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From the Student’s View: professors who cultivate critical thinking skills

This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Every issue we will feature the perspectives of undergraduates on what it’s like to be a student at Vanderbilt, focusing particularly on what they find effective in their classroom experiences. This issue, we asked four undergraduates to share with us some of the methods by which their professors fostered in their students the ability to think critically.

Marcia M. Larson
One professor who encourages critical thinking as a key element to thinking more deeply is my Spanish professor. Though Spanish composition may not seem like a forum in which to teach deeper thinking skills, he has successfully challenged us to go beyond simply scratching the surface.

In each class period, one student presents an aphorism such as “life is the vanity of all vanities” or “love is blind”, and then we discuss for a few minutes the implications of the aphorism. Not only are we practicing out Spanish, expanding our vocabulary, and growing in our speaking skills, but we are going beneath the surface and thinking more deeply about life and our personal philosophies.

Charles Mandell
I can think if a few professors who have helped me develop critical thinking skills. The common denominators among these professors were: 1) they were passionate about their subject matter–the more they cared, the more my interest was sparked, and 2) they did not teach at the class but to the class. They developed a good rapport with the students. Thus, the class became interested in both the material and the professor.

I think that critical thinking skills simply grew out of these two factors naturally. When the professor makes an effort to examine the details and explain the nuances of a subject, it is natural to want to learn and think critically.

Ayesha F. Baig
One Electrical Engineering professor in particular has helped me to develop critical thinking skills. I am an EE major, and this is one of the basic EE courses. After each day’s lecture, I come back to my room and skim through my notes, preparing to do the homework assignment. But the method used in each circuit problem is different, so applying critical thinking to each problem is essential. This professor showed me how to examine each problem from a different angle and relate it to a simple circuit problem. He always says that working each problem over and over is the only way you will learn how to solve them; well, I had heard this before, but I never took the time to actually work a problem more than once. Now, for each sample problem in the book, I attempt to solve it many times, and a different way each time. I believe that this small bit of advice will help me later in my EE educational career.

Carey E. Rountree
I remember a sociology class that I took. The class itself did not really teach me a lot about critical thinking, but I remember one day the professor posed a question about one of our reading assignments. He got the ubiquitous, uncomfortable silence, interrupted only by people quickly flipping through the pages of the book. He waited a long time for someone to say something, and when no one did, he finally spoke up.

He said, “Don’t be typical Vanderbilt students and take everything as it is presented to you. Question everything.” I thought that was interesting and honest. Although I still did not have a comment in answer to his question, I’ve remembered what he said and now I always try to ask questions. I know that I enjoy a class a lot more and I learn more by trying to explore what lies beneath that which is just written on the page.

When I try to get really involved with the reading assignments and apply that to class discussions, I feel very good about being a student.