Learning Activities to Develop Student Critical Thinking Skills

This page is a collection of favorite learning activities submitted by faculty. Faculty find that these activities encourage higher order learning and develop student critical thinking skills. Read the activity descriptions to help generate ideas for your courses. If you would like to share your favorite learning activities, send them to mvail@trevecca.edu.

Learning Activities:

Activity Type

Case Study
Title: Air Pollution and Forest Ecology
Submitted by: Chris Farrell
Dept: Science and Mathematics
The attached example, Farrell_CT.pdf, is taken from
Allen, R.D. Critical Thinking: as Study Workbook. Boston: WC/McGraw-Hill. 1995, 154-8.

The example sets out a case study with questions. Suggested answers to the case study questions are provided.
Case Study

Directed Discussion
Title: Case Study; Socratice Method
Submitted by: Richard Moore
School: Education
Case Studies: Students formalize their response individually, but sometimes we get in groups.
Socratic Method: Based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas.

Holistic Thinking
Title: History through the Lens of Music
Submitted by: David Diehle
Dept: Music
Conceptually, I teach students to view the music we are studying as artifacts that reveal information regarding the time and location in which they were composed. In effect, we are studying history through the lens of music. This encourages students to view music as both a product and producer of the culture, philosophy, politics, economics, and other arts of that time period. It helps them think beyond music narrowly and puts it in a broader historical context.

Technically, I don’t emphasize dates, memorization of a lot of detail, nor the identification of particular pieces of music. I teach them to listen critically to music to decide if the piece is a good piece of music based on the use of musical elements (sound, harmony, rhythm, melody, form, and text). This way students can use those skills in listening to music in there everyday world, the church, and in the future. I try to help them develop these critical skills needed to form and defend their opinion regarding musical works and their ability to create excellent musical works using information gleaned from the great composers throughout history.

Students turn in approximately 10 analyses a semester as well as a detailed paper on a composer and a research based presentation on one piece of music.
In-class Debate
Title: Research and Debate
Submitted by: David Diehle
Dept: Music
I have also used values clarification exercises where students debate an issue (the difference between Calvin and Luther’s view of music in the church). In this exercise, I assign students a particular view to defend and then they debate one another and the rest of the class goes and stands with the group they agree with as the debate continues. They may change their minds as many times as they want.
Position Paper
Title: Position Paper
Submitted by: Porter King
School: Education
I use a variety of this model for critical writing, from one-page items to full theses. Based on George Hegel's triad, the model requires summary, evaluation, assertion, and analysis. Use it as you will, or not at all.

The position paper description may be downloaded by clicking: King_Position_Paper.pdf
Case Study- Rubric
Title: Case Study with Rubric
Submitted by: Ruth Kinnersley
School: Education
Attached is a description of the course assignment that I use in my graduate MLIS class, which is the library management class. It is specific to some of the things we cover in class, but it can be adapted to other courses. I have also included the rubric for the assignment.

Case Study Assignment: Kinnersley_Case_ Study.doc
Rubric: Kinnersley_Rubric.doc

Comparative Genre
Title: Sonata
Submitted by: Michael Karounos
Dept: English
I use this in my 1080 classes (and also in the session I taught for FacDev in the summer) to stimulate critical and interdisciplinary thinking. There is a sonnet in literature, a sonata in music, and I argue that the film itself follows the sonata form in terms of visual narrative. It can be interepreted from a literary, musical, sociological, psychological, theological, and filmic perspective. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Logical fallacy: causation
Title: Causality
Submitted by: Randy Carden
Dept: Psychology
One of my favorite activities to develop critical thanking takes place in my General Psychology class.

When we talk about correlational and experimental designs, the issue of "causality" is discussed. I like to present a research finding that has appeared in recent news. For example, an article released around the beginning of this semester is that the ability to touch one’s toes in a seated position on the floor with straight legs was related to healthy and more flexible coronary arteries. After presenting this recent finding, I asked my students about potential causal relationships ultimately leading them to the discovery that “correlation does not imply causation.” In other words, the ability to touch one’s toes does not necessarily “cause” flexible coronary arteries. Further, students are asked to provide “alternative explanations” that might explain why toe-touching flexibility was related to coronary artery flexibility. During this discussion of alternative explanations, “confounding variables” are discussed along with the “third variable problems.”

Problem-based Learning; Inquiry-based Learning
Title: Problem-based learning assignments
Submitted by: Judy Bivens
School: Education
This exercise was shared by a friend of Dr. Bivens who did his dissertation on PBL problem based learning.

Developing Problem Based or Inquiry Based Learning Assigneents: Bivens_PBL.pdf

Graphical Data
Title: Interpreting Graphical Data
Submitted by: Alisha Russell
Dept: Natural Sciences
The attached example describes a way to help students interpret and draw conclusions from data presented in graphical form. Russell_CT.pdf
Project Collaboration
Title: Collaborative Commentary
Submitted by:


Involvement and engagement in the learning process is promoted in my clasroom through the use of what I call "collaborative commentary." When students near the cmpletion phase of their major projects, I dedicate specific time for them to engage with one another in discussion about each other's progress. Students are to check-in with their neighbors to give their constructive opinions in a "take it or leave it" style of collaboration to enhance their skills and learn from classmates. Students might suggest different takes on the work they review, discover they share similar design styles, or even find out they need to make improvements based on the ideas they get from clssmates. This encourages the involvement of every student and serves as a practical measure to engage them in not just their own work, but also the work of others through active discussion.
Class Business
Title: Class Business
Submitted by: Lena Welch
Dept: Communication
(1) To discuss and reinforce ideas from the text.
(2) To make connections between ideas in the class and your experiences.
(3) To become more observant and aware of the interpersonal messages in your environment.
(4) To develop your ability to express your ideas orally.
(5) To encourage you to read the text without resorting to .

For a description of the activity click on Welch_Class_business.doc
Shared Small Group Activities
Title: Cubing
Submitted by:
Penney Cardin
School: Education
The activity uses groups of students to generate illustrative activities for a concept with multiple parts. Each group designs activities that are completed by a different group. Each group processesa and applies each concept and its parts two times--first, when they create their own activies and second, when they complete activities designed by another group. For a complete explanation, click the file name, P_Carden_CT.ppt
Group Activity
Title: Essential Question
Submitted by:
Ruth Cox
School: Education
I use usually once per semester. I find it interesting to watch students process ideas that do not have “pat” answers.

Essential Question Activity
On large sheets of butcher paper – or even white boards or smart boards, the instructor writes a question in the center of the paper and encircles it. Students are given appropriate markers and without talking they write responses or further questions on the paper – drawing a line connecting their idea with the central question or to another response. There is usually no talking so participants can think without being disturbed. I usually use at least two questions – each at a different area, assign groups, and allot time. After time is completed, the groups of students change areas in order to silently examine the other question or subsequent responses at a deeper level. Students are encouraged to add to the silent discussion. At the close of the activity, students are asked to analyze the question in light of the responses in written form or debriefing as a group.

The power in this activity is in the crafting of the essential question. It should be a question that requires students to think beyond what they have previously read or discussed. It should not be a closed question but rather one that evolves, changes, has variables, requires synthesizing, analyzing, or even making educated judgments.