Helping Students Process Information In Critical Thinking

The wealth of digital information has shifted our focus in higher education from developing critical thinking skills to developing critical information processing skills. Today’s students are digital natives, and many assume these students possess basic research skills because of their natural ease with technology. However, many college students lack important information processing skills to understand electronic material. Grafstein (2002) noted that “Given the seductively easy accessibility of masses of unregulated information, it is imperative that students, from the very beginning of their academic careers, adopt a critical approach to information and develop the ability to evaluate the information they encounter for authenticity, accuracy, credibility, authority, relevance, concealed bias, logical inconsistency, and so on” (p. 199).

Although most agree these skills are needed by students, rarely are these skills taught within the context of a typical college or university course. Generally, either research courses and/or library services fill this void. Many courses only provide limited reasons for students to use library services. So for many college students, information processing skills are haphazardly caught rather than specifically learned.

Interestingly, this phenomenon occurs even more so in online courses. Winter, Cotton, Gavin, Yorke (2010) found that online students had issues with a number of information processing skills including validating online resources, even for those with strong e-learning skills. The ability to sift through the myriad of resources and information electronically is not an innate ability, even for those who grew up with the Internet. It is important to consider the context in which you teach to recognize how and when students are learning these critical skills.

For example, although there is the expectation that my students arrive to the program possessing effective critical information processing skills, the reality is something quite different. I have learned that I need to deliberately teach these skills in order to successfully teach my course content.

Faculty can incorporate these information processing skills in a variety of ways and in the context of almost any course. The primary strategy is to teach a course concept or skill using a facilitated electronic activity. Consider the following activity, designed as a discussion question in an online graduate education course.

Read the following web articles. Discuss what you conclude after reading the linked articles. Is there educational “truth” to the claim? Explain your suppositions.


The topic of these articles relates to the unsubstantiated claim that human beings now have the attention span of a goldfish. As you can easily see by the URLs, there is only one scholarly source cited. This scholarly source was one of the original studies investigating website usage and web navigation. The findings of these studies have misinterpreted, and yet have inspired a number of other articles recommending various applications of our “8-second attention spans.” This misapplied information is stimulating educational thinking and may influence educational practice in the near future.

This activity always generates substantial interest and response from my students. The discussion board essentially explodes with comments. My students are always shocked to realize how easily they were persuaded by popular media and how often they failed to investigate such claims. Students always remark about the critical reading and researching skills they developed in the process of the activity. Many assert their new-found motivation to research everything before believing it. While their zeal for research may wain, students do develop as skeptical thinkers through this and similar activities.

Other activities can be designed to incorporate online research, critical reading, and analysis skills. Course content that requires multiple perspectives, differing opinions, and controversial issues is perfect for creating one of these activities. Developing several targeted activities for a course is relatively easy, yet these can be powerful tools in assisting students in practicing these skills.

Here are a few tips for designing critical information processing activities:

  • Use a theory or concept that is important to the field
  • Provide digital resources to show multiple angles, perspectives, or ideas
  • Ask simple questions that require analysis, research, and evaluation to answer

Critical information processing skills are best taught rather than caught. When it comes to life-long learning, these skills are the keys to thriving in a technological world. It is important instructors recognize the need and opportunity we have for teaching these skills. Adding a few targeted activities to your course can assist your students in developing these critical information processing skills that will serve them well in your course and beyond.

Kimberly Chappell is an assistant professor of education at Fort Hays State University.


Grafstein, A. (2002). A Discipline-based approach to information literacy. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(4), 197-204.

Winter, J., Cotton, D., Gavin, J. & Yorke, J.D. (2010). Effective e-learning? Multi-tasking, distractions and boundary management by graduate students in an online environment. ALT-J,Research in Learning Technology,18(1), 71-83, doi:10.1080/09687761003657598.

Posted in Course Design
Tagged with critical thinking, digital literacy

Critical thinking is a high priority outcome of higher education – critical thinking skills are crucial for independent thinking and problem solving in both our students’ professional and personal lives. But, what does it mean to be a critical thinker and how do we promote and assess it in our students? Critical thinking can be defined as being able to examine an issue by breaking it down, and evaluating it in a conscious manner, while providing arguments/evidence to support the evaluation. Below are some suggestions for promoting and assessing critical thinking in our students.

Thinking through inquiry

Asking questions and using the answers to understand the world around us is what drives critical thinking. In inquiry-based instruction, the teacher asks students leading questions to draw from them information, inferences, and predictions about a topic. Below are some example generic question stems that can serve as prompts to aid in generating critical thinking questions. Consider providing prompts such as these to students to facilitate their ability to also ask these questions of themselves and others. If we want students to generate good questions on their own, we need to teach them how to do so by providing them with the structure and guidance of example questions, whether in written form, or by our use of questions in the classroom.

Generic question stems

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?
  • What is the difference between … and …?
  • Explain why/how …?
  • What would happen if …?
  • What is the nature of …?
  • Why is … happening?
  • What is a new example of …?
  • How could … be used to …?
  • What are the implications of …?
  • What is … analogous to?
  • What do we already know about …?
  • How does … affect …?
  • How does … tie in with what we have learned before?
  • What does … mean?
  • Why is … important?
  • How are … and … similar/different?
  • How does … apply to everyday life?
  • What is acounterarguementfor …?
  • What is the best …and why?
  • What is a solution to the problem of …?
  • Compare … and … with regard to …?
  • What do you think causes …? Why?
  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement? What evidence is there to support your answer?
  • What is another way to look at …?

Critical thinking through writing

Another essential ingredient in critical thinking instruction is the use of writing. Writing converts students from passive to active learners and requires them to identify issues and formulate hypotheses and arguments. The act of writing requires students to focus and clarify their thoughts before putting them down on paper, hence taking them through the critical thinking process. Writing requires that students make important critical choices and ask themselves (Gocsik, 2002):

  • What information is most important?
  • What might be left out?
  • What is it that I think about this subject?
  • How did I arrive at what I think?
  • What are my assumptions? Are they valid?
  • How can I work with facts, observations, and so on, in order to convince others of what I think?
  • What do I not yet understand?

Consider providing the above questions to students so that they can evaluate their own writing as well. Some suggestions for critical thinking writing activities include:

  • Give students raw data and ask them to write an argument or analysis based on the data.
  • Have students explore and write about unfamiliar points of view or “what if” situations.
  • Think of a controversy in your field, and have the students write a dialogue between characters with different points of view.
  • Select important articles in your field and ask the students to write summaries or abstracts of them. Alternately, you could ask students to write an abstract of your lecture.
  • Develop a scenario that place students in realistic situations relevant to your discipline, where they must reach a decision to resolve a conflict.

See theCentre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) teaching tip “Low-Stakes Writing Assignments” for critical thinking writing assignments.

Critical thinking through group collaboration

Opportunities for group collaboration could include discussions, case studies, task-related group work, peer review, or debates. Group collaboration is effective for promoting critical thought because:

  • An effective team has the potential to produce better results than any individual,
  • Students are exposed to different perspectives while clarifying their own ideas,
  • Collaborating on a project or studying with a group for an exam generally stimulates interest and increases the understanding and knowledge of the topic.

See theCTE teaching tip “Group Work in the Classroom: Types of Small Groups” for suggestions for forming small groups in your classroom.

Assessing critical thinking skills

You can also use the students’ responses from the activities that promote critical thinking to assess whether they are, indeed, reaching your critical thinking goals. It is important to establish clear criteria for evaluating critical thinking. Even though many of us may be able to identify critical thinking when we see it, explicitly stated criteria help both students and teachers know the goal toward which they are working. An effective criterion measures which skills are present, to what extent, and which skills require further development. The following are characteristics of work that may demonstrate effective critical thinking:

  • Accurately and thoroughly interprets evidence, statements, graphics, questions, literary elements, etc.
  • Asks relevant questions.
  • Analyses and evaluates key information, and alternative points of view clearly and precisely.
  • Fair-mindedly examines beliefs, assumptions, and opinions and weighs them against facts.
  • Draws insightful, reasonable conclusions.
  • Justifies inferences and opinions.
  • Thoughtfully addresses and evaluates major alternative points of view.
  • Thoroughly explains assumptions and reasons.

It is also important to note that assessment is a tool that can be used throughout a course, not just at the end. It is more useful to assess students throughout a course, so you can see if criteria require further clarification and students can test out their understanding of your criteria and receive feedback. Also consider distributing your criteria with your assignments so that students receive guidance about your expectations. This will help them to reflect on their own work and improve the quality of their thinking and writing.

See theCTEteaching tip sheets “Rubrics” and “Responding to Writing Assignments: Managing the Paper Load” for more information on rubrics.


  • Gocsik,K. (2002). Teaching Critical Thinking Skills.UTSNewsletter, 11(2):1-4
  • Facione, P.A. andFacione, N.C. (1994). Holistic Critical Thinking Scoring Rubric.Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press. (retrieved September 2003)
  • King, A. (1995). Inquiring minds really do want to know: using questioning to teach critical thinking.
    Teaching of Psychology, 22(1): 13-17
  • Wade,C. andTavris,C. (1987). Psychology (1sted.) New York: Harper. IN: Wade,C. (1995). Using Writing to Develop and Assess Critical Thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1): 24-28.

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