What’s the issue?

The ability to think critically is an essential skill for professionals, including doctors, government officials, and educators. But are instructors at professional schools teaching it, or do they just think they are? Approaches to teaching and assessing critical thinking skills vary substantially across academic disciplines and are not standardized. And little data exists on how much students are learning—or even whether they know their instructors are trying to teach them critical thinking. 


What does the research say? 

The researchers, including Suzanne Cooper, the Edith M. Stokey Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS, compared instructors’ approaches to teaching critical thinking with students’ perceptions of what they were being taught. They surveyed instructors and conducted focus groups with students at three professional schools (Harvard Medical School, Harvard Kennedy School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education). 

The researchers found that more than half (54%) of faculty surveyed said they explicitly taught critical thinking in their courses (27% said they did not and 19% were unsure). When the researchers talked to students, however, the consensus was that critical thinking was primarily being taught implicitly. One student said discussions, debates, and case study analyses were viewed as opportunities “for critical thinking to emerge” but that methods and techniques were not a specific focus. The students were also generally unable to recall or define key terms, such as “metacognition” (an understanding of one’s own thought process) and “cognitive biases” (systematic deviations from norms or rationality in which individuals create their own subjective reality). 

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that faculty should be required to teach critical thinking explicitly and be given specific approaches and definitions that are appropriate to their academic discipline. They also recommend that professional schools consider teaching core critical thinking skills, as well as skills specific to their area of study. 

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