Stimulating Students to Think

Stimulating students to think can happen in one of two ways.  On the first level, educators can take steps to help students ‘pick up’ the mindset of the course or discipline when they step into class.  The second level involves prompting students to think beyond the surface and adopt a critical mindset. 

One aspect of stimulating students to think involves prompting students to drop the concerns they walked into class with, get into the mindset of the discipline, and be receptive to learning new material.  Activities such as Do Now (, Quick Write ( and Games (, when used to open a class period, can be very effective warm-ups that help students transition from whatever they were doing before class to the goals and learning objectives of the class before them.  Other types of activities also apply—the idea is to prime students to think within the appropriate context for the class, which helps them transition and prepares them for learning (Nilson, 2010).

A second aspect of stimulating students to think involves prompting students to think deeply and critically about material.  A large literature on the importance of critical thinking within higher education exists (e.g., Abrami et al., 2008; Gibbs, 1985; McMillan, 1987; Powell, 1987; Tsui, 1998; Pithers & Sodden, 2000).  Although we, as instructors, want students to develop critical thinking skills, we often think of critical thinking as an abstract goal, and we lack specific, concrete steps for turning students into critical thinkers (Kuhn, 1999). We can overcome this by thinking more deeply ourselves about what it means to think critically. Pergiovanni (2014) distills the definitions of critical thinking found in the literature into four components: 1) questioning and reasoning; 2) recognizing assumptions; 3) presenting and evaluating data; and 4) drawing conclusions (Pergiovanni, p. 86).  Students often need to be explicitly taught what critical thinking looks like either in their discipline (the “infusion approach”) or in higher education generally (the “general approach”; Ennis, 1989, p. 4).  In the infusion approach, exercises designed to promote critical thinking are used to teach particular subject matter in a discipline-specific way.  In contrast to this, the general approach refers to efforts to train students in how to think critically that are not tied to a specific discipline or subject matter.  For example, a course that is focused on improving students’ general writing abilities is taking the general approach, as students practice deepening and expressing their thoughts through writing in a manner that is not tied to any specific discipline. Writing exercises are useful in prompting students to integrate research, synthesize arguments, and think deeply about material—which are all skills that transcend specific disciplines (Bean, 2011). 

 Perhaps the biggest challenge for educators, in stimulating students to think, is in getting clear themselves about what constitutes good thinking.  As Kuhn (1999) put it, “What does it mean to be accomplished in thinking, and how does this accomplishment manifest itself?” (p. 16). Instructors should be as clear as possible about what kind of thinking they want students to do during a particular exercise or assignment (for example, is the goal to get students to uncover and then question their assumptions?  Is it to weigh various pieces of evidence and decide which kind is strongest? etc.).  Research has demonstrated that students experience more learning gains when faculty share their teaching goals and the reasons behind their objectives (Winkelmes, 2013).  Moreover, students may be more open to unfamiliar activities if they understand why the instructor is asking them to engage in them and what they stand to gain (Bok Center 2002/2010). Having clarified the learning objectives associated with each activity or assignment for themselves, instructors should then make their goals transparent to students. 

Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education 



Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamin, R., & Zhang, D. (2008).  Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Bok Center (2002/2010).  Twenty ways to make lectures more participatory.  Retrieved September 12, 2014 from:

Bean, J. C. (2011).  Engaging Ideas (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Ennis, R. H. (1989).  Critical thinking and subject specificity: Calrification and needed research.  Educational Researcher, 18(3), 4-10.

Gibbs, E. M. (1985).  Teaching critical thinking at the university level: A review of some empirical evidence.  Informal Logic, 7(2 & 3), 137-149.

Kuhn, D.  (1999).  A developmental model of critical thinking.  Educational Research, 28(2), 16-25.

McMillan, J. H. (1987). Enhancing college students’ critical thinking: A review of studies.  Research in Higher Education, 26, 3-29.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Piergiovanni, P. R.  (2014).  Creating a critical thinker.  College Teaching, 62(3), 86-93. DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2014.896775

Pithers, R. T. & Soden, R. (2000).  Critical thinking in education: A review.  Educational Research, 42(3), 237-249.

Powell, S. (1987).  Improving critical thinking: A review.  Educational Psychology, 7(3), 169-185.

Tsui, L. (2002).  Fostering critical thinking through effective pedagogy: Evidence from four institutional case studies.  Journal of Higher Education, 73(6), 740-763.

Winkelmes, M.A.  (2013).  Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learning.  Liberal Education, 99(2), 48-55.




Further Resources: 

  • Bean, J. C. (2011).  Engaging Ideas (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Condon, W. & Kelly-Riley, D. (2004).  Assessing and teaching what we value: The relationship between college-level writing and critical thinking abilities.  Assessing Writing, 9(1), 56-75.
  • Glaser, E. M. (1942).  An experiment in the development of critical thinking.  Teachers College Record, 43(5), 409-410.  
  • Sternberg, R. J. (1990).  Thinking styles: Keys to understanding student performance.  Phi Delta Kappan, 71(5), 366-371.