Goldilocks and the three bears of critical thinking (Part 2)

Young woman studying at coffee shop

(This is part two of our three-part series “Goldilocks and the Three Bears of Critical Thinking.” Read part one).

Bear-ier #2: The bear that lacks a map through the critical thinking forest

Map-less Goldilocks beat the odds when it came to escaping bears, but it’s unrealistic for us to expect that all students, or even most students, can safely navigate the forest of critical thinking without a map. However, we regularly have this expectation.

Most college faculty say they value critical thinking and most say they teach it. Indeed, I used to believe that I was overtly teaching critical thinking; but when students failed at it I realized that I had mistaken modeling critical thinking, assigning it, and expecting it for overtly teaching it.

The symptoms that I was not overtly teaching critical thinking were all there; students continuously got frustrated with higher level assignments, they complained when assigned case work, and they regularly said that they didn’t even know where to start on the critical thinking based assignments I gave them. My students were struggling to overcome bear-ier #2—the lack of a map toward critical thinking.

Time to be honest…

The truth is I wasn’t trained as a teacher—I was trained as a scientist. Many college faculty share this history with me; they too were hired for their specific discipline credentials versus their teaching credentials. Accrediting bodies evaluate institutions based in part on faculty credentials.

In general, the minimum qualification to teach college credit courses is a Master’s degree with 18 or more graduate credit hours in the discipline being taught. There’s no requirement that faculty have official training in teaching or even an iota of teaching experience. Consequently, many college faculty have very little if any training in teaching, never mind a specific course in how to teach critical thinking.

My point is that we’ve embraced a “you just do it” mindset when it comes to collegiate teaching, so it’s not entirely shocking that we’ve applied that very same mindset to critical thinking—”you just do it.”

Of course, this is garbage. You don’t “just do it” any more than you just fly a plane or you just play the piano. It takes training and it takes practice, just like learning the course content does. While we don’t expect students to learn how to read on their own without an overt curriculum, it seems we often expect self-teaching when it comes to critical thinking.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that so few students are competent at critical thinking, even after earning a college degree.

Critical thinking cartography

Unfortunately, when students fail at critical thinking faculty get frustrated and we may assume that “students just aren’t ready to think critically.” The thing is, students can think critically and they are ready to do it if we give them the tools. It’s up to us to help them overcome the barriers they face to developing their critical thinking prowess—we must give students a map to critical thinking.

This is why I developed the S.M.A.R.T. framework as map toward critical thinking. Because my courses are focused on training the healthcare team of tomorrow, I thought about how trained clinicians and scientists approach problems. I also followed the literature on the neurological aspects of how we learn and how we develop critical thinking skills.

Years of teaching and experimenting with thousands of my own students led me to distill the process into the five steps in S.M.A.R.T. These steps are easy to teach, model, and evaluate students on—and students can readily remember them. Because S.M.A.R.T. is a map for higher order problem solving, these five steps can be applied across disciplines.

Getting S.M.A.R.T. about critical thinking

The S.M.A.R.T. approach is a stepping stone style methodology that provides a cognitive scaffold for sifting through large amounts of information and applying it to solve higher order problems.

S.M.A.R.T. stands for:

  1. Summarize known and unknown
  2. Make connections
  3. Avoid distractors
  4. Re-read
  5. Thoroughly answer

Giving students a stepwise strategy to dissect problems empowers them to try the porridge of critical thinking problems. Unfortunately, most students don’t actively seek porridge they tend to prefer brain food (coursework) that is an easy “A,” and let’s face it, porridge isn’t always appetizing.

Nevertheless, as educators we know the critical thinking porridge we serve is full of good stuff that our students need. The clincher is, students only get these mental nutrients if they try the porridge. That brings us to Bear-ier #3…trying the porridge.

Check out part three of the series to explore “Bear-ier” #3: Getting students to try the porridge.

Hear directly from Dr. Norman-McKay in her recent webinar Thinking Critically from Day ONE of Class on how to explore and apply case-based content to facilitate deeper thought and authentic learning opportunities.

About the Author

Lourdes Norman-McKay

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay  earned her B.S. in microbiology and cell science from the University of Florida and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Her postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology and immunology focused on the role of viruses in cancer. She has fifteen years of experience teaching allied health students at the associate, baccalaureate, and post baccalaureate levels. She is a full-time professor at Florida State College Jacksonville where she mainly teaches microbiology and anatomy and physiology, and where in 2016, her peers and students recognized her with the Outstanding Faculty Award.

Dr. Norman-McKay has extensive STEM program development experience that ranges from developing and launching a biomedical sciences baccalaureate program to serving as a curriculum designer and subject matter expert for the Florida Space Research Institute and Workforce Florida. Most recently, she was invited to serve in the U.S. Department of State’s speakers program to promote STEM education innovation and women in STEM. Dr. Norman-McKay is an active participant in the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Microbiology in Nursing and Allied Health Task Force Committee, which just published curricular guidelines for microbiology courses that train nursing and allied health students.


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1 Comment

  1. Prof. William K. Viel 12 months ago

    Thank you for these blogs – very thought provoking – and on the right track toward exposure to greater fluency in “machine literacy” which will continue to dominate their future world.

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