Applying Cognitive Science to Critical Thinking among Higher Education Students

Jason M. Lodge, Erin O'Connor, Rhonda Shaw, and Lorelle Burton


One of the main aims of higher education is for students to develop their analytical and critical thinking in order for graduates to function as competent professionals (e.g., Burton, Westen, and Kowalski 2012). The importance of this supposed generic skill is reflected in the ubiquitous inclusion of critical thinking as a graduate capability in universities (Moore 2011). While there exist many ways of defining and understanding critical thinking, at its core, critical thinking involves addressing our assumptions about how the world works. It is, therefore, essential for competent practice as a professional (Moon 2008). Without exposure to effective training in critical thinking, assumptions are more often than not based on the cognitive biases that are either inherent or conditioned through experience. The cognitive and emotional processes underpinning biases in thinking are often difficult to overcome. Our natural tendency to take mental shortcuts has allowed us to effectively navigate our environment and process only those stimuli that are of immediate value to us and to our survival. These shortcuts, however, often make it difficult for students to engage deeply with a complex concept, idea, or discipline in a higher education context. Ensuring that graduates are capable of thinking beyond their tendency to take mental shortcuts therefore poses a significant challenge for teaching critical thinking in higher education institutions.

A long-standing debate continues into whether or not critical thinking is best taught in a general or specific manner (see Davies 2006; 2011; 2013). The debate between the generalist and specifist positions has given rise to a number of potential problems for understanding critical thinking in a higher education context. The aim of this chapter is to provide a fresh perspective to the general- ist-specifist debate in order to make progress in the design of interventions for developing critical thinking in university students. The current chapter will examine how such cognitive theories offer ways to circumvent our tendencies toward less rational and less effortful thought. A key focus will be to examine the biases in thinking and to determine how cognitive sciences can provide insight for enhancing higher education teaching and help university students develop their critical thinking skills.

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