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Editor’s Note: Teachers need to develop class structures and online teaching styles that encourage creativity, reflective thinking, and self-directed learning. Today’s online classes rely heavily on print, verbal skills, and critical thinking. This can be greatly enhanced by rich media environments, simulations, and curriculum that offers multiple perspectives. Online discussion supports development of critical thinking skills. Mature and self-directed students are more likely to be successful in online environments. Higher yields are possible through application of instructional design and cognative learning psychology.

Integrating Critical Thinking into Online Classes

Brent Muirhead D. Min., Ph.D.

USDLA Journal. 16.11


The integration of critical thinking skills into the online curriculum is an essential to providing intellectually challenging and relevant learning experiences for students. The paper will offer a basic description of critical thinking and discuss how to engage students in higher order thinking skills.

Nature of Critical Thinking

Distance education literature contains frequent references to the importance of critical thinking and teachers are encouraged to cultivate reflective thought in their students. Yet, even veteran teachers will admit that integrating critical thinking instruction into their classes is one of their most difficult tasks. Teachers who want to enhance the teaching and learning process realize that fostering critical thinking skills will require extra work to effectively communicate complex ideas to their students. Bullen’s research (1998) reveals that a student’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking skills during online discussions is influenced by four major factors:

The list of factors reveals that students will vary in their understanding of critical thinking skills and cognitive abilities. Therefore, teachers will need to develop a set of strategies that will help them to meet a diversity of student needs. A good starting point is to examine the literature on critical thinking to create an educational philosophy that reflects the latest research studies and teaching ideas.

Teaching to Enhance Critical Thinking

A review of critical thinking research can be somewhat confusing at times due to writers discussing various aspects of thinking. Sormunen and Chalupa (1994) bring some clarity to this problem by stressing that educational models classify critical thinking as both a product and process that combines psychological (i.e metacognition) and philosophical (i.e constructivist reasoning) elements. The good news is that there are a growing number of research studies that highlight how teachers can help their students improve their thinking skills.

Contemporary teachers face the reality that most of their instruction tends to focus on content knowledge and not on the process of learning transferable reflective skills Halpern (1998) relates, “despite all of the gains that cognitive psychologists have made in understanding what happens when people learn, most teachers do not apply their knowledge of cognitive psychology (paragraph 11).” In contrast to this report, the author has been encouraged by his observations of veteran teachers at the University of Phoenix. The author conducts peer reviews of faculty members and has noted that distance educators are devoting more instructional time to cultivating critical thinking skills.

Halpern (1998) stresses the dispositional aspect of thinking refers to whether individuals have developed reflective habits. Critical thinking requires mental effort and the personal discipline to work with complex problems. Individuals with a critical spirit are often inquisitive about the mysteries of life and strive to find the most reliable information. Facione (1998) notes, “critical thinking is about how you approach problems, questions, issues. It is the best way we know to get to the truth (paragraph 26).”

Teaching Strategies

Teachers will need to develop a class structure and online teaching style that encourages creativity, reflective thinking, and self-directed learning. It is important that teachers enable students to have the freedom to ask questions and take intellectual risks in their written assignments and discussion groups. Teachers can provide valuable guidance by keeping dialogues focused, relevant and probing deeper into issues. This will require moderating discussions and creating a list of key ideas, references and student contributions. Distance educators can pose a diversity of questions to foster reflective comments. Collision, Elbaum, Havvind & Tinker (2000) have created five types of questions to encourage richer student responses that are called full-spectrum questions:

Teachers should view the full-spectrum questions as tool for enhancing dialog. The choice of questions can be used to guide the discussion and help energize online interaction. It is wise not to overuse a question approach because students will the discussion become too predictable. Therefore, try to use pictures, cartoons, simulations or graphics instead of questions at different times during the course. Currently, the University of Phoenix is using more computer simulations in their business courses to promote realistic decision-making scenarios. Students enjoy learning activities that bring a slice of reality into the class that relates to their professional work environment.

According to Brookfield (1987), a major problem in our society has involved placing a placed a greater value on action oriented activities. He states “thinking is not seen as action, despite the fact that thinking is one of the most tiring activities in which we engage on a daily basis (p. 229).” Distance educators need to create relevant assignments that help students practice their critical thinking skills. The author teaches an online doctoral class on the philosophy of knowledge. Lectures are designed to help students to creatively apply philosophical ideas to contemporary social issues. The following brief mini-lecture will reveal how teachers can use popular culture to teach critical thinking skills. Students will learn some of the ways that a philosopher or historian of intellectual history might look at the television world and specifically at portion of the Star Trek television series.

Using Star Trek to Cultivate Critical Thinking Skills (Muirhead

The television industry is continually promoting its own views of reality that need to be challenged and examined by the American public. Reflective thinking enables people to be thoughtful citizens who resist simplistic answers to complex social problems.

Guiness (1994) notes that television shows contain four major kinds bias that influence it messages:

1. It has bias against understanding because it stresses images and emotions but it often lacks context and meaning that creates an illusion of knowledge.

2. Television conversations have a bias against responsibility by having a rapid approach that packages news into segments of intense images of dramatic events.

3. Programs have a bias against historical events because news reports are focused on today as being far more important than the past.

4. Television shows have a bias against rationality because attention is on performance by high profile individuals who prefer drama over reflective thought.

The popular Star Trek television series can be viewed as an interesting slice of American intellectual history. The following notes on Star Trek will highlight how various cast members from several different shows represent a certain perspective on understanding knowledge and truth.

Star Trek

Spock- completely rational solves problems with reasoning skills and represents the ideal Enlightenment man. Often, he resolves difficult problems for the crew members of the Enterprise.

Mission Goal- objective knowledge of the entire universe "the final frontier" and humans pursue the goal alone.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Data - replaces Spock and he is an android who works with other crew members to find solutions to their problems.

Counselor Troy - uses her intuition to perceive human feelings and truthfulness.

Q - a divine being who is all knowing but morally ambiguous who displays a combination of cynicism, benevolence and self-gratification.

Mission Goal - to go where no man has gone before. Man needs the help of androids and other life forms to discover knowledge. Life is more complicated for people because appearances can be deceiving and truth is considered relative and incomplete.

Observation - the Star Trek series portray an optimistic technological future, but one filled with constant conflicts as the crew travels on their odyssey through space. The show sometimes diminishes the role of human reason and the possibility of objective knowledge. The Voyager series includes a first officer who is a Native American. He is a spirit guide that utilizes a combination of science and mysticism to help manage crisis situations. Ironically, the greatest threat is not being lost in some distant quadrant of space, but it is the loss of personal inner stability.

After sharing highlights from the Star Trek programs, teachers can discuss how the television series reflects different perspectives on truth, knowledge, ethics and intellectual trends. Students might notice that human reason is less important and there greater emphasis on relativism. What is a basic definition of the term? Barzun (2000) relates “it means flexible, adaptable, a sliding scale that gives a different reading in similar situations (p. 761).” Relativism appears to make few distinctions between moral codes, cultures and religions. They each reside in a certain time and place in history that should be respected and tolerated. Yet, Barzun argues that a civilized society often utilizes relative standards for applying the law to individual criminal cases. He maintains that the anti-relativists who embrace moral absolutes cannot effectively answer the question “Whose Absolute are we to adopt and impose? (Barzun 2000, p. 762).” This brief example reveals that popular culture can offer numerous instructional opportunities to help students refine their thinking skills through reading and reflective dialog.

Evaluating Critical Thinking Skills

Contemporary testing methods often fail to provide teachers with information on how students arrive at their responses to test items. Quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures can be useful but it is vital that “….the assessment must be sensitive enough to identify changes that have occurred in students’ thinking skills (paragraph 14).” Critical thinking assessment instruments can include commercially designed tests, teacher made tests, check lists, open-ended questions, problem-solving scenarios or simulations. For instance, check lists can be used to evaluate a variety of student work such as gathering information on student online comments or portfolios. Check lists are useful tools to document evidence of student problem solving and decision making skills (Sormunen & Chalupa, 1994).

Teachers can integrate critical thinking into their classes by presenting information from a diversity of perspectives that involve both the cognitive and affective learning domains. The author has found that students really enjoy reading nonfiction short stories about individuals and their personal learning adventures. Teachers can share interesting and informative stories that offer insights into concepts such as perseverance in problem solving. Short stories can be included in lectures and handouts that stress descriptive information on critical thinking. Stories bring a human element into the online class environment that makes learning new ideas much more meaningful. Also, students should be given examples of creative thinking such as published journal and magazine articles. The following chart is an effective way to help students understand the multidimensional aspects of critical thinking.

Essential Critical Thinking Skills (Woolfolk, 1990, p. 278)

Defining and Clarifying the Problem

Judge Information Related to the Problem

Solving Problems/Drawing Conclusions

Online Instructional Challenges

The affective and psychological dimensions of distance education are important aspects of the teaching and learning process. Distance educators face the dilemma of how to foster critical thinking with students who vary in their need for academic guidance. Often, this problem is portrayed as teacher-directed versus student self-directed learning models. In reality, the online teacher will have to adapt his/her teaching style to meet the needs of their students. Berge (1999) relates that interaction in education “involves a continuum from teacher-centered to student-centered approaches” (p. 9).

Distance educators are challenged by using a text-driven form of education. Today’s online classes rely heavily on printed materials and teacher created lectures and handouts. Therefore, the use of language becomes a focal point for teachers and students because the entire communication process is closely linked to thinking. Kirby & Goodpaster (2002) note “language works intimately with all aspects of our thinking …sensing, feeling, remembering, creating, organizing, reasoning, evaluating, deciding, persuading, and acting. As we become more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of language, and as we increase and refine our own language, we will think better (p. 98).

A major adult education goal is helping students become self-directed learners who learn to monitor and improve their thinking skills. Distance educators need to integrate meaningful instructional activities into their classes that promote internalization of critical thinking skills and knowledge. It is one of the unique challenges of teaching online but it is essential to fostering classes and degree programs that prepare students for leadership roles in our society.


Barzun, J. (2000). From dawn to decadence: 500 years of Western cultural life. New York: HarperCollins.

Berge, Z. L. (1999). Interaction in post-secondary web-based learning. Educational Technology, 39 (1), 5-11.

Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing Critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bullen, M. (1998). Participation and critical thinking in online university distance education. Journal of Distance Education. 13 (2).Available: http://cade.icaap.org/vol13.2/bullen.html

Collison, G. Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Facione, P. A. (1998). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Available: http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/what&why98.pdf

Grenz, S. J. (1995). Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the future of evangelical theology. In D. S. Dockery (Ed. ). The challenge of postmodernism (pp. 89-103). Wheaton, ILL: Victor Books.

Guiness, O. (1994). Fit bodies Fat minds. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Halpern, D. F. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Dispositions, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring. American Psychologists. 53(4), 449-455.

Kirby, G. R. & Goodpaster, J. R. (2002). Thinking (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Muirhead, B. (2000).Using Star Trek to Enhance Critical Thinking Skills. ASKERIC Lesson Plan. Available: http://ericir.syr.edu/cgi-bin/printlessons.cgi/Virtual/Lessons/Language_Arts/Writing/WCP0074.html

Richards, T. (1997). The meaning of Star Trek. New York, NY: DoubleDay

Sormunen, C. & Chalupa, M. (1994). Critical thinking skills research: Developing evaluation techniques. Journal of Education for Business. 69 (3), 172-178. Retrieved from EBSCOhost from the online library at the University of Phoenix Online.

Woolfolk A. E. (1990). Educational psychology (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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