Designing Writing Assignments To Promote Critical Thinking

As teachers who use writing assignments to help students learn course material, we hope that students think critically as they complete our assignments, and we expect that they are learning from their writing. But what does critical thinking really mean in the context of their writing and the assignments we provide? What are students doing when they think critically to complete our assignments, and how does it help them learn things that are relevant to our courses? Even more to the point, how can we design assignments to help promote students’ critical thinking and learning as they complete our assignments? The objective of this blog is to address these questions and provide an example of an assignment designed to promote critical thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

The concepts of critical thinking are rooted in the teachings of Socrates nearly 2,500 years ago. However, a vast literature on “critical thinking” developed in the latter part of the 20th century and provides a similarly vast array of definitions and essential aspects of critical thinking (e.g. ; Scriven and Paul, 1987; Angelo, 1995; Beyer, 1995; Wade, 1995). Among the various definitions, I quote two here as a guide to our consideration of the topic. Angelo (1995) defines critical thinking as “the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation”. Paul and Elder (2009) provide a simpler, more general definition – “Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with the view to improving it.” As part of our exploration of the topic, we will consider both specific aspects of critical thinking and the more metacognitive aspects inherent in Paul and Elder’s definition. For a more detailed discussion of the definition of critical thinking, see Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987.

Critical Thinking as Part of the Writing Process

Critical thinking should be inherent in our thinking processes and our oral discourse, but it is most obvious to students, and is most readily taught, as part of the writing process (Wade, 1995). This is primarily because writing involves more self-reflection and helps to promote broader perspectives on the topics considered. Wade (1995) identified eight characteristics of critical thinking that are promoted during the writing process: asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity.

Objectives and Use of the Linked Presentation

The objectives of the linked presentation are to provide an introduction to the use of critical thinking in the writing process, to describe ways to design writing assignments that promote critical thinking, and to provide an example assignment that uses many of these design principles.

As such, the presentation includes four parts: 1) What is critical thinking?, 2) How is critical thinking applied to the writing process?, 3) Thinking critically to design writing assignments that promote critical thinking?, and 4) An example writing assignment designed to promote critical thinking.

Comments on Use of the Presentation

The presentation is available in both Flash and HTML5 so it can be viewed on all platforms and devises. It combines an animated PowerPoint presentation and a voice-over for each slide. It includes an outline tab that allows you to skip directly to a specific part or a specific slide in the presentation, and a notes tab that shows my narration text for the current slide. You can control the rate of slide advancing using the next and previous arrows and the pause and advance symbols, and you can control the presentation volume. Switching to full screen mode removes the outline and notes tabs from view.

The presentation and a PDF file of the example assignment are linked below. I hope you find them useful.

Presentation: Designing writing assignments to promote critical thinking

Example Assignment: Write-to-Learn Assignment – Evidence for the Theory of Plate Tectonics (PDF)

References Cited

Angelo, T. A. (1995). Beginning the dialogue: Thoughts on promoting critical thinking: Classroom assessment for critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 6-7.

Bean, J. C. (1996, 2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, & active learning in the classroom (1st, 2nd ed). Jossey-Bass. 282, 360p.

Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. Bloomington, in: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Carr, K. S. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking. Eric Digest. [On-line]. 

McDade, S. A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.

Paul, R. and Elder, L., (2009), The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts and tools (6th ed.), Thinker’s Guide Library, Foundation for Critical Thinking, 23p.

Scriven, M. and Paul, R. (1987). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available 2015:

Wade, Carol (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28.

Other Online Sources

Opencourseware on critical thinking, logic, and creativity, [Online], Available 2015,

The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing, [Online], Available 2015,

Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, Critical Thinking, University of Tennessee, [Online]. Available 2015:

About the Author

Bob Bauer is an associate professor of Geological Sciences and has been at the University of Missouri since 1982.  From 1992 through 2010 he ran the University’s nationally recognized Geology Field Course from a permanent field laboratory in the Wind River Mountains, near Lander, Wyoming.  His research into ancient mountain-building processes has involved studies in Minnesota, Wyoming, and Antarctica.  He began teaching his course in Structural Geology as writing-intensive (WI) course in 1996, which evolved into the current four-course WI program in Geological Sciences at the University of Missouri.