Cognitive Psychology Of Critical Thinking Research Paper

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Critical thinking is often used as a synonym for good or clear thinking. When viewed from the perspective of cognitive psychology, critical thinking is the use of those skills and strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome, where the definition of what is desirable depends on individual goals and values. Thus, it is generally acknowledged that the quality of one’s thinking is evaluated within a value system. The content of critical thinking courses in cognitive psychology is embedded in the theory and empirical research of the discipline. It includes instruction in scientific thinking, formal and informal logic, thinking probabilistically, evaluating the quality of information, generating and selecting alternatives and goals, and analyzing arguments for the soundness of conclusions. The use of the word ‘critical’ represents the notion of a critique or evaluation of the processes used in thinking and the outcomes of the thinking process. It is not meant to be negative (as in a ‘critical person’), but is used in the sense of a reflective review or informational feedback. The cognitive psychology of critical thinking has a long history. In 1909, John Dewey used the term ‘reflective thinking’ in a discussion of good thinking that was surprisingly similar to the definitions of critical thinking being used by cognitive psychologists almost a century later.

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1. The Critical Need For Critical Thinking

Changes in necessary workplace skills and the in-creasing complexity of a technology-mediated society have created an increase in the demand for citizens with the abilities to think effectively. It is in this context that critical thinking has emerged as a standard course in many college curricula, often offered as a ‘general education’ requirement for every college student. Despite the popularity of critical thinking courses, the faculty and administrators who teach the courses and/organize knowledge into academic disciplinary categories often disagree over the content and objectives of these courses and the transferability of critical thinking skills and knowledge within and across domains of knowledge.

1.1 The Politics Of Critical Thinking

Unlike many other topics in cognitive psychology, critical thinking has gained widespread popularity as, arguably, the most important subject matter and cognitive skill needed for effective citizenship and economic growth in the third millennium. The development of critical thinking skills was identified as one of the primary goals of Education 2000, a national agenda for education in the United States, with support from both Republicans (e.g., President George Bush) and Democrats (President Bill Clinton) (National Education Goals Panel 1991). Unfortunately, and despite bipartisan political support, the goal to improve the critical thinking skills of educated adults was never funded. The failure to fund critical thinking as a national priority touched off a (somewhat cynical) debate over the question of whether politicians really wanted an electorate that was capable of critical thinking. There are political implications to the development of an academic discipline that purports to improve adult-level thinking skills. Future inter-action between academics concerned with the cognitive psychology of critical thinking and politicians concerned with the politics of critical thinking could have profound effects on the development of this academic discipline.

2. Interdisciplinary Perspectives

No single discipline can claim sole ownership of or be the sole authority on ‘thinking.’ For cognitive psychologists, the study of thinking originated in the German laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt, the generally acknowledged ‘father of psychology.’ Modern cognitive approaches to the study of thinking have generally followed two different approaches—descriptive and prescriptive. The descriptive approach has catalogued common fallacies, such as the reliance on small samples and confusion of correlation and cause, and biases, such as the preference for evidence that confirms a favored hypothesis. The descriptive approach to critical thinking has focused on the ways in which ‘thinking goes wrong,’ and instruction using this framework usually involves admonishments to prevent fallacious thinking. By contrast, the prescriptive approach focuses on principles for good thinking, such as the appropriate use of base rate information and scientific principles of evidence. When the prescriptive approach is used, there is less emphasis on the pragmatics of thinking, such as the way familiarity and abstractness influence how people think.

The philosophical study of reasoning predates the ancient Greeks, so not surprisingly, critical thinking courses are sometimes offered in departments of philosophy. Content in these courses tends be heavily weighted with the principles of formal and informal reasoning and their application. Education, English, and communication departments also offer courses under the critical thinking rubric, emphasizing skills of persuasion in writing and/oral formats. Despite these differences in emphases and historical origins, the central concern in all courses on critical thinking is the enhancement of thinking skills, with the general goal that students will be better thinkers because of the course content.

3. Evidence That Thinking Can Be Improved With Instruction

When critical thinking is taught within the framework of cognitive psychology, the principles of scientific reasoning are a primary component of the course. These principles require an empirical basis for sound conclusions. Accordingly, critical thinking instruction needs to be evaluated by its own criteria. Despite considerable skepticism, there are numerous studies that have shown that thinking can be improved when students learn to recognize and apply appropriately the skills and strategies of critical thinking. A general list of skills that are useful across contexts would include understanding how cause is determined, recognizing and criticizing assumptions, analyzing means– goals relationships, and recognizing problems. The evidence for the beneficial effects of critical thinking instruction shows that specific instruction designed for transfer to novel contexts can lead to better thinking in a variety of settings. There are numerous empirical results that support this conclusion: evaluations of students’ thinking and writing about novel topics conducted by evaluators who did not know which of the students had received instruction in critical think-ing (i.e., ‘blind’ evaluators); changes in the organization of knowledge so that it comes to resemble the structure of expert knowledge; and gains in adult cognitive development (see Halpern 1996, 1998 for a review of the literature).

4. A Network Model Of Thought And Knowledge

The cognitive approach to critical thinking uses basic concepts in cognitive psychology as a way of organizing content and designing instruction to improve thinking. It is built upon a model of thought and knowledge in which meaning is represented in memory as a network of interconnected semantic concepts called ‘knowledge structures.’ The internal representation of meaning in memory determines the way information is used and the circumstances in which some memories are retrieved and others are not, depending on context cues. Meaning is embedded in the interconnections among knowledge structures, which get their meaning(s) from the other knowledge structures to which they are connected. The network model of knowledge representation is an analogy for the patterns of neurochemical activity or biological bases of thought. It is an ‘as if’ statement for the biological underpinnings of cognition. The network model is a useful way of thinking about critical thinking: a faulty thinking pattern, such as confusing correlation with causation, is represented by connections between the knowledge representation for ‘co-occurrence’ of two events and the knowledge representation for ‘causation.’ In correcting this faulty thinking path, the connection needs to be weakened or pruned and replaced with connections between concepts like ‘random assignment to conditions’ and ‘causation.’ The faulty connection is particularly strong or salient when the co-occurrence and causation link is consistent with an individual’s other beliefs about the cause of a particular outcome (e.g., marijuana use causes the use of ‘harder’ drugs).

As critical thinking skills are developed, new connections are added to the network and additional knowledge structures are formed and new retrieval cues effectively access stored memories. The network model of thought and knowledge is dynamic in that individuals are continually modifying their knowledge structures and remaking connections among knowledge structures. It also posits the learner thinker as an active seeker of information who applies thinking skills or strategies when ‘thinking through’ the maze of available information stored in memory. Individual differences in one’s willingness to engage in the effortful cognitive ‘work’ of critical thinking and in the individual nature of stored knowledge are also an important part of these models.

5. Four Components Of Critical Thinking

A four-part model of critical thinking based on the network model of thought and knowledge has been proposed. It includes: (a) the dispositions for the effortful thinking and learning needed for critical thought; (b) knowledge of critical thinking skills; (c) structure training to facilitate cross-contextual transfer; and (d) metacognitive monitoring.

5.1 Dispositional Or Attitudinal Component

Critical thinking requires an attitude or disposition to engage in effortful, active, and prolonged mental effort because many of the skills of critical thinking require extended thought, which includes a concern for ac-curacy and attention to details. The dispositional or attitudinal component blurs the distinction between cognitive psychology and topics in emotion and motivation, for example, antidogmatism, the willing-ness to evaluate information fairly, and the insight to distinguish between rationalization and reasoning. These noncognitive aspects of a critical thinking disposition include the ability and willingness to see a problem from multiple perspectives and a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. These components of critical thinking overlap with emotional and affective topics in psychology; cognitive and emotional processes operate in concert, exerting mutual influences on each other. Instruction in dispositional aspects of critical thinking includes an emphasis on planning, suppression of impulsivity, and the use of situational and social context variables in directing thought and action.

5.2 Skills Component

Critical thinking skills are sometimes referred to as ‘higher order skills’ to differentiate them from ‘simpler’ (i.e., lower order) skills, such as rote memorization or routinization. Critical thinking skills require judgment, reflection, analysis, synthesis, and attention to context. The complexity in thinking critically often comes from the multidimensional nature of the problem or the need to make a decision or solve a problem when the information that is available is incomplete, probabilistic, or not completely credible. A short taxonomy of critical thinking skills includes the verbal reasoning skills needed to defend against common persuasive techniques, argument analysis skills that include determining the strength of conclusions based on reasons and evidence, skills used in scientific thinking, the use of likelihood and uncertainty to make probabilistic decisions, and the ability to generate multiple alternatives and goals in problem solving and decision making situations. The focus is on component skills that can be specified, identified, practiced, and used spontaneously across domains of knowledge. Although there are several different lists of necessary skills for critical thinking, there are commonalities among them. Fisher and Scriven (1997), for example, list reasoning, problem solving, decision making, communication, evaluation, explanation, analysis and synthesis, metacognition, and formal and informal reasoning as examples of such skills. Most texts target similar skills, with differences among them occurring mostly in their emphases and in the perspectives that they take on these topics.

5.3 Structure Training To Promote Transcontextual Transfer

The skills of critical thinking and the dispositions to use them are not sufficient for successful critical thinking, unless these skills are used appropriately in novel contexts. The general question of transfer of skills within and across domains of knowledge has been a knotty problem for cognitive psychology and education. There is ample evidence that the transfer of critical thinking skills is not a necessary or automatic outcome of thinking skills instruction within a single domain of knowledge or traditional content-based courses (Nisbett 1993 provides ample evidence for this conclusion).

Critical thinking skills need to be deliberately taught in ways that enhance transfer. The probability of transfer can be increased with the use of examples from multiple contexts and by making the underlying structure of problems more salient so that problem structure can act as a retrieval cue that triggers memories for the appropriate skills. The structure sensitivity of thinking, especially as a problem solving strategy, was made clear by Hummel and Holyoak (1997) who believe that, ‘First thinking is structure sensitive. Reasoning, problem solving, and learning … depend on a capacity to code and manipulate relational knowledge’ (p. 427). Relational structures among meaningful concepts are primary in cognitive models of comprehension and thinking. Structure training is based on models of human cognition in which meaning is conceptualized as being embedded in the relationships among concepts stored in memory. In order to trigger the ‘reminder’ that a particular skill is needed, the structure of the problem, not its topical information, needs to serve as a retrieval cue. The goal of structure training is to learn to recognize when particular skills may be useful (e.g., regression to the mean or the need to consider multiple alternatives) regardless of the content of the problem.

5.4 Metacognitive Monitoring

The executive or control function of critical thinking is ‘metacognition,’ which refers to knowledge about one’s own cognitive abilities and the use of this knowledge as a guide for thinking and learning. It includes decisions about the allocation of time and resources to a particular problem and the type and extent of effort expended for the cognitive task. Good metacognitive knowledge will include an assessment of what is known and what needs to be known and a determination of goals and a plan for achieving them. Critical thinkers also know when they do not have enough information to reach a meaningful conclusion as well as the difference between a probable outcome, an unlikely outcome, and a certain outcome. Meta- cognitive monitoring is a conscious consideration of one’s cognitive abilities and an accurate assessment of cognitive resources, hence it serves as the boss or ‘executive function.’

Metacognition directs three activities that are critical to the execution of critical thinking: monitoring, controlling, and knowing. Monitoring is important during the acquisition of knowledge—it assesses how well new material is being learned and how completely a difficult concept is being understood. The controlling function is important because it provides direction for cognitive effort—if the learning or understanding is not going well, then additional attention and effort needs to be directed to these processes. The knowing function is used to make judgments about one’s confidence in his or her confidence in whether a solution is satisfactory. Thus, metacognition underlies multiple, successive processes that are essential to critical thinking.

6. Creative And Critical Thought

Creative thinking is the production of unusual and good responses to problems. This definition of creative thinking is compatible with the definition of critical thinking being used in this research paper, differing only in that creative thinking requires the use of unusual strategies or skills. By comparison, the thinking skills used in critical thinking could be either common or unusual. Thus, critical thinking is a superordinate of creative thinking. Critical thinking requires creativity (unusual and good solutions) in many aspects—generating alternatives to problems, redefining goals, and recognizing which critical thinking skills are needed in novel situations. There is no clear demarcation between critical and creative thinking because it is impossible to determine where one type of thinking ends and the other begins; commonly used thinking skills and unusual ones lie along a single continuum.

In an analysis of creative thinking, which includes several case studies, Weisberg (1993) traced the origins of creative thought to experiences that generalized across domains of knowledge. He acknowledged that far or remote transfer of thinking skills is unusual, which is the defining attribute of creative thinking—an unusual solution or insight. It is for this reason that structure training designed to improve transferability of thinking skills across contexts is a critical component to instruction designed to improve critical thinking. When these skills are applied in a novel domain of knowledge, their use in that domain may be unusual, or, in other words, creative. Thus, heuristics that encourage novel ways of making associations and the use of examples from many different contexts are an important part of critical and creative thinking courses.

7. The Role Of Context And Judgment

Critical thinking instruction recognizes the need for different sorts of skills, depending on the context, and the ability to recognize that a thinking skill that was used in one context (e.g., determining the effectiveness of a drug) is useful in a very different context (e.g., deciding if trade embargoes will improve political relations with a foreign country). In this way, instruction in critical thinking differs from instruction in formal logic, with its heavy use of syllogisms and linear orderings, which are fully rule dependent and do not vary with context. Critical thinking is more complex than rule-driven deductive logic. To be ecologically valid, critical thinking would require judgment, usually under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, two conditions that are common in most real-life situations. Critical thinking is sometimes referred at as ‘authentic thinking’ because it incorporates some of the ‘messiness’ of real-life problems. Practice examples often come from a variety of real-life scenarios, such as the arguments presented in newspaper editorials, decisions taken from real life such as which medical procedure to select from a set of imperfect alternatives, and solving problems like making one’s money last until the next pay check. Some of the antagonism between critical thinking as cognitive psychology and critical thinking as philosophy is over the extent to which each discipline prefers rule-based vs. heuristic-based (probabilistic) approaches to the subject matter.

8. Critical Thinking As A Formal Discipline

The principles of cognitive psychology have provided researchers and educators with a useful model for the enhancement of critical thinking. There is a considerable body of evidence showing that better thinking can be an outcome of education when critical thinking is explicitly taught for transfer across con-texts, when the disposition to think critically is enhanced, and when metacognitive monitoring is used as a guide to the thinking process. Critical thinking is cognitive psychology’s finest offspring. It offers the best hope for the future because the ability to think well is the best preparation for a future that is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complex. Perhaps the disasters that doomsday experts are predicting for the third millennium can be prevented with large-scale efforts to help more people become better thinkers. Critical thinking is emerging as a formal discipline with its own content area and adherents. Its current status as a subtopic under cognitive psychology is likely to change over the coming decades, when it will emerge as a major theoretical perspective on how people acquire and use information more effectively, so that they can become better thinkers and learners.


  1. Dewey J 1909 How We Think. Heath, Boston, MA
  2. Fisher A, Scriven M 1997 Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment. Edgepress, Point Reyes, CA
  3. Halpern D F 1996 Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 3rd edn. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ
  4. Halpern D F 1998 Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Dispositions, skills, structure training, and meta-cognitive monitoring. American Psychologist 53: 449–55
  5. Hummel J E, Holyoak K J 1997 Distributed representations of structure: A theory of analogical access and mapping. Psycho-logical Review 104: 427–66
  6. National Education Goals Panel 1991 The National Education Goals Report. National Education Goals Panel, Washington, DC
  7. Nisbett R E (ed.) 1993 Rules for Reasoning. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ
  8. Weisberg R W 1993 Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius. Freeman, New York
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