Moving past “same here”: How to get students to think and respond critically

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Posted on by Kolby Tracey

Critical thinking and responding are some of the most important skills a student develops throughout their educational journey. We all think critically but putting those thoughts into words can be hard, for everyone. I believe ‘thinking’ isn’t the issue but responding is a challenge for many students. Classroom discussions are one arena where thoughtful contributions are essential for success.

We’ve all been there, as students, facilitators, or educators, where a lack of contribution makes the conversation awkward instead of exciting and inspiring. So, this begs the question, how can you encourage your students to share their critical thoughts? This article outlines a few ways you can encourage vibrant discussion to enhance the learning in your classroom.

1. Provide prompts

The critical responses you’re looking for may just be a short prompt away. Ask your students quick questions to lead them down a road of deep thought. A few of my favorites are:

  • Sentence, phrase, word — Students identify a sentence, a phrase, and a word that they found most interesting or significant to the topic at hand. This prompt can be versatile across subject matters and grade levels. Tip for deeper thinking: Ask students why their choices resonated with them.
  • I used to think …, now I think … — A simple way for students to reflect on how their thoughts changed after reading. Tip for deeper thinking: Ask students to reflect on that change. What influenced their original thought? What altered that thought?
  • Ask them what they think is most important in the reading — Chances are your students will have a variety of feelings about this prompt. The variety in thoughts can lead to great classroom discussions, virtual or in person.

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2. Ask for evidence

Citing your work is a pillar of research but it can also be a great way to demonstrate thought processes while reading. Asking students to include quotes that challenged their thoughts is a great way to help them identify when critical thinking is happening. Tip for deeper thinking: Ask students for their opinions on these quotes. Do they agree or disagree? Is it related to something they’ve experienced or learned about previously?

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3. Help get their thoughts started

Providing your students with sentence starters/stems can guide them to respond more critically. Starting is often the hardest part, so help your students begin with the following:

  • This relates to another (book, story, article, video…) I’ve read/seen because…
  • One question that is answered by this text is…
  • I learned …
  • I have a question about …
  • I understand/don’t understand why …
  • I see the significance of …

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Get ready for class discussions that inspire

Teaching students simple habits that encourage critical thinking helps the student individually and your classroom environment as a whole. Creating a space where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts is the first step and helping them become confident sharing their thoughts comes after.

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