Defining Critical Thinking Courses
written by Chris Green
Earlier this semester on our college listserv, some of my Liberal Arts colleagues shared their frustrations about designating certain courses as “critical thinking” when almost every course contains critical thinking in some version. Such frustrations are sensible given the term’s wide and varied use. To help clarify, I would like to explain what the Critical Thinking designator means in Marshall’s General Education curriculum, but, first, here is a bit of back ground about the term.
The term “critical thinking” burst onto the educational scene in 1962  and forwarded a framework to train students in rational argumentation. This move was amplified by the focus on science during the Cold War, the need for higher education to demonstrate its methods, and the influx of students from varied backgrounds.
Over the last forty years, the basic mechanisms and vocabulary of such rational argumentation have become central to higher education. At the same time, the need to demonstrate the utility of higher education has continued to rise as an even wider set of Americans gain access to it.
In response, an industry of Critical Thinking has arisen, promoting the term’s cultural capital as well as increasing its proprietary feel and ambiguity. Indeed, “critical thinking” is now so widely used that one must consider its definition on a case by case basis, but after much consideration, I find the following definition works in most cases: to purposefully hone (through application, evaluation, and adaptation) the effectiveness of a skill or practice.
Working in the framework of that history, various groups of Marshall professors—always with representatives from each college—began developing a set of practices that define what “Critical Thinking” courses will mean for our purposes, a practices that will continue to evolve through use, conversation, and revision. That work came to fruition in Fall 2010 with Faculty Senate recommendation SR-09-10-(03) 49 CFAHC whose details I explain below.
Concisely summarized, a “Critical Thinking” class is a 100 or 200 level course designed to help freshman and sophomore students learn key cognitive skills, attention to which will aid their success in all their course work. This focus on the early learning of such skills complements the requirement that all general education courses now have to be either 100 or 200 level—the goal is to have students take these classes earlier rather than later. General Education Core I courses (FYS and CT) seek to bolster students’ academic success early in their college careers (during which they will take the majority of their general education courses), thus setting them up for stronger performance in other general education classes and greater accomplishment in their majors.
Critical Thinking courses promise to show their students how the disciplinary practices being introduced in that class use at least three of the following lenses: (1) reasoning, (2) representation, (3) cultural judgment, (4) information literacy, and (5) metacognitive reflection. Critical Thinking courses also show how those practices and skills relate to a primary domain of thinking (e.g., scientific or multicultural/international thinking) and at least one other domain. By having departments and professors articulate the different domains in which a CT course operates, the goal is to help everyone see the inter-related nature of courses in different disciplines.
CT courses emphasize conscious development of a few key skills by active learning rather than the accumulation of knowledge by memorization. They do so by helping students develop those skills though varied pedagogical methods that professors specify. The courses also ask students to demonstrate those skills so that the professor can assess the student’s proficiency in higher-order cognition such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
While such specifics can make one feel penned, they also offer a place from which we might start gauging and adjusting the practice and effect of General Education at Marshall. By specifying courses as Critical Thinking, Marshall’s General Education Core I classes have three major goals: (1) to help students develop skills that will foster success in all classes; (2) to help students integrate learning from different disciplines; and (3) to help students identify and apply skills they have gained to changing and varied circumstances and endeavors.
These goals set the basis for continued development and adaptation of those skills throughout the whole of students’ lives in their varied professional undertakings, social and political commitments, and personal explorations. Not only will our alumni continue to be marketable during economic changes, but they will have the skills to excel as citizens as our nation and world continue to alter.
In developing Marshall’s own version of “Critical Thinking,” the hundred plus faculty who have worked on clarifying the goals and process of General Education at Marshall hope that more of our students will complete college with an even better education (which is a high goal) and that Marshall will stand out as a university even more worthy of the population we serve.
For more on General Education at Marshall, visit: www.marshall.edu/gened.