Thinking in Higher Education

“Critical thinking appears in university curricula, course outlines, and statements of graduate attributes, and yet there is both uncertainty about what it entails and passionate debate about its essential nature.” (Jones, p.169)

Looking through lists of programme learning outcomes, one word often comes to the fore: ‘critical’. Across the full range of subject areas, from the hardest of sciences to the softest of humanities, our students are asked to critically evaluate, to consider critically, to critically analyse, to critically justify, to engage in critical discussion. But what does any of that actually mean? How does critical thinking differ from just thinking, and, importantly, how can we appreciate and assess that difference?

The idea that higher education ought to be inculcating a style of thought that is also in some way ‘higher’ has been with us for some time. Equally, approaches to pinning down precisely what that thinking looks like have also been numerous over the years, whether in terms of various attributes of ‘intelligent behaviour’ or ‘habits of mind’, as identification of ‘learning styles’, or as taxonomies of ‘higher order thinking’ or ‘metacognition’. Much of this work, it is fair to say, has been subject to a range of robust criticism (even as it remains ever popular).

Perhaps this somewhat chequered history explains the hesitance with which the recent Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education treats its subject matter. Noting that critical thought is “a defining condition of higher education” (p.27), the editors are also clear that the phrase “means different things to many people” (p.3), and that the volume itself is representative of the ‘faultlines that have permeated the critical thinking debate for thirty years’ (p.29). To put that another way, the volume self-admittedly offers an anthology of these divergences rather than much movement toward synthesis.

Our reading for the session extracts a chapter from this volume authored by Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland, with a background in Philosophy. The chapter offers a view on one of the divergent strands noted by the editors: the role of metacognition in critical thinking. The chapter arguably suffers from ‘scaling up’ in some of its propositions (a key problem faced in discussions of critical thinking once these become removed from a specific disciplinary and/or geographic context), but offers a straightforward and accessible overview of the area.

Questions to consider:

Does critical or metacognitive thinking of the kind described here deserve to be treated as a key element of higher education? How do we know if and when a student has achieved it?

Are the various terms used to address critical thought – in Ellerton’s chapter or more widely – synonymous, or are there significant differences between the concepts and methodological approaches that underlie them?

Is Ellerton’s approach to the subject different in any way? Is it any more convincing than other approaches with which you might be familiar?


The reading for the session can be found as chapter 24 of The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education ed. Martin Davies and Ronald Barnett. The volume is available electronically through the University library. The extracted chapter is also available through Paperpile.

Works Cited:

Ellerton, Peter. “Metacognition and Critical Thinking: Some Pedagogical Imperatives.” The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education ed. Martin Davies and Ronald Barnett. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp. 409-426

Jones, Anna. “A Disciplined Approach to Critical Thinking.” The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education ed. Martin Davies and Ronald Barnett. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp. 169-182





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