Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking


A few mornings ago, I was listening to a television commercial as I got ready for work.  “What is critical thinking worth?” said a very important announcer.  “A whole lot” I thought to myself.

But what exactly is critical thinking?  A Google search brings up a dictionary definition.  Critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a judgement.”  The example sentence accompanying this definition is “professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking among their students.” WOW, took the words right out of my mouth!

Have any of you had the following conversation? “Dr. A, I studied and studied for this exam and I still got a bad grade.  I know the material, I just can’t take your tests!”  The student in question has worked hard. He or she has read the course notes over and over, an activity that has perhaps been rewarded with success in the past.  Unfortunately re-reading notes and textbooks over and over is the most common and least successful strategy for studying (4).

In my opinion, as someone who has been teaching physiology for over 20 years, physiology is not a discipline that can be memorized.  Instead, it is a way of thinking and a discipline that has to be understood.

Over the years, my teaching colleague of many years, Sue Keirstead, and I found ourselves during office hours trying repeatedly to explain to students what we meant by thinking critically about physiology.  We asked the same probing questions and drew the same diagrams over and over.  We had the opportunity to formalize our approach in a workbook called Cells to Systems Physiology: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (2).  We took the tough concepts students brought to office hours and crafted questions to help the students work their way through these concepts.

Students who perform well in our courses make use of the workbook and report in student evaluations that they find the exercises helpful. But we still have students who struggle with the critical thinking exercises and the course exams.  According to the comments from student evaluations, students who struggled with the exercises report they found the questions too open ended.  Furthermore, many of the answers cannot be pulled directly from their textbook, or at least not in the format they expect the answer to be in, and students report finding this frustrating.  For example, the text may discuss renal absorption and renal secretion in general and then the critical thinking exercises asks the student to synthesize all the processes occurring in the proximal tubule.  The information is the same but the organization is different.  Turns out, this is a difficult process for our students to work through.

We use our critical thinking exercise as a type of formative assessment, a low stakes assignment that evaluates the learning process as it is occurring.  We also use multiple choice exams as summative assessments, high stakes assessments that evaluate learning after it has occurred.  We use this format because our physiology course enrollment averages about 300 students and multiple choice exams are the most efficient way to assess the class.  We allow students to keep the exam questions and we provide a key a couple of days after the exam is given.

When a student comes to see me after having “blown” an exam, I typically ask him or her to go through the exam, question by question.  I encourage them to try to identify how they were thinking when they worked through the question.  This can be a very useful diagnostic.  Ambrose and colleagues have formalized this process as a handout called an exam wrapper (1).  Hopefully, by analyzing their exam performance, the student may discover a pattern of errors that they can address before the next exam.  Consider some of the following scenarios:

Zach discovers that he was so worried about running out of time that he did not read the questions carefully.  Some of the questions reminded him of questions from the online quizzes.  He did know the material but he wasn’t clear on what the question was asking.

This is a testing issue. Zach, of course, should slow down.  He should underline key words in the question stem or draw a diagram to make sure he is clear on what the question is asking.

Sarah discovers that she didn’t know the material as well as she thought she did, a problem that is called the illusion of knowing (3). Sarah needs to re-evaluate the way she is studying.  If Sarah is cramming right before the exam, she should spread out her studying along with her other subjects, a strategy called interleaving (3).  If she is repeatedly reading her notes, she should put her notes away, get out a blank piece of paper and write down what she remembers to get a gauge of her knowledge, a process called retrieval (3).  If she is using flash cards for vocabulary, she should write out learning objectives in her own words, a process called elaboration (3).

Terry looks over the exam and says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.  I saw something about troponin and I picked it.  This really frustrates me. I study and study and don’t get the grade I want.  I come to lecture and do all the exercises. I don’t know what else to do.” It is a challenge to help this student.  She is not engaging in any metacognition and I don’t claim to have any magic answers to help this student.  I still want to try to help her.

I feel very strongly that students need to reflect on what they are learning in class, on what they read in their texts, and on the activities performed in lab (3).  I have been working on a project in one of my physiology courses in which I have students take quizzes and exams as a group and discuss the answers collaboratively.  Then I have them write about what they were thinking as they approached the question individually and what they discussed in their group.  I am hoping to learn some things about how students develop critical thinking skills.  I hope I can share what I learn in a future blog posting.

  1. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett M, Norman MK. How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Points for Teaching. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  2. Anderson LC, Keirstead SA. Cells to Systems: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (3rd ed). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Press, 2011.
  3. Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014
  4. Callender AA, McDaniel, MA. The limited benefits of rereading educational text, Contemporary Educational Psychology 34:30-41, 2009. Retrieved from , June 22, 2016.


 Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She collaborates with colleagues in the School of Nursing on clinical research projects such as the perioperative care of patients with Parkinson’s disease and assessment of patients with spasticity. She directs a large undergraduate physiology course for pre-allied health students.  She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and medical students.  She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia.  She is a co-author of a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include teaching with technology, encouraging active learning and assessment of student reflection.

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