Online Experience 6 Minute Read

Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom

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In the Winter 2018 edition of The Classical Teacher, Martin Cothran penned a short piece titled “The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax” in which he addressed a prevalent buzzword in American education: critical thinking. In the ever-changing landscape of education in America, the idea of “critical thinking” is the rallying cry of educational reform. For a program or institution to be relevant, it must incorporate and train students to develop critical thinking. It is the higher good for which education is to aim.

But what exactly is critical thinking? A review of the literature shows that there is no agreed-upon definition. Indeed, “critical thinking” is a vague term, leading many authors to shape their definition based on the needs they identify in their field. Fortunately, many definitions overlap when it comes to essential characteristics of critical thinking. This article provides a succinct, universal definition of critical thinking, followed by two examples of how an instructor can encourage critical thinking in the delivery of an online classroom.

Defining Critical Thinking

Leading scholars on critical thinking Richard Paul and Linda Elder (n.d.) and Denise Halpern (2013) provide a helpful basis for developing a working definition of critical thinking. Incorporating elements from their work, we can define critical thinking as:

Fair-minded thinking that is self-guided and self-disciplined, is purposeful and goal oriented, and performs at the highest level of quality.

This definition encapsulates the idea that critical thinking isn’t something that someone just does; it also entails one’s attitude. Let’s elaborate on the components that make up critical thinking:

  • Fair-minded: Today, “fair-minded” alludes to “tolerance,” or viewing all ideas as equally valid. In reference to critical thinking, “fair-minded” includes the ideas of:
    • Accountability: Being willing to self-correct when needed
    • Flexibility: Looking at new ideas, reconsidering old ideas in a new light, or being willing to suspend judgment until you obtain more information
  • Self-guided and self-disciplined: The idea behind these two words is that no one can make you practice critical thinking. You can learn what critical thinking is and how to practice critical thinking skills; however, you and you alone are responsible for using these skills.
  • Purposeful and goal oriented: Thinking is not an end unto itself. Why are you thinking through a particular issue? What do you seek to accomplish? Critical thinking must have a purpose behind it.
  • High quality: Not every matter requires extensive, deep thinking; there are varying degrees of effort and time put into thinking through matters. However, the point behind “highest level of quality” is that one should seek to do his or her best in every situation and avoid lazy and fallacious thinking.

Critical thinking, then, is more than a collection of skills or how one thinks. To think critically entails one’s attitude, purpose, and effort. In short, it includes one’s approach to ideas and matters.

Encouraging Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom

If critical thinking includes one’s attitude, purpose, and effort, then how can you encourage critical thinking in your online course? The online format is fertile ground for fostering critical thinking because the instructor has various avenues within the LMS to engage students in activities that foster deeper, more substantive thinking. Below are two suggestions to this end.

Create Dialogue on the Discussion Boards

Perhaps the most significant part of the online classroom is the discussion board because it’s where students and instructor tackle the same question and hash out potential solutions and ideas. One way to push students to think critically is for the instructor to elaborate on the discussion question in light of his or her experience and knowledge. This helps students to see how the topic relates to the world outside of academia.

In addition to elaborating on the discussion question, you can engage students by addressing their responses. In doing so, you can ask various types of questions to get students to address problematic argumentation, elaborate on incomplete ideas, or think through the implications of their assertion(s). In other words, you can help students use their initial response as a springboard into deeper and meaningful thinking. Below are various kinds of questions that you can use to stretch students to think critically (Davis as cited in McDonald, 2016):

Question Type Purpose
Exploratory Gauge student comprehension of a topic.
Challenge Question assertions for lack of clarity, correctness, or elaboration.
Relational Help student to see the connection between class content and real life.
Diagnostic Guide student in solving a problem and demonstrating comprehension.
Summary Require student to think through what he or she learned and to succinctly state main ideas.
Cause-and-Effect Require student to think through the implication(s) of a course of action or idea.
Hypothetical Help student to identify areas of weakness in an assertion in light of a particular situation.

For more tips on how to develop effective discussion board questions, see our article “Writing Discussion Forum Questions.”

Include Supplemental Resources

In “Using Supplemental Resources in the Online Classroom,” Adam Shaw provides helpful tips for choosing appropriate supplemental material for an online course. Supplemental resources can help students to see how course content connects to career fields today. Although these supplemental resources can be informative in nature, you can also choose resources that identify current challenges and unanswered questions in their career field. You can then attach an open-ended discussion forum where you ask students to identify the problem and provide potential solutions. Another option is to find case studies that allow students engage in solving current issues in their career field.


Critical thinking is a hot topic in education today, but oftentimes little is said about what critical thinking is. As an online facilitator, you can help foster within students a substantive approach to critical thinking through the use of discussion board questions and supplemental materials. Instilling critical thinking in your students will not only help them master your course objectives, but also give them skills they can apply far beyond the classroom.


Cothran, M. (2018, January 7). The critical thinking skills hoax. The Classical Teacher, Winter 2018. Retrieved from

Halpern, D. (2013). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (5th ed.). New York: Psychology Press.

McDonald, D. (2016, October 12). Writing discussion forum questions. Retrieved from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (n.d.). The foundation for critical thinking. Retrieved from

Additional Resources

If you want to read substantive work on what critical thinking is, Richard Paul and Linda Elder have developed a society devoted to understanding the nature of critical thinking and to using critical thinking skills in a wide array of settings. Check out their site:

Posted February 27, 2018
Author Danny McDonald
Categories Online Experience