What Do You Know?: Assessing Critical Thinking

Here’s what I know for sure about assessing critical thinking: There are several ways to go about it.

It sure is tricky though, mostly because critical thinking is not a skill that builds the same way we acquire vocabulary or learn to vault a high bar. It’s a protracted, nonlinear process that takes months, maybe even years, before significant progress can be measured.

I learned that the hard way. When I wrote my dissertation about critical thinking and persuasive writing, I hypothesized that persuasive writing would increase 4th graders’ ability to think critically. Among the data I collected were the results of a pre and post test on the Cornell Critical Thinking Test X that bookended a three-week unit on how to write persuasive essays. My results showed no significance. Duh! Critical thinking needs to be practiced–and practiced a lot over time and across domains–for it to become a habit of mind, a recurring method of inquiry, and a way of calibrating one’s ideas. So, no, three weeks in terms of learning to think critically is not enough time. Ah, live and learn.

So if it takes a long time to acquire those skills, when and how can we reliably measure them? To complicate things, critical thinking skills can differ from field to field. For instance, I may be a very good critical thinker when it comes to linguistic theory but a total bust when it comes to aviation or sociology. Some disagree, saying there are elements of critical thinking that carry over from one task to the next. (See Ennis, 1989, and Halpern, 1998, for thorough discussions about this still unsettled matter.) So should I just test their skill to think critically in math, or can I give them a generalized test that examines if they use those same skills in, say, English literature?

In the end, the question ends up being this: exactly how do we appraise students’ critical thinking and audit their progress? My next few postings will take up those issues with an annotated bibliography of several articles on the topic. (Hint: none of these methods includes multiple choice tests.) Feel free to suggest other articles for analysis.

Ennis, R. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18(3), 4-10.

Halpern, D. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains. American Psychologist, 53(4), 449-455.


Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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