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Editor’s Note: Ayse Kok has described a powerful process for developing the critical thinking skills os students. The editors look forward to validation of these premises in future research.


Developing Discipline-Based Critical Thinking Skills
Via Use of Interactive Technologies

Ayse Kok



One of the education’s major goals and valuable outcomes is critical thinking, the cultivation of which is seen as a core intellectual virtue. Within the realm of social sciences where there is a gamut of information resources, developing discipline based critical and analytical thinking skills is essential to cope with the information overload. The goal of this paper is to establish a clear link between the use of new technologies in social sciences and the development of critical thinking skills. Online dialogues based on the externalist model of critical thinking, wikis, concept maps, case studies, role-playing, simulations, streamed video, chat rooms, bulletin boards, online references have been suggested as possible solutions.


Learning in a world where traditional assessment of intelligence are radically changing and abundant knowledge is more readily available due to the proliferation of information communication technologies (ICTs) has become a challenge. Yet, without focusing on how the technologies may provide the learners with critical thinking and analytical skills rather than the mere delivery of information may result in the mirroring of traditional didactic approaches on the technology. Especially, within the realm of social sciences where there is a gamut of information resources, developing discipline based critical and analytical thinking skills is essential to cope with the information overload. The goal of this paper is to provide a clear link between the use of new technologies in social sciences and the development of critical thinking skills.

The paper starts with a basic characterization of critical thinking along with the underpinning theories and then moves into a discussion about the possibilities of conveying critical thinking skills in social sciences via use of new technologies.

Characterization of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking can basically be considered as being able to distinguish the true from the false. Despite being central to both intellectual and social progress, critical thinking is in short supply (van Gelder, 2001).

Bogdan (2000) defines critical thinking as “a unique kind of purposeful thinking in which the thinker systematically and habitually imposes criteria and standards upon the thinking….”.

According to Dewey (1933), reflective thought should be ‘active, persistent’, and should entail ‘careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.’ Similarly, critical thinking should include the evaluation of the worth, accuracy, or authenticity of various propositions, leading to a supportable decision or direction for action.

As it has been stated in the 1980 California State University Executive Order which announced for the first time the requirement of formal instruction in critical thinking (Dumke, 1980), critical thinking emphasizes mental attitudes of “analyzing, criticizing and advocating ideas and reasoning inductively and deductively and reaching factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge”. Similarly, Jones et al. (1995); Paul, Elder, Bartell (1997); Perry (1999); Ennis (2002); and Lampert (2005) define critical thinking as recognizing differing viewpoints, being analytically reflective and willing to increase sources of information as well as generating meaningful questions to formulate plausible conclusions.

These traditional definitions of critical thinking are based on an internalist point of view that packs everything relevant to the evaluation of an intellectual product into the consciousness of an individual (Cohen, Adelman, Bresnick, Marvin, Salas, Riedel, 2004). Accordingly, critical thinkers maintain conscious and deliberate access to the reasons for their beliefs and actions. On the other hand, the externalist point of view favors strategies related to intuitive and recognitional processes which may be more reliable for achieving goal in familiar situations or when time is limited (Cohen, Adelman, Bresnick, Marvin, Salas, Riedel, 2004). This view focuses on the reliability of different types of processes for generating beliefs under different circumstances.

Freire (1987) asserts that critical thinking can occur through the reciprocal process of connection, questioning and interaction among teachers and learners rather than depositing knowledge in the heads of students. So, a critical thinker should be able to differentiate between fact and opinion, examine the assumptions, be flexible and open-minded be aware of fallacious arguments and stay focused on the big picture. According to Meyers (1986), critical thinking is a learnable skill and students can collaborate to enhance their thinking. Meyers (1986) also asserts that while courses should be assignment centered rather than text oriented goals should emphasize the use of content rather than simply its acquisition. 

According to the constructivist framework, learning is an individual construction within the learner’s environment. As Savery & Duffy (1995) state, two of the main objectives of the instructional principles derived from constructivism are to encourage testing ideas against alternative views and contexts and to provide the opportunity for reflection on the content learned and the learning process. These principles are also related to developing critical thinking skills.

With regard to the acquisition of these cognitive skills, it has been asserted throughout the literature that critical thinking skills can be improved with practice under the following conditions (van Gelder, 2001):

  • Motivated: The student should be motivated to improve the critical thinking skills.
  • Guided: The student should be informed about what to do next.
  • Scaffolded: Structures should be provided to prevent inappropriate activity especially during the early stages.
  • Graduated: The complexity of tasks should gradually increase.
  • Feedback: The students should be provided with feedback about the appropriateness of their activities.

One of the main challenges of teaching of the critical thinking skills is that skills acquired in one domain or context may not transfer to another one. In order to overcome this problem of transfer, students must extensively practice transferring their skills over other contexts (van Gelder, 2001). This approach of teaching general thinking skills is in contrast with the situated cognition perspective which asserts that as all thinking is tied to specific concrete situations learning cannot transfer to remote contexts. Yet, by utilizing computers, guidance, feedback and scaffolding, learner activities regarding the critical thinking skills might be improved.

Within the context of online learning, teaching the learner critical thinking skills means more than the critical analysis of online resources. As knowledge is best transferred when it is contextualized into the content familiar to the learner, inquiry based instruction with real world applications in a collaborative setting would present the best opportunity for teaching critical thinking skills. Examples of this approach would be a collaboratively designed online class with instructors from various discipline areas proposing real-life problems that the students may jointly solve.

Critical Thinking within the Realm of Social Sciences

According to Meyers (1986), instead of teaching critical thinking as an independent subject where the students are taught to master formal paradigms of reasoning, critical thinking should be incorporated wholly into the study of individual disciplines. Treating the courses in formal reasoning as being indispensable for a study of the arts and sciences similar to a medieval curricular practice may not provide by themselves the students with the wide range of specific critical skills appropriate to the study of the social sciences (Meyers, 1986). Rather, in order to teach critical thinking skills, “discipline-related frameworks for critical thinking” which can defined as the distinctive conceptual structures and methodological norms that guide inquiry and shape theory in a given discipline should be transmitted (Meyers, 1986).As there is no unified critical methodology or a single procedure for teaching critical thinking skills in social sciences Meyers (1986) suggests that based on the related intellectual culture and context a “step-wise approach” to the development of analytical skills an be followed. To exemplify, a series of short, carefully targeted and complex writing assignments may be given throughout the semester.

Moreover, idea generation can be fostered through the bulletin boards in online learning environments by coaching the discussions to take the students' ideas to the next level and more intellectual learning whereas the presentation tools can be used for group projects. This kind of collaborative learning in pairs or groups with shared goals may promote critical thinking of the social science students. Yet, as not all of the students may possess critical thinking skills to advance an online discussion or all the faculty members may have the required expertise in monitoring the online discussions and creating productive communities of online learning support and training may be required.

As Sugar and Bonk (1998) stated peer collaboration and interaction may not necessarily trigger reflection on one's ideas. Reflective and substantive exchanges between social science students can occur if the faculty members can stimulate the discussions by asking probing questions, encouraging participation, holding them responsible for their thinking and coaching the students about collaborative learning. As asynchronous conversations allow for greater reflection via giving feedback students should also be made aware of the significance of their answers and learn to respect each others' ideas and construct their own understanding. In order for the students to recognize their own assumptions and the implications thereof, and use their knowledge in the exercise of judgment, they should be asked critical thinking questions by the faculty members.
A sample of this type of questions that may influence the depth of thinking of the students is shown in Table 1.0.

Furthermore, in order to practice critical thinking within the online learning environments, small group discussions about a particular reading, case discussions using simulated complex problems for analysis, debating teams or mock trials where students assume various roles may be utilized. These online collaborative formats aiming at students' reflection, debate and interaction can effectively make the students go beyond being merely exposed to content and critically interact with it if the faculty members practice modeling reflective conversations, coaching, questioning and task structuring.

In order for the Internet to be used more than as a platform for the course content and as a communication medium for online-discussions, Kanuka (2002) suggests that the following teaching principles be applied to facilitate higher levels of learning.

Table 1.0
Principles of Teaching and Learning (Adapted from Kanuka)


Table 2.0
Principle Based Strategies for Teaching and Learning (Adapted from Kanuka


  • Engagement with complex abstracted phenomena: Active and purposeful engagement can occur if the following constructs are available:

    • Complex problems: Problems that are ambiguous and don't present one right solution to the learner should be presented.

    • Interactive participation: Use of collaborative learning strategies is necessary for the intellectual participation between the learners and instructors.

    • Strategic choices: Alternative teaching methods is essential for engaging learners in problem-solving.

  • Multiplicity of perspectives: In order to present diverse perspectives about problems the following constructs should be made available:

    • Multidisciplinary approaches: Making use of several disciplines at once is essential.

    • Conflicting phenomena: This requires the presentation of two or more occurrences that are contradictory.

    • Multiple information sources: Information sets with diverse perspectives on an issue should be utilized.

  • Relatedness: Phenomena that has relevance to learners must be involved and this principle has the following constructs:

    • Credible authority: Phenomena should be presented by a credible authority in the field.

    • Actual event: Phenomena should be related to an actual event.

    • Guided discourse: Meaningful understanding should proceed through a guided reasoned discourse.

  • Diverse ways of knowing: This principle has the following constructs:

    • Inquiry based learning: A close examination in a quest for knowledge should occur.

    • Decision-building learning: Position, conclusion, passing of judgment on an issue after evaluating the alternatives and assessing the consequences are essential steps in learning.

    • Problem-based learning: Explaining, deciphering and resolving an ambiguous problem is required of the learner.

Similarly, Kanuka (2002) suggests that the following learning principles should be taken into consideration:

  • Responsibility: This principle has the following constructs:

    • Set standards of excellence: Defining benchmarks and selecting meaningful learning activities to address the phenomena presented are crucial for achieving excellence in learning.

    • Thinking/learning strategies: A repertoire of thinking is essential to apprehend the multiplicity of problems.

    • Focus efforts: Learners should focus their efforts on evaluating their own weaknesses and strengths.

  • Meaning making: This principle has the following constructs:

    • Making sense: Learners should compare, classify, induce, deduce, analyze and evaluate to make sense of data presented.

    • Generate relationships: Learners should transform, reshape or reinterpret new information through a different scheme.

    • Reflective deliberation: To conceive ideas and draw inferences learners should got engaged in critical dialogue.

  • Reconstruction: Understanding that their own world view is not necessarily the correct one requires the presence of the following constructs:

    • Empathy: Learners should develop the ability to reconstruct meanings to understand others' worldviews.

    • Negotiable meanings: Reshaping existing knowledge through negotiation with others may lead to higher levels of thinking.

    • Diversity: By valuing diversity learners can achieve shared understandings.

Within the light of this information, in order to convey critical thinking skills, the instructors must focus on teaching the process of information discovery within the learner’s own contextual meaning. This may be realised when the learners themselves select their own path of inquiry, get introduced to the necessary new technologies such as Web 2.0 based online collaboration tools when required and interact in the online setting in such a way that requires a high level cognitive involvement in order to self-construct their knowledge. To exemplify, students in a social science course could collaboratively author a paper similar to the process undertaken by professional researchers to publish their research in a peer-reviewed form. Students can choose an existing topic or propose a new topic for addition to the site. Before their work is peer-reviewed and published, each group may be given a private wiki page for drafting their outline and taking notes. After the initial draft they can use the wiki as a collaborative writing space whereas the teacher can check their notes to ensure that they are on the right track. The peer-review group can post comments on the wiki page so that these can also be incorporated into the original work before the publication. In this way, the students may feel motivated to publish a high quality product and the teacher can assess their work and provide guidance throughout the whole publication process. By sharing ideas online and getting feedback, the social science classrooms can become a meeting place for the generation of new ideas.

Using wikis in social sciences will make the knowledge construction process transparent and provide the establishment of a learning community. Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000) states that direct cognitive and socio-collaborative support for group members’ efforts may be provided through a community of practice whereas the learners distribute their intellectual activity so that the burden of managing the whole process does not fall to any one individual.

As van Gelder (2001) states, a co-learning approach to hypertext expands critical thinking to involve the examination of various viewpoints and assumptions. By following paths throughout the hypertext web, students can keep track of their thinking processes reflectively and add new associative paths into the collaborative spaces by merely clicking the mouse. Similarly, Taylor (2006) asserted that by creating hypertext links students’ learning experiences may become messy which is, in fact, indicative of the complicate process of meaningful learning.  Complex, multi-linear and inter-textual learning dispositions provide not only the opportunity for finding and making connections and reflecting upon the validity of these connections but also make the students discover that learning is in a constant state of change and growth rather than static (van Gelder, 2001). Furthermore, with regard to online learning, the learning environments must possess an appropriate instructional design to support the students in developing their point of view and being critical. Yet, online education has often become an industrialized process of teaching and learning where students are not encouraged to apply knowledge in a variety of ways. A shift from the Fordist approach of learning that views learning as standardized and bureaucratic processes to a Post-Fordist approach where learning is seen as tailored products using decentralised approaches and learner-centered models may also provide the opportunity for online learning to improve critical thinking skills.

Moreover, by offering ways for collaboration via synchronous and asynchronous discussions critical thinking may become more advanced in online learning than in traditional education. According to the externalist approach to critical thinking, asking and answering questions about alternative possibilities in order to achieve an objective may improve the quality of dialogues (Cohen, Adelman, Bresnick, Marvin, Salas, Riedel, 2004). By asking and answering questions, the defender and challenger may introduce new possibilities and learn each other’s beliefs. The referee who represents an external perspective regulates the dialogue so that it reliably achieves the participants’ objectives within the available time (Cohen, Adelman, Bresnick, Marvin, Salas, Riedel, 2004). In this way of critical dialogue, deciding how to resolve a disagreement, challenging and defending positions and reaching a resolution may become easier for learners (Cohen, Adelman, Bresnick, Marvin, Salas, Riedel, 2004). Applying this type of small group online discussions may lead to the enhancement of critical thinking skills.

Additionally, use of case-based reasoning, flowcharts and concept maps, minute papers, problem-based group learning all may be used to further promote critical thinking in online environments. So, case studies, role-playing, simulations, streamed video, chat rooms, bulletin boards, online references can facilitate an interactive online learning environment. These activities can foster group problem solving and hence encourage critical reasoning more than the traditional classroom instruction. Another way for fostering the critical thinking skills in online courses may be by use of concept maps of the understanding of the concepts addressed in the online discussions as Novak and Gowin (1984) suggest. Based on Kolb’s learning type of concrete experience and active experimentation, concept maps support the learners in processing and generating information and self-assessing their thinking processes. By looking at the concept map and thinking back to the online discussion, the learners can see the relationships between the concepts they read and the online discussion.


Needless to say, each day we are getting exposed to a vast amount of information at an increasing rate. Similarly, social science students are expected to increase their knowledge base due to the information readily available. Yet, to build on what they already know requires critical thinking. The social science students must develop skills to not only examine logical relationships between statements but also construct arguments, respect different points of views and be flexible to change their way of thinking if reason leads them to do so. By actively conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information, an intellectual excellence can be achieved.  The social sciences faculties can contribute to this intellectual growth by especially making their students engaged in online discussions and presentation tools.

It is the researcher’s belief that by making students conveyors of their ideas via use of these interactive technologies and collaborative dialogue, their ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate solutions to real-life problems may be improved. Critical thinking happens in the use of problem solving skills, creativity and dialogical interaction that lead to the challenging of assumptions and theory generation. So, by designing online courses from the bottom up that use the university’s computer networking infrastructure (which allows the opportunity for peer-to-peer dialogues as well as entail an online university speaker series), social science departments may enhance the critical thinking skills of their learners.


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About the Author

Ayse Kok is an E-learning consultant and researcher in the United Kingdom.



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