Critical thinking is recognized as an essential knowledge and skill for the preparation of our future professionals (see, e.g., ASHA, 2015). Instructors can help students develop these skills by explaining why critical thinking is important, providing opportunities to learn and practice the components of critical thinking, and implementing instructional strategies that can help students become better thinkers.
Why Is Critical Thinking Important?
We often ask our students to think critically, but we rarely tell them why it is an important part of their academic and clinical knowledge and skills. Reasons that might help them appreciate its importance include the following (Finn, Brundage, & DiLollo, 2016):
- All of us, including helping professionals, are prone to cognitive biases that result in erroneous beliefs and making poor decision making, and critical thinking helps to minimize those biases.
- Future practitioners will face an ever-evolving and expanding clinical knowledge base, and critical thinking will help them evaluate the quality of that knowledge.
- The caliber of clinical decisions is at the core of evidence-based practice, and critical thinking is a foundational skill for ensuring the quality of those decisions.
- Interprofessional education practice and collaboration practice will be an important part of students’ clinical practice, and critical thinking is recognized as a core competency for engaging in that practice (Interprofessional Education Collaborative Expert Panel, 2011)
What Is Critical Thinking?
Instructors should not assume that students understand critical thinking in the same way that their instructors do. Finn et al. (2016) suggested that the following definition of critical thinking—originally proposed by Wade, Tavris, and Garry (2014)—serve as an instructional definition for students: “Critical thinking is the ability and willingness to assess claims and make objective judgments on the basis of well-supported reasons and evidence rather than emotion and anecdote” (Wade et al., 2014, p. 6). This definition, with some instructor elaboration, can help students understand that (a) critical thinking is practiced intentionally and requires evaluating claims of others; and (b) some reasons are better than others for supporting their clinical knowledge and decisions, especially when engaging in evidence-based practice. Dwyer (2017) further specifies three main components of critical thinking that students need to learn and practice: (a) argument analysis, (b) thinking dispositions, and (c) knowledge of cognitive biases.
Critical Thinking Components
Argument analysis skills. Argument analysis is the most fundamental component and typically consist of three interactive stages: interpretation, evaluation, and metacognition (Finn et al., 2016).
Stage 1: Interpretation. Students need to appreciate that critical thinking skills are particularly beneficial when there is uncertainty in a clinical situation. For example, a student practitioner experiences a challenging issue during a team meeting, such as facing strong differences of opinion from other team members on how to manage a client’s problem. The first step for the student is to determine how much she truly understands about the issue at hand. As a critical thinker, she may ask questions to determine the reasons that the other team members offer for the different claims they are making.
Stage 2: Evaluation. This step involves judging the acceptability of the claims based on the reasons provided. Following the above scenario, the student practitioner might ask questions to determine the quality of the reasons that team members are offering in support of their claims. For example, are their reasons based on scientific evidence that the student practitioner might be willing to trust? Or are the reasons based on past experience or anecdotal evidence that is less likely to be reliable?
Stage 3: Metacognition. The final step, metacognition, is ongoing and involves monitoring and evaluating the quality of one’s own thinking during the preceding two steps. For example, the student practitioner might ask herself, “How well do I understand the issue at hand? Do I need to ask questions to get a better idea of why the other team members believe what they believe?” or “What is the quality of the reasons in support of my own position on this matter?”
Thinking dispositions. Thinking dispositions consist of various epistemic attitudes toward forming and modifying beliefs and making decisions, and are often considered essential complements to critical thinking. Open-mindedness is an example of a complementary disposition. In the above scenario, if the student practitioner has an open mind, then she may recognize that it would be premature to reject out of hand other team members’ claims without first evaluating the reasons for their positions.
Knowledge of cognitive biases. This component is a relatively recent addition to critical thinking. Research shows that the way we ought to think when developing beliefs and making decisions is not the way that we usually think (see, e.g., Kahneman, 2011). These biases are so natural and easy to make that we are often unaware of their influence. A well-known example is confirmation bias, which occurs when we demonstrate a natural preference for evidence that supports our beliefs but tend to ignore, downplay, or distort evidence that questions our beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). For example, the student practitioner in the team-meeting scenario might be aware of evidence that introduces doubts about another team member’s claims. In that case, she would want to frame her counterevidence in a way that is respectful and less threatening to the team member’s views. This approach is less likely to introduce a backfire effect—one that could potentially result in the team member reacting defensively, sticking to her original view, and ignoring or downplaying the student practitioner’s genuine concerns (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2011).
Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking
Instructors can use various approaches to teach these three components of critical thinking in undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, including how critical thinking could be infused across a graduate curriculum (Finn et al., 2016):
- Adopting a textbook that is easily understood by students, and adaptable to the instructor’s needs.
- Providing numerous opportunities for students to understand and apply critical thinking skills to both their everyday lives and clinical situations.
- Making metacognitive processes explicit and overt.
- Teaching students the value and application of thinking dispositions.
- Using reflective journals and engaging in small-group discussions.
- Creating experiential opportunities to understand cognitive biases.
- Providing students with feedback via self- and formative assessments.
Teaching students to become critical thinkers takes time and practice. But, in the end, the benefits for the communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professions are worth it. Why? Because a critical thinking approach allows students to understand that, as a helping professional, what matters is not just what you think—but how you think.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2015). The role of undergraduate education in communication sciences and disorders. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/uploadedFiles/ASHA/About/governance/Resolutions_and_Motions/2015/BOD-21-2015-AAB-Report-on-the-Role-of-Undergraduate-Education.pdf [PDF].
Cook, J., & Lewandowsky, S. (2011). The debunking handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland.
Dwyer, C. P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and guidelines. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Finn, P., Brundage, S. B., & DiLollo, A. (2016). Preparing our future helping professionals to become critical thinkers: A tutorial. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 1(10), 43–68. doi:10.1044/persp1.SIG10.43
Interprofessional Education Collaborative Expert Panel. (2011). Core competencies for interprofessional collaborative practice: Report of an expert panel. Washington, D.C.: Interprofessional Education Collaborative. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/download/186750/data/core_competencies.pdf [PDF].
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175–220.
Wade, C., Tavris, C., & Garry, M. (2014). Psychology (11th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.