How we can get students to think critically and talk about it

Image of the Good Practice Guide

A key debate in HE is whether tertiary education sufficiently develops students’ skills in thinking critically (Huber and Kunchel, 2016). To answer this question, a cross disciplinary community of practice called CritTALK was established at Kingston University to develop critical thinking teaching practices. Their first discovery was the lack of teaching resources in the sector, despite evidence which endorses explicit teaching of critical thinking within existing curricula (Abrami, et al, 2015). A set of critical thinking teaching resources (Wason, 2016) which were tailored to disciplinary curricula and aligned to learning outcomes and assessment criteria were developed to address this. However, despite its wide dissemination, and training on its use, teachers said that they were often unsure of the pedagogical principles underpinning the toolkit and how to use the resources. A chance encounter at a conference brought the authors together where they decided to investigate whether the principles of dialogic teaching could provide the pedagogical support needed to teach criticality. Critical thinking is both supported by and developed through educational classroom discourse (Michaels, O’Connor and Resnick, 2008). This enables teachers and students to work together to reach a common understanding (Alexander, 2010).

We were fortunate to receive a SEDA small research grant to help us with this. Through a series of professional development activities with the CritTALK community, teachers investigated how they could use Alexander’s (2020) dialogic teaching framework and the teaching repertoires of discussion, argumentation, questioning and debate to support the use of the toolkit in the classroom. A total of five workshops were held online over the academic year 2020-21. Each session focused on one of the teaching repertoires most aligned with the critical thinking teaching tools. We provided insights into the teacher and learner language to promote and evidence these skills in practice and participants co-constructed some teaching resources which they subsequently tried out in their own practice. The outputs were the design of a series of quick guides and a SEDA Good Practice Guide containing a range of teaching examples for use in the sector.

Participants in the project discovered the following benefits from using dialogic teaching to support critical thinking:

  • It helped them think more consciously about getting the students engaged in classroom discussions
  • The series of sessions and resources helped them think again about the teaching process within the classroom
  • Dialogic teaching provided a ‘hook’ for teachers and made tacit knowledge and practice explicit

So in conclusion, how we can get students to think critically and share their ideas is by using a dialogic teaching approach which puts educational dialogue at the centre of our classroom practice.

Hilary Wason is a Senior Lecturer in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Centre at Kingston University. She is an Advance HE Senior Fellow and a National Teaching Fellow. She has published in the areas of critical thinking, student transitions, student engagement and assessment and feedback. You can follow her at @h_wason. 

Dr Marion Heron is a Reader in Educational Linguistics at the University of Surrey. She has a background in applied linguistics and has published in the areas of classroom interaction, dialogic pedagogy, academic speaking (oracy) skills and teacher education You can follow her at @MarionHeron65   @LLL_research  @SurreyIoE


Abrami, P.. Bernard, R.,Borokhowvski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, A., and Persson, T. (2015) ‘Strategies for Teaching Students to Think Critically: A Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 85(2), pp. 275-314.

Alexander, R. (2010). Dialogic teaching essentials. Singapore: National Institute of Education, 1-7.

Alexander, R. (2020). A dialogic teaching companion. Abingdon: Routledge

Huber, C. and Kunchel, N. (2016), ‘Does college teach students’ critical thinking? A meta analysis’ Review of Educational Research, 86(2), pp.431-458

Michaels, S., C. O’Connor, and L. B. Resnick.( 2008) ‘Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized:Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life.’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 27 (4), pp. 283–297

Wason, H. (2016) ‘Embedding a Critical Thinking Framework for Undergraduate Business Students’, in Remenyi, D. (Ed.) 2016 Innovation in the Teaching of Research Methodology Excellence Awards: An Anthology of Case Histories, Reading: Academic Conferences and Publishing International

3 thoughts on “How we can get students to think critically and talk about it

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  3. Pingback: How we can get students to think critically – Learning Matters

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