer ring.)  

Once the inner group has discussed for a bit, have the outer group evaluate two things: Their process (Did they listen to one another?) and their content (Did they provide evidence or just opinions?).

GOAL: This activity helps students understand how and if they use evidence, as well as hear the difference between giving an opinion and backing an opinion with evidence.  


Introduce a statement written in a clearly visible location. (Example: "Prisons are effective in stopping crime.") In each corner of the classroom, positions (Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree) should be posted and students should be asked to move to whichever best represents how they feel about the statement.  

Without help from the teacher, students should move into a self-facilitated discussion where everyone is to discuss why they have selected their position. During this time, the teacher should transcribe the speech of the participants. If possible, this should be done in real-time with the transcription projected onto the board during the debate.

After a decided amount of time (5-7 minutes), the debate will be concluded and students will return to their seats for debrief, during which the class should evaluate the debate using the transcription as evidence.

Ask the class: Was the debate good or bad? Use evidence from the transcription to support your analysis.  

After the first classroom debate, the teacher should present the rules for the debate. It is recommended that the teacher conduct the first debate without rules, so students can have a comparison for what works and what doesn't work.

Rules for debate:

A. SEEK first to understand the statement, EVERY WORD.

B. PROJECT your voice; don’t yell.

C. Your PERSONAL experience is NOT the rule. Connect it to bigger example.

D. RESTATE the previous point made, make your point, and move on.

E. General examples, ok to start; SPECIFIC EVIDENCE, this kid’s SMART!

GOAL: This activity allows students to not only debate a point, but, like the fishbowl, analyze their communication skills. Additionally, by keeping the transcription log, students can actually see how they progress throughout the year.  

These activities can and should be morphed to match the culture and needs of the individual classroom.  This specific list comes from activities used in the Allied Media: Detroit Future Schools curriculum.  

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