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Singapore’s 21st Century education vision of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation has set the precedence for a change in mindset and teaching paradigm in our local schools and institutions of higher learning. In this issue, we bring to you a selection of articles by various educators, both local and foreign, on their experiences with the teaching of Thinking Skills.

July 2002, Vol. 5 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Fostering Thinking in Large-group Teaching and Small-group Tutorials
Associate Professor Agnes Chang Shook Cheong
Associate Dean/Post Graduate Diploma In Education
Psychological Studies Academic Group
National Institute Of Education, Nanyang Technological University

Treat people as if they were what they ought
to be. and you help them to become what
they are capable of being.

—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Undergraduates are assumed to be capable of creative and critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. With large classes of over a few hundred and over-crowded syllabuses, explicit teaching of thinking skills during lectures and tutorials is not considered a practical choice.

In recent years, the adoption of problem-based learning by the Medical Faculty at NUS, the para-medical department at Nanyang Polytechnic and the engineering faculties at NTU and other polytechnics has taken tertiary education forward towards self-directed learning and thinking-through learning.

Teaching for Thinking, Teaching of Thinking, and Teaching about Thinking

The teaching of thinking should include three components for a balanced programme (Costa, 2001):

Teaching for Thinking

Teaching for Thinking means that lecturers/tutors should examine, monitor and create conditions that are conducive to undergraduates’ thinking. This indicates that lecturers/tutors should:

  1. pose problems, raise questions and intervene with paradoxes, dilemmas and discrepancies that challenge and engage students’ minds.
  2. structure the learning environment for thinking—exhorting it as a goal, valuing it, making time for it, securing a variety of materials (manipulatives, rich data resources, technology and raw materials) to support it.
  3. gather evidence of, reflect on, evaluate and report on thinking.
  4. respond to students’ ideas positively so as to create trust, allow risk-taking and be experimental and creative. This requires non-judgemental listening and the probing of students’ and each other’s ideas and assumptions.
  5. strive to improve and model the behaviours of thinking that are desired in students.

Teaching of Thinking

The Teaching of Thinking requires that lecturers/tutors instruct students directly in the processes of thinking through carefully crafted tasks, requiring the use of thinking skills such as “competence and contrast”, “analyse, evaluate and synthesize” and “organize and sequence” (Commonwealth of Virgina, 1995).

Teaching of Thinking not only includes teaching the steps and strategies of problem solving, creative thinking and decision making, it also includes habituating those attitudes, dispositions or habits of mind that characterise effective, skilful thinkers. Such habits are formed over time by opportunities created to apply them in a variety of settings and contexts. Students should be able to develop scientific dispositions and habits of mind including:

  • curiosity
  • demand for verification
  • request for logic and rational thinking
  • consideration for premises and consequences
  • attention to accuracy and precision
  • patience and persistence

Teaching about Thinking

The focus on Teaching about Thinking in learning is metacognition. Metacognition in learning may be characterised by having discussions with students about what is going on inside their minds while thinking is occurring, comparing different students’ approaches to problem solving and decision making, identifying what is known, what needs to be known, and how to produce that knowledge. Interestingly, it has been found that good problem-solvers employ metacognition—planning a course of action before commencing a task, monitoring themselves during execution of a plan, backing up or adjusting a plan consciously and evaluating themselves upon completion. Metacognition in learning involves awareness of one’s goals and intentions and reflections taken to achieve these goals.

It may seem difficult to promote reflective learning in a large lecture class. A simple and effective way to engage students’ attention and reflection during a large lecture class is to get students to spend the last FIVE minutes to write down three points in the lecture which they consider most important to them and give justification for their choices. A more elaborate device is to keep a learning log, registering the learning activities and reflecting on these learning activities.

Lecturers’/Tutors’ Behaviours That Enable Student Thinking

Lecturers’ behaviours that invite, maintain and enhance students’ thinking can be classified into three major categories:

  • Questioning to challenge students’ intellect and recollect information, process the information into meaningful relationships, and apply those relationships in different situations. Questions can focus students on their own emotions, motivations and metacognitive processes.
  • Responding to students so as to create a trusting environment and to help maintain, extend and become aware of their thinking.
  • Modelling behaviour that reflects desirable intellectual capabilities and dispositions lecturers would encounter in everyday problems and strategies.


Skilful questioning strategies can engage and transform students’ minds. Higher Order Thinking Questions are a powerful tool to challenge students’ intellect. Application questions invite students to think creatively and hypothetically to use imagination, to expose their value systems or make judgement. These questions could powerfully lend themselves to the process of research because the answers cannot be found in books or in databases. If the lecturer/tutor desires student behaviours at the level of application, the following verbs could be used to elicit the desired cognitive behaviour:

  • applying a principle
  • imagining
  • evaluating
  • judging
  • hypothesising
  • generalising
  • model building
  • predicting
  • extrapolating
  • speculating
  • forecasting
  • transferring


The following five patterns of response behaviours—using silence, facilitating the acquisition of data, accepting without judgement, clarifying, and empathising—can be employed to create an environment in which students can experience and practise complex and creative thought processes.

  • Wait Time (Silence)

    Wait Time 1 is the length of time a lecturer/tutor pauses after asking a question. Wait Time 2 is the length of time a lecturer/tutor waits after a student comments or asks a question. A minimum of three seconds of pausing is recommended. With higher-level cognitive questions, five seconds or more of wait time may be required for achieving the desirable results. Wait Time 3 is pausing and modelling thoughtfulness after the student asks the lecturer a question.

    It takes time for students to be able to think. The use of longer pauses during tutorial discussions provide students with the necessary thinking time that helps them manage their impulsivity and take responsible risks as they answer questions posed by the lecturer/tutor.

  • Facilitating the Acquisition of Data

    If lessons are to process data by comparing, classifying, making inferences, or drawing causal relationships for themselves, then data must be available for them to process. Facilitating the acquisition of data means that the lecturer/tutor should provide information on available resources to students on request.

  • Accepting Without Judgement

    Non-judgemental acceptance provides conditions in which students are encouraged to examine and compare their own data, values, ideas, criteria, and feelings with those of others as well as those of the lecturer/tutor. There are two types of non-judgemental acceptance: acknowledging and paraphrasing.


    Acknowledgement is responding by simply receiving without judging what the student says. It communicates that the student’s ideas have been heard. Examples of this type of response are “That’s one way of looking at it” and “I understand”.


    Paraphrasing is responding to what the student says or does by rephrasing, recasting, translating or summarising. Lecturers/tutors can use these responses when they want to extend, build on, compare, or give an example based on what the student has said. By using different words, the lecturer/tutor attempts to maintain the interest and accurate meaning of the student’s idea.

    Help Students Analyse Their Own Answers

    Lecturers/tutors need to encourage students to analyse their own answers through probing questions. Giving direct feedback to students on the strengths and weaknesses of their answers would discourage analytical and metacognitive thinking.

  • Clarification

    The intent of clarifying is to better understand the students’ ideas, feelings, and thought process. By clarifying, the lecturer/tutor shows the students that their ideas are worthy of exploration and consideration but that the full meaning is not yet understood. When a lecturer/tutor spends time, responding to students’ comments by encouraging them to elaborate further, students become more purposeful in their thinking and behaviour.

  • Empathising

    Empathic acceptance is a response that accepts feelings in addition to cognition. Lecturers/tutors respond empathically when they want to accept a student’s feelings, emotions or behaviour.


Modelling tends to reinforce students’ perceptions of values and goals stated by the lecturer/tutor. By exhibiting the kinds of behaviour desired in students, lecturers can strongly influence students’ behavioural patterns. Examples of desirable patterns modelled are:

  • listening attentively to one another
  • solving problems in a rational scientific manner
  • managing impulsivity, reacting calmly and patiently during stressful situations
  • accepting students’ differences
  • showing enthusiasm for challenges, puzzles and complex tasks
  • seeking feedback and evaluation of their actions from others
  • admitting that they do not know an answer but designing ways to produce an answer
  • having a clearly stated value system and making decisions consistent with that value system.


Thinking is best effected through group work or pair work. This may seem to be a difficult task for a large lecture class but Think-Pair-Share is an easy activity to manage even in a class of a few hundred students.

Undergraduates at NUS and NTU had indicated that tutorials and Project Work provide better opportunities to develop thinking skills than mass lectures. Interactions of any form and problem-solving activities would stimulate and foster thinking in students.

The Singapore Thinking Programme had been implemented in all schools and at all levels by 2001. In 2003, SATI scores will be one of the criteria considered for admission into the local universities. By 2005, Project Work will be another criterion added to the list of university admission criteria.

It is hence rational and imperative for all tertiary institutions to carry on the effort to develop our high flyers into critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers.

Recommended Reading

  1. Commonwealth of Virginia. (1995). Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools. Richmond Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia.

  2. Costa, Arthur L. (Ed). (2001). Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking (3rd ed.). Alexandria, Virginia, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

  3. Forgarty, Robin. (1994). Teach for Metacognitive Reflection. Arlington Heights, Illinosis: Skylight.
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Inside this issue
Thinking Skills in Education: Ideal and Real Academic Cultures
Fostering Thinking in Large-group Teaching and Small-group Tutorials
Nurturing Thinking Skills
An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting