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The Critical Nature of Critical Thinking

By Dr. Alina Zapalska and Stefanie Senkow
July 23, 2019

Dr. ZapsalskaIt is essential that students advance their critical thinking (CT) skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, continuous improvement of students’ critical thinking skills is one of the biggest challenges faced by higher education institutions.

Dr. Alina Zapalska, Professor of Economics at the Coast Guard Academy, is doing something about it. She has recently returned from an academic conference where she presented her research on the subject.

“Critical thinking has been considered the central scholastic objective at all levels of education. Effective leaders of the 21st century are expected to be skilled in thinking critically to make effective strategic decisions. I was invited to present my research on critical thinking development and assessment at the 2019 European Critical Thinking Symposium and at the 38 Critical Thinking Conference. Both conferences were held at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven Belgium in June. The conference was organized by The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and the Foundation for Critical Thinking. The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and the Foundation for Critical Thinking — two sister educational non-profit organizations — work closely together to promote educational reform. They seek to promote essential change in education and society through the cultivation of critical thinking,” said Dr. Zapalska.

So how does the critical thinking process work?

“The seminal work of Benjamin Bloom established a framework for categorizing critical thinking educational goals and objectives into a hierarchical framework based on a level of critical thinking. Therefore, mastery of a given stage of learning requires mastery of the previous stage,” said Dr. Zapalska.

Bloom identified six levels of cognitive learning arranged from lower-order to higher-order of the learning domain:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Students must master all steps in its recommended order to develop and master critical thinking skills.

“In my first research paper, I presented critical thinking skills development in the Management Department at the Academy that is based on a sequential process where students must go through six stages proposed by the 21st century Bloom’s taxonomy model,” said Dr. Zapalska.


Students are to become actively involved in learning through the instructor’s use of questioning throughout all the six stages. This dialogue fosters critical thinking and motivates the instructor and learner to share and analyze experiences and knowledge. Allowing students to clarify their thoughts through the writing and oral presentational process further stimulates the students to grow and become critical thinkers.

According to Dr. Zapalska, the conditions for successful critical thinking advancement include:

  • Step-based development of critical thinking skills
  • Integration of CT development process throughout the four years of an undergraduate program
  • Provision of explicit instructions
  • Use of real problems and issues
  • Assessment of critical thinking skills progress at each stage of development

“My second paper, which was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Zelmanowitz and Dr. Hudson Jackson from the Civil Engineering department, indicates that implementation of critical thinking in a sequential process across several civil engineering courses throughout four years of an undergraduate curriculum can deliver a solid framework for development and assessment of critical thinking competencies. In our paper, we illustrated using assessment data that civil engineering students improved their critical thinking skills through problem-solving. Our research also indicated that our civil engineering students with well-developed critical thinking skills are well prepared to complete their senior capstone design projects. Our students have also shown better preparedness to make the transition to practice engineering in the real world,” said Dr. Zapalska.

“In sum, my research indicates that there are several ways to keep students actively involved in the learning process while developing critical thinking. The various elements of learning, that include self-learning, collective learning, passive learning, and active learning, have their place as part of a series of mutually reinforcing activities for a critical thinking development. Lectures, games, simulations, class discussions, and debates can be designed to emphasize learning and to break down barriers between theoretical and empirical application, and between an instructor and students. Creating a classroom environment that goes beyond remembering, retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge encourages questioning, interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating and will allow cadets to advance their critical thinking skills to the highest level of cognitive thinking: creating,” said Dr. Zapalska.