Tutoring students to pass an exam is one thing. Setting out to improve students critical thinking skills, to help them develop their knowledge of how to look at a problem and analyse it thoroughly requires different skills. The purpose of this blog post is to look at the technique of critical thinking, and give tutors some practical tools that they can use in a lesson with their students.

The concept of critical thinking stems from ancient philosophers such as Socrates, who encouraged his students to analyse the validity of their arguments by answering a series of questions that often exposed contradictions in their initial assumptions.

These days, critical thinking incorporates Socratic methodology, but it goes further than that, attempting to apply conclusions made during discussions, to solve current issues or even to create new models participants had not envisioned at the start of the class/discussion.

So what is critical thinking?

The Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP) defines it as: “Often regarded as equivalent to higher-level thinking, critical thinking requires individuals to engage in more complex processes, frequently connected with the upper domains of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This kind of thinking assists individuals in their quest for greater understanding and responsible, independent inquiry”.

Critical thinking frameworks

Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy may sound like a complex piece of reading but in fact, it is a highly practical set of learning objectives proposed in 1956 by a group of educators in the US, who aimed to aid educators in sharing materials. The reach of this document was, in fact, much more extensive than they would imagine, since it highlighted the need to engage students in classes and tutoring sessions that went beyond superficial handling of subjects.

Unfortunately, most classes, especially at the primary and secondary school, focus only knowledge and comprehension; they fail to delve into deeper analysis, argumentation and application of knowledge gleaned. According to Bloom, education should go much further, encouraging students to synthesise what they have learned to produce totally new ways of thinking or creative solutions to problems, Additionally, students should be encouraged to evaluate the validity of their ideas and the quality oft heir work based on set criteria.

A handy way to use Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy in your tutoring session is by using this table to determine your student’s level attributes, focus on keywords and ask the right questions. For instance, simpler questions might simply involve testing your student’s knowledge and comprehension – e.g. “When was Parliament established?”, “How would you compare the House of Commons to the House of Lords?” can be easily answered with simple knowledge of facts. More complex questions would involve the application of the student’s knowledge – e.g. “What would happen if the election process for the House of Commons were changed?”. Students might then engage in:

  • Analysis – “What ideas justify the existence of the House of Commons?”
  • Synthesis – “What changes would you make to current government?”
  • Evaluation – “What data did you use to make that conclusion?”

Another interesting framework for classroom educators and tutors is the Toulmin Model of Argumentation. It can be used in essay writing and consists of a number of ‘phases’. The first phase is the pre-writing phase: during this stage, the teacher/tutor presents students with a question/argument and helps him/her ‘unpack’ it by asking more questions to ensure they understand what it means. During this phase, tutor and students should research into the topic and gather evidence. The second phase involves writing.

Tutor and student will use the Toulmin model to make a claim, clarify the scope of the claim, provide evidence to back it and justify the ways in which the evidence backs the claim. The third phase involves evaluation: checking for clarity of meaning, depth, relevance and accuracy.

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What you can do to develop your students' critical thinking skills

These methodologies are will be highly useful in helping you structure your tutoring sessions though you may wish to warm your student up first by simply teaching them to delve deeper into the higher-level thinking.

Some simple ways to do this include:

  • Asking questions that have more than one answer. One of the foundations of critical thinking lies in understanding how subjective considerations often underpin many ideas and assertions we hold as inexorable truths. Socrates was a true champion at getting his students to reassess their values and beliefs through logical argumentation.
  • Encourage thoughtful discussions on matter that are important to your student. As a tutor, your role is not only to help your student achieve specific academic aims but also to encourage them to think in a more enlightened, responsible and profound way about an array of issues, ideas and institutions.
  • To encourage critical thinking, introduce themes your student will always question and ruminate over, even when your tutoring days are over.
  • Present your student with examples: At the end of a tutoring class, show your student with an excellent piece of writing that demonstrates excellent critical thinking skills.
  • Teach your student introductory phrases that reveal they are thinking critically, such as “We should, however, ask ourselves if this is a universal truth” or “This assertion may or may not be evidence of…”, etc.
  • Be a model for your student: There is no better way to lead than by example. Inspire your student with your own higher order questions and analyses.
  • Encourage healthy debate: If you are tutoring a group, before or after going through a topic in depth, arbitrarily assign students to two different groups and ask them to argue for or against a topic. The best thing about this type of debate is that it forces a student to find arguments to back and assertion or belief they may not agree with in real life. This encourages them to approach one issue from various contradictory angles.
  • If you are in a group session, ask students to evaluate each other’s arguments and point out flaws in the latter. You should provide them with objective criteria which will help them assess their peers.

The key thing is not for the tutor to behave like Socrates, by pointing out gaping holes in their student’s work. Rather, it is to encourage students to ask important, relevant, valid questions that will turn them into profound thinkers for the rest.

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting and useful. If you would like to share your tips on tutoring critical thinking, or simply just let us know how you are getting on, then please add a comment using the box below.

We have been blogging advice for tutors for a while now – our ‘Tips for Tutors’ series. Just in case you missed any, you can find them at:

How to ensure that the first lesson goes really well

Structuring your lessons

8 ways to become a better tutor

12 teaching strategies for more effective tutoring

What works best according to kids

How to market yourself

Ten things you should take into every lesson

Your tax as a self employed tutor

How to set up your website

Deciding how much to charge

The best way to tutor University students

Helping a reluctant student

Using learning maps

The importance of teaching values

Need teacher?

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