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Innovative Critical Thinking Assignments for Student Success

October 2012, Volume 15, Number 10

By Rose Mince, Mel Berry, Linda De La Ysla, Michael Venn, and Nancy Parker

Critical thinking is a term that may mean different things to different people and that may vary to some degree depending upon the learning situation. Many academic definitions include some aspect of analysis and evaluation; higher order thinking skills often need particular attention and scaffolding in order to be fully achieved by the typical community college student. The purpose of this abstract is to share innovative yet practical teaching strategies to enhance student success. Specific applications for writing, reading, and mathematics will be shared, but the strategies are applicable in many different disciplines.  The goal is to have students take responsibility for their learning and to be able to support their assertions through careful analysis, synthesis, and appropriate application.

Before students can truly master the subject matter of a particular course, they must be able to master the kind of thinking that defines the subject. One explicit way to help students spend a sustained amount of time and effort critically thinking about the subject matter is a well-crafted writing assignment, preferably one that includes some type of problem-solving component. John Bean (2001) claims that writing is closely linked with thinking and that by presenting students with significant problems to write about and creating an environment that demands their best writing, teachers can promote cognitive and intellectual growth. Innovative assignments help students to become more actively engaged with the subject matter and more actively engaged with life.

Critical Thinking in the Writing Classroom

An assignment that promotes critical thinking while engaging college writing students is the Family History I-Search Paper. The impetus for this paper comes from two sources:  Macrorie’s The I Search Paper (1988) and Dixon’s Writing Your Heritage (1993). The I-Search Paper is, as Macrorie writes, “the story of the hunt” to answer certain questions of personal importance to the student writer. While topics may vary, in this assignment students focus on issues related to their ancestors’ personal stories as contextualized within an historical period. Students write a detailed rationale for their selected topics as well as a lengthy narrative of what they know, assume, or imagine to be true, plus what they hope to learn. The student researcher is at the center of this search, and the paper is written in first-person, hence, the I in I-Search. Students rely on both primary sources–usually  interviews—and secondary sources. Ultimately, because student writers explore a topic in which they have personal investment, they are usually engaged from the outset as well as driven to search for answers.

Bean’s work (2001) provides theoretical support for the Family History I-Search Paper. This assignment enhances critical thinking because it is what he describes as “problem-driven”; it starts with a question, a doubt, a puzzling over, or an uncertainty (p. 30). This wondering drives the assignment, for as Bean notes, it might then be followed by exploration, incubation, writing of the first draft, response, editing, writing of the final draft, and publication (pp. 31-32). Exploratory activities include construction of a family tree and a letter to an ancestor. Preliminary drafts are followed by multiple interviews with family members, up to three research sessions with the reference librarian, peer review, one-on-one conferencing with the professor, and “publication” through an oral presentation. As successful creative thinking assignments do, this engaging project creates in students a cognitive dissonance; writers are urged  “to see a phenomenon from an unfamiliar perspective” (Bean, 2001, p. 27), specifically, an ancestor’s life as set against the backdrop of larger historical events or circumstances.

Students respond positively, as this required metacognitive reflection shows:

I have a different perspective on my life … I feel bookended by other men and women’s experiences … I would encourage anyone … to take the time to mine these stories before the storytellers are no longer alive. As George Bernard Shaw said, every single person has a family skeleton, or a good story, but it is up to us to do the shaking.

Critical Thinking in the Humanities Classroom

Critical thinking is an abstract activity that involves a multitude of conceptual applications; yet, it must begin with observation and a thorough engagement with the subject matter. In addition, only when individuals have immersed themselves in the material are they ready to begin higher order thinking. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the college instructor to select material that will intellectually and emotionally engage students on several levels. some of these being message, story, and relevance to the audience. If instructors select material that has, at a minimum, these three qualities, then they can engage students with the material and establish the first goal of critical thinking—observation and a thorough understanding of the material.

Film is a medium that often engages students on multiple levels but is often scorned for not being academic enough. However, films have many of the qualities that well-written literary books possess: complicated plots, engaging and dynamic characters, and themes that address the thorny issues associated with the human predicament. One such film,  12 Angry Men, an excellent source for observing critical thinking while encouraging students to use the critical thinking process. The story involves a young man who stands accused of killing his father. The setting of the film is a jury room on a hot summer day in New York City, and it is there that the real drama of the film unfolds. The jury is made up of twelve men who must decide the fate of the young man, and they must do this by taking apart all of the evidence presented by the prosecution. However, engaging in the critical thinking process is not as easy as it sounds, especially in the initial stage of analysis, for it means questioning every detail that supports the conclusion. This kind of scrutiny often angers individuals whose opinions are being questioned, thus, the title, 12 Angry Men. The suspense of the film is heightened as jury member after jury member confronts his own biases, prejudicial views, and inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the evidence. Often, jury members use various logical fallacies to try to justify their opinions, and when these assertions are expressed, they are challenged by other jury members who ably demonstrate the inconsistency or inherent contradictions implicit in them.

This film can form the foundation for many different critical thinking assignments that ask students to carefully delineate the three stages of critical thinking while also identifying and explaining the logical fallacies and the three rhetorical appeals: logical (logos), emotional (pathos), and ethical (ethos).

Finally, with 12 Angry Men, students are not only watching a compelling drama involving critical thinking, but they are also practicing these essential elements as they, too, weigh each piece of evidence and try to determine if the young man is guilty or innocent.  One indication of this assignment’s success occurs when  the students are still arguing about the evidence as they exit the classroom, still engaged in the essence of critical thinking—analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.

Critical Thinking in the Reading Classroom

Peter Facione (1998) explains that, “Beyond being able to interpret, analyze, evaluate and infer, strong critical thinkers can do two more things. They can explain what they think and how they arrived at that judgment. And, they can apply their powers of critical thinking to themselves and improve on their previous opinions. These two skills are called ‘explanation’ and ‘self-regulation’.” It is clear that Facione recognizes the complex nature of critical thinking and the multiple steps that a successful reader must take in order to gain a deeper comprehension of texts. In the reading classroom, students can practice and apply critical thinking skills in all aspects of the course.

Reading students are in need of a refresher on basic college reading skills; however, this does not have to consist only of skill and drill activities. With proper scaffolding techniques, instructors can push their students beyond basic skills work and help them to think critically about the content. For example, incorporating a novel or other supplemental text is one way to incorporate critical thinking skills into a course. A novel provides opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking discussions both inside and outside of the class and fosters higher-level thinking skills through online and group activities, journals, and essays. The reading classroom is also the perfect setting to expose students to a wide variety of articles from numerous academic disciplines and news outlets. The Elements of Thought organizer, developed by Paul & Elder (2008), may be used for whole class, partner, and independent tasks. This tool serves as a framework for students when critically evaluating an article, essay, or other text. Finally, political cartoons are a less intimidating method for teaching critical thinking skills, because students are motivated and willing to share their thoughts on what they see and interpret. A brief lesson on the style and content of political cartoons serves as the groundwork for group think-aloud activities during analysis. Students can use this model when working in groups or with partners, and to analyze cartoons independently. Through the use of a variety of techniques, reading students have the opportunity to fine tune their critical reading skills while also preparing for future critical thinking tasks in their college courses and careers.

Critical Thinking in the Mathematics Classroom

In mathematics classes students develop critical thinking skills when they solve a problem, which inherently contains critical thinking practice, especially in applied mathematics courses such as statistics. Therefore, in a college mathematics classroom, critical thinking can be defined as applying an appropriate strategy to solve a defined problem and executing that strategy with accuracy: knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and why to do it. With widespread waning student interest in doing homework for mathematical practice, the natural setting for critical thinking development is in the classroom, where the instructor can monitor student practice and remediate when necessary. But how do we allow students to practice in class without compromising coverage of required material?

Test reviews offer an opportunity to transform what is often an instructor-centered lecture into a collaborative practice session that fosters critical thinking. An Individual Integrated Resource Review (I²R²©) is a graded problem set similar to an upcoming test that is distributed to the class before a test and collected the day of the test. Students are encouraged to use any resource except for their instructor,that is, classmates, books, notes. In truth, the instructor may offer guidance in the form of hints or the demonstration of a problem similar to one in the I²R². Despite the option to leave the classroom and work independently, most students stay in the classroom and work collaboratively in self-selected groups. Ultimately, when students embrace the process, an I²R² turns into a large study session in which groups naturally jigsaw when they send an envoy to another group to check an answer or to share a method to solve a problem. Students rarely just copy the answers from each other, understanding that on the test, they will not have that luxury.

At first students are alarmed at the prospect of working on a review as a class without the help of their instructor; yet, as the process continues students realize that by discussing and actively solving the problems with their colleagues, their test scores improve throughout the semester. The onus is on the students to prepare themselves for the upcoming test while also developing critical thinking skills essential for success in all college classes, especially in such courses as statistics, in which translation of the words into mathematics is essential for success on examinations. After a semester of collaborative review, most students who in the past have found mathematics courses difficult attribute their success to I²R².


Critical thinking assignments should require students to evaluate competing explanations, test hypotheses, and/or identify flaws in causation. Learning activities that encourage students to determine the relevance of information for evaluating an argument or conclusion and that require students to support their own arguments will help them hone their critical thinking skills. The examples shared in this paper can be adapted to many different disciplines. In essence, innovative critical thinking assignments launch further inquiry and promote student success.



Bean, J. (2001). Engaging ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dixon, D.  (1993). Writing Your Heritage: A Sequence of Thinking, Reading & Writing. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

Facione, P. (1998). Critical thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts. Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press.

Friedkin, W. (Director), & Rose, R. (Writer). (1997). 12 Angry Men. [Motion picture]. United States: MGM.

Macrorie, K(1988). The I-search Paper: Revised Edition of Searching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2009). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools. Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 10/04/2012 at 9:04 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -