Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Paul Lynch, Associate Professor, English

The question we’ve been asked is straightforward: what do critical and creative thinking look like in your discipline? Mine is rhetoric, and in rhetoric I’m not sure there’s much distinction between critical and creative thinking. There is no way to engage in one without engaging in the other.

To think creatively in rhetoric is to see both a need and an opportunity for change, which is also a pretty good definition of thinking critically. And if a student can think through a situation critically enough to recognize that need and opportunity, then they are already thinking creatively enough about what the change might look like.

Before I go on too far with this argument, though, I want to say a word about “critical thinking,” liberal education’s most popular justification. Why should student take courses in the humanities? What is the purpose of the liberal arts? What is their “value added”? Again and again, the answer is “critical thinking.” So popular is this refrain that I fear it has become a floating signifier whose meaning can be stretched to fit nearly any situation. Everyone is for critical thinking and no one is against it, which suggests that invoking critical thinking does not actually require very much critical thinking.

If this sounds confrontational, well, I intend it to sound confrontational, because I think the uncritical teaching of critical thinking can do a lot of damage. I frequently see the harm in the teaching of rhetoric, a subfield of both English and communication. In English, rhetoric often handles the teaching of composition, particularly the first-year writing course. In those courses, it’s common to equate “critical thinking” with a kind of critique in which students are taught to “see through” messages that are allegedly trying to appeal to them in some nefarious way. You’ll often see a version of this lesson: the teacher projects some advertisement on the video monitor, and then asks the students to critique it.

The results are almost always the same. Students do a great job of thinking critically about the advertisement: they can pick apart all the unethical appeals and ugly assumptions. They know that the ad is often trying to appeal to the worst parts of human beings (our need to fit in at any price; our need to conform to some shallow ideal of excellence; our need to be perfect). But then ask them whether they purchase or own the products advertised, and you get a different story. Very often, students (and their teachers) know better, yet by the stuff anyway. That observation, by the way, should not be taken as some tired analysis of millennials, who are certainly no more or less susceptible to advertisement than are the Boomers and Gen-Xers who came before them. Rather, my point is to say that it’s very easy and very tempting for all us to think that critique is enough, as though seeing through a lie is the same thing as telling a truth.

Worse, when we teach that critical thinking requires seeing “through” or “past” something, we teach the dangerous lesson that being persuaded is tantamount to being manipulated. This outcome suggests that persuasion itself is the problem, that rhetoric is machination, and that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Taken carelessly to this extreme, critical thinking becomes a way to inoculate oneself against complexity and uncertainty, the central values of liberal education.

I would rather begin with creative thinking, which, in rhetoric, would ask students to articulate their commitments and try to persuade others to share them. This is why our first-year writing course now includes an advocacy project, in which students research a problem and articulate a feasible solution. At first glance, such a project, which asks students to take a clear position, might seem to violate the ideals I’ve just articulated. Instead of complexity and uncertainty, aren’t we asking for assertion and finality? But key to the project is that students must craft their arguments for actual audiences, real-live people that they can identify and name (not their instructors, who are so often the default audiences for academic work). Confronting a tangible audience forces students to consider the needs and values of others and to try to see things from their perspective. This encounter, even if happens only in the students’ imaginations, invites complexity and uncertainty, since what seems like a good argument to one audience may not seem like a good argument to another.

Just a few days ago, I received evidence of critical thinking by way of an email from one of my students, who asked this question: “I have been doing research on my topic…is it too late to change my mind?” This student has already gotten the most important lesson of a liberal education. Yet it emerges not because we’re asking students simply to critique, but to create (claims, appeals, and messages), and, ultimately, to find a position to which they can commit. I suggest that our students will best learn what to reject—and God knows there is a lot out there worth rejecting—by learning what to accept. They’ll learn how to say no by first learning how to say yes.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Making the Invisible, Visible: Engaging Students in Critical Media Literacy


By Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

A few years ago a graduate student in my statistics course shared with me the website “Spurious Correlations,” a site replete with near perfect statistical correlations between variables such as per capita consumption of margarine and the divorce rate in Maine.  While humor in statistics is always welcome, the site led me to consider the importance of statistical literacy.   Would my students be able to identify spurious correlations that were not so obvious?  This question got me thinking about my students’ history with data and statistics.

I teach an introductory course, and often students groan, “I know NOTHING about statistics” on the first day of class.  But this is not true.  They have been consumers of statistical data for years through a variety of media.  Prior to taking any formal coursework, students in a statistics class already have an orientation towards interpreting, understanding, and applying statistics.  This prior knowledge is hugely influenced by the media representations of data, not critically framed, and most likely not changed through completing problem sets on hypothesis testing.  In other words, it is possible that students come to class with a limited ability to critically analyze statistics presented in the media, excel in a course on statistics, and leave with the same limited ability to analyze media.

This led me to identify ways I could engage more purposefully in critical media literacy pedagogy in all of my classes.  Critical media literacy is an approach to literacy (this can be a broad definition of literacy to include fields such as statistics) that seeks to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power.  Engaging in critical media literacy can be an important tool in unpacking prior knowledge and challenging students to view and evaluate their own epistemologies.

While students enter our programs with limited background on what they know about content   in their respective fields, they come to us with some preconceptions about what it feels like and looks like to be a professional in that field.  Students come to us with a history of interactions with news media, film, television, music, literature, and advertisements that have shaped their understanding of who teachers are, what a doctor is like, or what it means to work in criminal justice. Without framing, it is highly unlikely that students were examining those decades worth of images through a critical lens.  This is where critical media literacy pedagogy becomes crucial.

What does critical media literacy look like?

In research methods courses, use the framework of critical media literacy to investigate how research is “translated” by the mainstream media.  Students can collect articles from both mainstream media and academic journals reporting research on the same topic.  Prompt students with questions such as, who is the intended audience of this piece? what information or understanding do I need to have to interpret the research reported? what information is missing?  what is lost in the translation of academic research to a popular news story? For example, students in an introductory statistics course can analyze how statistics are framed and positioned in mainstream media sources that are read by people who may understand very little about statistics.

In pre-professional programs, such as teacher education, use visual clips from film and television that portray professional teachers. Use these clips to unpack assumed knowledge about education as a field, teachers as professionals, or groups of students.  Prompt students with questions such as what values are portrayed? what is the ideology of this film? what is the commercial message? who is the film made for? For example, my students in a course on urban schools and communities watch clips from the movie Freedom Writers to critically examine the film’s implicit messages about students of color in relation to their white teacher.

Critical media literacy is broadly applicable to coursework in any field and can help us as instructors understand our students’ positions and identities, while our students develop an awareness of their own epistemological stances.  Such investigations make the invisible subtexts and assumptions in our classrooms, visible. Students become excited to engage in critical work and empowered as a classroom community as they re-examine “familiar” representations and see those representations in new ways.  For me as an instructor my favorite classroom moments are when, as a community of learners, we peek behind the curtain and expose the wizard.

Resources: To learn more about media literacy visit

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?
Lauren Arend is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Studies. Before pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, Lauren worked with young children and teachers of young children at the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley, California. Lauren’s research focuses on early childhood leadership, particularly how early childhood directors develop a leadership practice. Lauren currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.


Encounters with Primary Sources: On Teaching Critical Thinking in History


by Luke Yarbrough, Assistant Professor, Department of History

Last week a student in one of my courses told me that she was feeling frustrated. In the course—an advanced seminar on how the concept of “jihad” has been interpreted historically—students break up each week into three “task forces,” each of which works to master an assigned primary or secondary source. All three sources connect to the week’s theme, which might for instance be “Holy Striving Before Islam,” or “Modernist Interpretations of Jihad.” It’s the task force’s job to teach the rest of us about their source and what it adds to our understanding of the theme. For the third week in a row, this particular student found herself in a task force that had been dealt a primary rather than a secondary source. “With a secondary source you have a beginning and an end and an argument,” she said. “But with a primary source you have to figure out what it even is, and then think up what you’re going to say about it.”

Professional historians share her frustration, though most of them, in their peculiar way, have developed a taste for it. Primary sources—the most direct textual or material evidence we have with which to answer a given historical question—always present gnarly problems. They may bury the information you want in piles of irrelevant detail, or blurt it out it abruptly without context; some are fogged in by the assumptions of the distant era that produced them, others lure the reader into believing that their outlook is perfectly congruent with hers. But to think critically as a historian, rather than just gaping at the results of others’ critical thought (a.k.a. secondary sources), one must come face-to-face with the evidence itself. And this means primary sources, in all their unruly glory. Students who are able to emerge from their encounters with primary sources bearing compelling accounts of what they’ve met have gained a valuable and highly transferrable skill: the ability to arrange perplexing fragments of information into meaningful and therefore useful patterns. Students’ eventual careers, I assure them, will bombard them with a stream of recalcitrant sources to analyze and interpret (customer feedback, market analyses, performance evaluations, etc.).

But the skill to analyze primary sources critically does not spring spontaneously from the collision of student with source. It must be planted and nurtured. The following are a couple of basic approaches that I have used to foster this kind of critical thought among students of history.

1. The source. Even though a major goal of introducing primary sources is for students to experience and overcome bewilderment (i.e., solve problems), the exercise fails if they feel completely overwhelmed. The most effective primary sources for teaching are thus fairly short, and include apparently familiar material alongside unfamiliar, historically specific puzzles to solve. For example, in a pre-modern World History survey, I use a well-known ancient Egyptian text translated from a document known as Papyrus Lansing, which dates to the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (ca. 1878–1839 BC). In the text, a senior scribe addresses a pupil, whom he berates (in comically exaggerated terms) for falling short of his potential. The scribe then provides a descriptive inventory of the most common careers in ancient Egypt, all of which he deems inferior to that of the scribe, as a way of inducing his pupil to work harder. My students’ sense of solidarity with the talented but struggling pupil, and their amusement at his teacher’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, establish a notional connection between them and the primary source. This connection in place, students feel more willing to think critically about the non-obvious insights they might derive from the source, for instance about the economic bases or social hierarchies of ancient Egypt.

2. The narrative. A challenge of bringing primary sources into the classroom to teach critical thought is that students are asked to analyze raw evidence at the very same time they are building the knowledge base that makes that evidence meaningful. How is a student to make any real sense of the Qur’an as a historical document if he remains clueless about society, economy, and religion in pre-Islamic Arabia? It would be reasonable to conclude that a teacher should provide the necessary narrative first, and only then introduce primary sources. While this approach can work, I have found that students remain more engaged with the narrative if their minds are already working to unravel a primary-source puzzle. Why, for example, does the Qur’an distance itself from poetry (36:69), when much of its text sounds “poetic” to 21st century ears? I might begin a class on early Islam by presenting this apparent problem, then explain the social and political roles of poetry in the tribal, stateless society of seventh-century western Arabia. By the time students have absorbed the basics of this narrative, they will have begun to form their own defensible solutions to the problem I posed. In a larger sense, by constantly shuttling back and forth between larger narratives and the primary-source evidence on which they are based, students get used to fitting discrete fragments of information into larger stories. They also come to see that the same fragment of information can occupy different yet equally valid places in different stories, and that ultimately all of the history they read (not to mention all of the journalism, annual reports, gossip, etc.) is the product of the evidence-narrative dance that they are learning to perform for themselves. Often they’ll get the dance wrong, of course, by the rigorous standards of professional historians. But it’s more important for students’ own development to practice thinking critically the way historians do—by fitting perplexing, fragmentary, and (yes) frustrating sources into larger narratives in the most persuasive way they can—than merely to watch historians do it.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

One Key to Pedagogical Success: Questions and Enduring the Awkward Silence

3509344402_1d0bd80ec9_qby Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies

At the beginning of each academic year, I have to relearn the same lesson: enduring the awkward silence after a question has been asked. At the start of my career this “skill” seemed unendurable. It felt far easier to fill the empty void of fifty or seventy-five minutes—or God forbid, two and a half hours—with the sound of my own voice and well chosen words recorded on paper. After all, students are conditioned to expect that of my guild. Yet as I began to take more seriously the need to create learner-centered classroom experiences, one of the first steps to achieve that goal proved to be silencing my own voice, and waiting for students to find theirs.

Whether it is a classroom of first year undergraduates or PhD students, helping students find an entry into the learning experience is key to their ownership of the semester’s project. If I start the semester by stating what I plan to accomplish and march them through the details of the syllabus as the first exercise of the course, it sets a tone for the semester that may be hard to reverse.

Well-crafted questions are crucial in reorienting the structure of the classroom experience. Even in a required (and often dreaded) course, like Theological Foundations (THEO-1000), asking students why they are taking the course gets an awkward truth out in the open: most students do not want to be there. Once that uncomfortable reality is normalized, I can follow it up by asking: “Since you are required to take this course, what do you hope to get out of it?” As we compile a list of possible opportunities to learn on the board, I can start affirming their interests, and confirming that these will be reflected in different parts of the semester. Students begin to own parts of the content of the course, even before they see the syllabus. With other well-chosen questions, students often come to realize that they have interests in the subject they had not previously realized, and may even be attracted to questions raised by others. Students can then work through the syllabus at the end of the first class, feeling a sense of ownership that they did not have when they entered the room. If this pattern is repeated in subsequent classes, students discover that their voices matter, and they engage in more dynamic ways with the material being taught.

Yet asking questions is not enough. Learning to endure the awkward silence has proven to be the greater challenge. When I first started doing this, ten seconds could feel like an hour. Students would avoid my gaze for fear of being called on. Yet slowly it became clear to me that students needed to process the question and formulate their thoughts. If I waited long enough, even the most timid and reluctant student might find an occasion to contribute to the class. Sometimes I joke about the silence to relieve any tension. At other times the best approach is to reframe the question, restating it in different words as students continue to think. But waiting for students to find their voice is crucial.

As I have grown more comfortable with this style of instruction, a different dynamic has emerged in the classroom. Student questions have ceased being about repeating a line from my lecture notes or whether a term will be on the test, and instead has focused on concepts being discussed and how to apply the subject at hand. Students leave my courses retaining key concepts … often years later. But far more important for a life of learning, students have reported that mutual respect is fostered and a genuine interest in the thoughts of others is nurtured. We learn from one another, and that builds relationships. But this ethos starts with the instructor asking well-crafted questions and enduring the awkward silence, in order to create spaces where learning can happen.

Photo courtesy of

Critical Thinking in Medicine: Reflections of a Third Year Student

critical-creating thinking banner 2015

by Priya Parikh, Graduate Student, School of Medicine

“So, what is your assessment and plan for this patient?”

As a third year medical student, I am used to hearing this question during rounds when we present the patients we have been following to our residents and attending physician.  Early on in the year, this was a daunting question (okay it still usually is).  I’m just a student, how am I supposed to know what the patient has, and be able to support this with evidence and which labs/imaging/medications to give?

Well…that’s sort of the point. Third year is the first time as medical students we see and talk to patients every day in what we call “rotations.” We have six core rotations: psychiatry/neurology, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics, surgery, and family medicine. On each service, we are assigned to patients to talk to, to follow their progress, to keep track of their lab results, scans, and medications they are on. Then, we present this information at rounds to all of our superiors. It’s a whole new world compared to our first two years of medical school, in which we attend classes and study from books.

Making the transition from classes and books to real patients and patient care has been exciting, but difficult. This transition has made me reflect especially on how I think. Medicine is a vast, overwhelming field. Success is not only based on knowing the diseases and treatments, but on the development of critical thinking. Early on, seeing some of my attendings come up with diagnoses after only one sentence of my presentation inspired me to master the science of making a diagnosis. What I am quickly realizing, though, is that I will never know everything there is to know, regardless of which field I am working in. Instead, being able to reason through symptoms to come up with a diagnosis, and being able to sort out treatment options best suited for the patient’s needs and preferences, is the kind of skill that will lead to becoming a great physician. In my mind, critical thinking in medicine equals mastery of material PLUS formulation of perspective in the goal of the best treatment for our patients.

Sounds easy enough, right? Let’s first start by gathering all the evidence (patient’s symptoms, past medical history, current medications, physical exam), then exploring all the different possible diagnoses, then coming up with what we believe the diagnosis is and how we move forward with confirming our thoughts, then figuring out what options we have for treatment and which of these options best meets the patient’s needs. But what I struggle with is that this process is vastly different depending on the field. In internal medicine, it is sorting between the hundreds of reasons behind a patient presenting with abdominal pain and coming up with appropriate testing. In psychiatry, this process hinges more on being able to talk to the patient and building a rapport to really find out what is going on. On stroke team, clinical reasoning needs to be done quick, quick, quick as “time is brain.” In obstetrics, I need to be thinking about both mom and baby at all times. Thus, critical thinking can and does vary based on the kind of medicine being practiced, and requires development of different kinds of skills and considerations for each.

So how do we teach this kind of necessary critical thinking to medical students? As I look forward to a career in academic medicine and medical education, I am starting to reflect on my own medical education so far and how to foster this kind of thinking for future success. First and foremost, I believe that no lecture or textbook compares to direct patient care. Implementing early patient exposure as SLU does, including practicing physical examination and history taking on standardized patients and preceptorships starting in our second year, has been essential in developing critical thinking skills. Encouraging first and second year students to volunteer at clinical and medical outreach events can aid in this development too. Medicine is a process, and as a student, practicing clinical reasoning at every opportunity helps us to develop these skills.

In the classroom, implementing problem based learning and cases are worthwhile.  At SLU, we often times have group work in small teams in which we discussed a patient case with a fourth year medical student or faculty member, and went through the process from diagnosis to treatment. Adding this kind of activity on a more regular basis throughout classes benefits students in the transition to third year rotations. Another useful technique is mentorship. I have learned so much from residents and attendings who enjoy teaching and will go through their clinical reasoning when discussing patients so that I can compare my own thought process. Finding a mentor whose style you would like to emulate can be another great way to learn critical thinking skills.

These are just a few things I have been reflecting on, and it all comes down to finding ways to flex these critical thinking muscles, so that they become stronger on the wards and lead to a foundation of skills necessary to become a proficient physician. I am excited to see where the rest of third year takes me, and how my clinical reasoning skills develop and progress. One day, I hope to be teaching these skills to the next generation of aspiring physicians with a better understanding of how to best cultivate critical thinking.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Mind Body Spirit: Teaching in the Jesuit tradition

by Stephen Belt, Assistant Professor, Aviation Science

I started riding my bicycle to work again. Finally. A week before classes began I made the (quiet) commitment to ride to work 80% of the time- 4 out of 5 days. Two weeks in and I’m at 75%. For you overachievers, I consider that a victory. I’ll make up the ½ day somewhere along the line. I’ll get an extra ride in this week if I’m lucky. Strike that, if I’m diligent. Two weeks in and I’m just beginning to feel…normal—as if the 35-minute ride to work isn’t a total chore: deep breath and back on the bike. Two weeks in and I’m beginning to remember how nice it is to feel the wind on my face. Two weeks in and I’m beginning to see the world around me at half the speed of car. Add the physical and mental health benefits, and this is indeed a victory for me. Two weeks in and my eating habits are changing. I’m starting to crave food in a different way, one that the nutritionists amongst us will nod and be able to say far more than I can. But I seem to be hungrier for the fuel that might better meet the needs of my body in its new regime. I don’t crave comfort food all of the time.

Two weeks in and I’m writing this blog. I hate to tell you how long it has been since I really sat down to write…anything. But, just as my body seemed to be stuck in couch potato mode, so did my mind. Netflix binge. Wow, who knew you could watch an entire season of S.H.I.E.L.D in a few days? Mind numbing. Two weeks in and I’m not watching so much TV. It was a good rest, a good escape, but life seems to have taken over and here I am, back at the practice of getting into my head so as to get out of my head and connect with you.

Two weeks in and I’m beginning to sit still with that first cup of coffee. With the dog walked and everything else on hold, I find myself settling into a place of contemplation, if only for a few minutes. Before, I used to take my coffee to the computer and try to get a head start on the day. Now, it seems to be okay to let the email and the reminders wait a few more minutes. It is here I find myself letting things just be. It is here I find myself bumping into the notion of Ignatian Pedagogy and the practice of reflection. It occurs to me that to truly engage the idea of education in the Jesuit tradition, I must consider how I might teach in the tradition. To be authentic, I must practice the art.

A friend of mine is considering embarking upon the Bridges Program, an eight-month version of the Spiritual Exercises for busy people. She is struggling with the daily time commitment. Will she have enough time? Can she even imagine so much still time? Well, no, of course not. Not yet. But you have to start some place. The point is this: reflection is an exercise, just as riding or writing. It is deliberate. It takes practice. And it takes patience.

Mind-body-spirit. Two weeks in. For me it started with the body. I got back on the bike, exercised through the malaise and established a routine. Now, I have time to ride to and from work. Now, the couch and Netflix don’t seem so appealing so much of the time. Now, it is okay to sit still for a few minutes and just reflect.

To teach in the Jesuit tradition begins with preparation in the Jesuit tradition. So, decide. Take a deep breath, exercise through the malaise, and establish a routine.

belt-335 Stephen Belt, Ph.D., joined the Aviation Science department at Parks College in 1998 and has served as Flight Training Director, senior check airman, pilot and instructor. His teaching and research interests include collegiate aviation education, administration and assessment; flight instructor development, and learner-centered pedagogy, including Ignatian pedagogy.

Photo and bio courtesy of

Communicating Engagement, Engaging Communication

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The term “engagement” continues to be fashionable in conversations about teaching, research, and the role of service in higher education. It often functions as a buzzword, referenced here and there to signify a thing we value and strive to achieve in our work. And yet, we are rarely asked to define our understanding of engagement or explain why we believe it is valuable, particularly in the context of teaching and learning.

Organizational communication scholar Stan Deetz describes engagement as a “potentially inventive conversation between communities with differences” (2008, p. 290). Like any (potentially) good conversation, there is an element of risk involved because it asks us to open ourselves up to others without knowing where the conversation will lead. For Deetz (2008), “engagement is not something we choose to do, it is called out of us out of respect for that which is other and different” (p. 295). He believes being at risk in this way is the only way mutual learning, growth, and change occurs across and within communities of difference.

Deetz (2008) suggests engagement has three interactive moments: understanding, reflection, and invention. By practicing moments of understanding, the focus is on others and the worlds in which they live. The goal is to deeply appreciate the perspectives of others without judgment. He describes the process of reflection as investigating the political nature of thoughts, feelings, and actions to revitalize a sense of community where moments of invention become possible. Invention, then, is an improvisational, poetic act of trying out new ideas (e.g., “Almost this, not quite that, until, yeah, that’s what it is!”), wherein concept formation becomes more important than theoretical application. Taken together, these moments of engagement generate new ways of thinking and talking. As Deetz explains, “Talking about rather than from our knowledge is conversationally different” (p. 297). Thus, engagement is much more than active learning or applied, practical theory in action. It also makes us equals.

Good conversation is necessary for engaged teaching and learning to occur. Deetz’s dialogic, reflexive approach helps raise to a conscious level the role of communication in teaching and learning. How do you communicate with students? How do they communicate with each other? How might you engage different identities and experiences in ways that create a stronger sense of community and shared commitment to understanding, reflection, and invention? These are important questions to consider when designing and developing any course, but particularly those we describe and situate under the umbrella term of engagement.

If you would like to schedule a consultation (i.e., “good conversation”) about communicating engagement and engaging communication in your teaching, please contact the Reinert Center at Please also consider sharing your perspectives on communication and engagement, or reflections on ideas introduced in this blog post, in the comment section below.


Deetz, S. (2008). Engagement as co-generative theorizing. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 36, 289-297.

Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively: Considerations of a Theme

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As we welcome new faculty and students to campus, the Reinert Center is gearing up for its focus this year on Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively. This theme will inform some of our regular programs, including workshops in our Certificate Program, our annual Winter Institute, and our Teaching with Technology series.  Each semester also will feature two new offerings: a faculty panel and a blog series; both will focus on thinking critically this fall and on thinking creatively next spring.

For some, these concepts represent “habits of mind” or “essential skills” or “academic mindsets”.  Some focus on the noun versions (critical thinking, creative thinking); some call them by other names altogether: entrepreneurial thinking, clinical reasoning, connective thinking, to name a few.

Public discourse periodically sees a spike in the number of commentators and researchers and employers who bemoan college graduates’ inability to think critically and/or creatively.  Such seeming intellectual failures often are viewed as key indicators of the decline of universities. Indeed, in articles from the Wall Street Journal and The Harvard Business Review and in how-to guides for Teaching Applied Creative Thinking and Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions,  many both in and out of the academy are preoccupied with questions about what it means to think critically and/or creatively, about how and when people learn to do it, and about who teaches them to do it.

Numerous universities have named these (and other) core academic mindsets as ideal outcomes for all their students.  Most faculty on most campuses would likely rate critical thinking at or near the top of the list of skills they want students to excel at – but many also struggle to name what the features of thinking critically are, in concrete terms.  When we add creative thinking to the mix, new challenges arise, since many faculty may believe “creativity,” in whatever form, cannot be taught (or at least not taught by them).

As nouns, the concepts of critical thinking and creative thinking can be challenging to define, but many have tried. Perhaps one of the best-known efforts for those of us in U.S. higher education comes from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).   As part of its commitment to enhancing assessment, the AAC&U has overseen the development of VALUE rubrics on critical thinking and on creative thinking.  These rubrics are the product of input and samples provided by faculty members from across the country.  They define critical thinking and creative thinking as follows:

Critical thinking: “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion”

Creative thinking: “both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking”

As the AAC&U rubric suggests, critical thinking hinges on actions like suspending judgment, questioning evidence and considering complexities of context; ultimately, its purpose is to stake out a claim or perspective of one’s own.  Although it builds on similar mental activities, creative thinking, on the other hand, involves intellectual risk-taking, imaginative thinking, creative exploration of new solutions to old problems, “embracing contradictions.”

For me, thinking critically and thinking creatively are two sides of the same intellectual coin. When I suspend judgment, actively seek and question new information, and cultivate my own stance on an issue, I am thinking creatively – imagining myself living someone else’s experience, embracing contradictions to arrive at some innovative way of resolving a tension.  Obviously, there also are differences, but thinking critically is an inherently creative act.

In formulating a theme for this year, then, the Reinert Center has chosen to emphasize different approaches to thinking, rather than trying to define two discrete nouns.  This year, we invite all SLU faculty and graduate instructors to articulate what “thinking critically” and “thinking creatively” really look like in their disciplines and in their courses.  Once they name the features of these kinds of thinking, we hope they will also share strategies for teaching these skills.  Whether you are full-time faculty, part-time faculty, or graduate students at SLU, whether you are on the St. Louis or the Madrid campus, we invite you to add your voice to the conversation.  If you want to contribute to the blog series, let us know by completing this short form (LINK).

Ultimately, thinking critically and thinking creatively are essential for the kind of transformative learning we aim for at SLU.  The more entrenched we become in our own ways of thinking about the world, the more we need others to nudge us out of our comfort zones and entice us to explore old ideas in new ways.

As you head into the new academic year, we encourage you to find creative ways to dislodge your students – and maybe even yourself – from the usual ways of looking at a topic.  In doing so, you will promote learning that leads to change, and you might even find a renewed sense of energy and purpose in the classroom.

The Reinert Center Welcomes New Staff

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning enthusiastically announces the newest members of our staff.

Instructional Developer: James Fortney

James has been teaching undergraduate courses on communication, identity, and difference for nearly a decade. Prior to joining the Center, he was faculty in the Department of Communication Studies at Western Washington University. He also taught communication courses as a graduate instructor at University of Colorado Boulder and University of Utah. His research embraces a focus on concrete, mundane communication practices as constitutive of larger social structural systems. Through this perspective, he is committed to helping faculty and graduate students develop courses that challenge students to participate in society in more effective, inclusive, and dignifying ways. He is particularly interested in designing courses that nurture classroom dialogue on matters of equity and social justice.

Instructional Developers in the Center consult with faculty, graduate students, and teaching staff on instructional elements, course design, and learning technologies. They also research new pedagogical approaches to instruction; help facilitate intentional transitions to online teaching; and work with faculty teaching in the Reinert Center’s Learning Studio.


Graduate Assistants: Mitchell Lorenz and Ludwig Weber

Mitch is a graduate student in SLU’s Experimental Psychology Doctoral Program (social concentration). He earned his MS in Experimental Psychology from Western Illinois University in 2011 where he studied dehumanization and interpersonal rejection. Mitch joined SLU in 2012 and currently studies intergroup helping, stereotyping, and prejudice. Additionally, Mitch has been involved in research considering students’ perceptions of psychology as a science. In addition to his research experiences, Mitch has taught sections of General Psychology and Methods and Statistics.

Ludwig is a doctoral student in the Department of English. In 2007, he earned a Master of Arts in English from Murray State University. He has been at SLU since 2011, where his field of inquiry is modern and contemporary American literature, as well as theoretical examinations of spatial and mythological concepts. He has previously served as assistant director of The Walter J. Ong, S.J., Center for Language, Culture, and Media Studies, as well as a writing consultant in SLU’s Writing Services program, in addition to teaching undergraduate courses in literature, composition, and professional writing in the Department of English.

Graduate Assistants in the Center assist in the administration of the Certificate in University Teaching Skills (CUTS) program, conduct research on teaching and learning topics, consult with graduate students about teaching, conduct teaching observations, and assist Center staff with the implementation and assessment of programs.

We look forward to the contributions that James, Mitch, and Ludwig bring to all those the Reinert Center serves.

Embracing Challenging Students

14734962322_45d7fff3e9_zby Mitch Lorenz, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Following thoughtful class design, lecture preparation, online class portal updating, and first day of class clothing selection comes the time when we, as teachers, must step into the classroom and actually interact with students. Regardless of the degree of preparation, unexpected problems may arise as students begin to interact with you and the class materials. Some students may not agree with your approach, and they may tell you as much. In fact, some students might go so far as to question your thoughtful wardrobe choices as well!

Patterns of behavior from a few students in every class are so consistently similar that many teaching resources feature an entire section devoted to these “problem students.” Here are some of the types of students, as identified by McKeachie and Svinicki (2013), who may prove challenging and strategies to use when you have one of these types of students in a class.

Aggressive Students:  These students fall primarily into two categories: those challenging class materials and those directly challenging instructor authority. When a student challenges class material, whether due to interest in the topic or exposure to prior knowledge, it provides an opportunity to generate a dialogue with the class as a whole. These types of challenges often reflect a desire for further exploration of the topic, and one student speaking up (i.e., appearing aggressive) can help highlight similar feelings among the quieter students.

When a student appears angry with you as an instructor, whether due to your teaching style or a perceived lack of fairness, it can be extremely challenging to deal with. Above all else, avoid responding with hostility, as this will only aggravate the situation. If possible, seize the opportunity to better get to know the student, making a serious attempt to listen to their point of view. Even if you disagree with their perspective, it would be unfair to fail to acknowledge their feelings. Be as objective as possible in presenting your point of view without relying on your power as the instructor. Try to avoid being overly defensive and acknowledge if a mistake has been made. Finally, don’t be discouraged when some students are not satisfied, regardless of your approach.

Discouraged Students: After a few weeks of class, when the nature of the class (and the workload) has become clear to students, you may notice some students appearing discouraged. This may be especially true for freshman and transfer students who are dealing with a change of scenery and shift in their support structure. These students may miss class, appear ambivalent in their writing, or express self-doubt. One way to encourage these students is to bring students from previous semesters back to share their experiences. Hearing how a peer dealt with feelings of frustration or self-doubt, and how they overcame them, may encourage students while providing them with some strategies they can use when they feel discouraged.

There is one “truth” vs. “everything is relative:” Many students consider instructors to be dispensers of fact. Others believe everything is relative. Students who prefer to be presented with facts may struggle with scenarios in which multiple competing theories exist, or when there may be no clear “right answer.” Following a discussion of multiple proposed answers to one question, this type of student is likely to wonder which answer is the “right one.” Other students may recognize that there are often multiple, equally valid, perspectives, and they may use this belief to challenge anything presented as fact. When students fall into the extreme of either camp it can be particularly challenging. For these types of students, the best approach may be to serve as a role model by designing your class in a way that does not emphasize one “true” answer while openly embracing the uncertainty associated with not always knowing which approach is best.

If you’ve taught, you have likely encountered students who fall into each of these categories. You probably also realize that there are plenty of other types of challenging students you may encounter. In addition to challenging you as an instructor, these students may also challenge your ability to manage the classroom. For ways to address classroom management-specific concerns related to various types of students, I recommend checking out a recent post by Dipti Subramanium. Finally, teaching is an interaction and any problems that arise are a result of the interaction between you, the class you’ve designed, and the students. Keep this in mind and ask yourself what you may be doing to influence the behavior of your students. You may be able to proactively avoid issues through changes to your own behavior!



McKeachie, W. & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning

Image courtesy of Texas A&M University, via Flickr