Thinking skills are valued in all fields. Due to my
background in engineering, I will motivate the need
for incorporating ways to help students acquire
and develop thinking skills into our curriculum
by highlighting the rapid changes in chemical
engineering. Chemical engineers have witnessed a
paradigm shift in the philosophy of manufacturing
organisations over the last decade. With dwindling
profit margins from commodity products-thanks
to increasing global competition-companies
realise they have to remain attractive to customers
and investors alike by offering differentiated/niche
products and becoming more customer-centric.
Thus, business growth and profitability are now tied
to products and services instead of manufacturing
So, what does the transition from capital intensive to knowledge intensive mean to universities? Employers
will no longer seek people who only have the technical
expertise but lack the thinking skills that characterise
inventors, innovators and technology managers. This
translates into a definite and growing need to explicitly
teach students to think like inventors, innovators and
technology managers. Are we not already teaching our
students to 'think'? Yes, we are. However, is it possible
to do more and do it more consciously?
Before we examine some possible ways to help
students acquire and develop thinking skills, it is
worthwhile understanding the kind of thinking
skills discussed in this article. Thinking skills, as
identified by researchers include critical thinking,
creative thinking, lateral thinking, parallel thinking,
interpretive thinking, problem solving and so on. As
there are significant differences as well as overlaps
between them, it is difficult to determine which of
these thinking skills are more important. As one
would expect, a combination of the above thinking
skills may come in handy for a particular situation.
However, can thinking skills be taught? Fortunately,
research has shown that it is possible for students
to acquire thinking skills in the classroom through
activities, project work, problem-solving exercises
and so on.
"To discern the truth in every thing, by whomsoever
spoken, is wisdom" (Thiruvalluvar, circa 100 A.D.).
This statement characterises the core idea behind critical thinking. Students think critically when
they understand and evaluate (according to some
specific criteria) an entity (e.g. a book, research
article, artwork) using domain knowledge, available
evidence and logical arguments. Other activities
such as intuiting, clarifying, reflecting, connecting,
inferring and judging can also be used to evaluate
claims, ideas and policies. Critical thinking is
therefore judgement-oriented, analytic, objective and
convergent in nature. Engineers use the term problem
solving in place of critical thinking because the basic
skills required for both critical thinking and problem
solving are the same.
Creative thinking is based on the premise that the
best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.
Thus, it is generative (examines possibilities), lateral, divergent, subjective and reserves judgement
until the critical evaluation step that will come in
later. Creative thinking emphasises possible ways
of solving a problem, not the implementation of a
particular solution. However, the creative process
is not a single stroke of genius as it is often thought
to be. During the process, one's thinking could be
misdirected, wrong inferences could be made and
failures could happen. Despite these risks, creative
thinking results in discovery or invention for those
who are curious, patient and persistent. In addition,
individuals with healthy self-confidence, constructive
discontent with the status quo, ability to interact with
peers intellectually and a willingness to acknowledge
and learn from errors, possess traits that can lead to
creative achievements. Creative thinking techniques
can be regarded as mechanisms that help the brain
move from a local optimal solution (owing to
limitations in knowledge, self-imposed constraints
and so on) to possibly one or more globally optimal
Lateral thinking uses random stimulation, humour,
brainstorming and even irrelevant information
to move from standard ideas to new and possibly
improved ideas (de Bono, 1990). Though it focuses
on the perception aspect of thinking, lateral thinking
leads one to think across different domains, helping
one to examine a problem from many different
perspectives. The result is a rich bag of ideas from
which a preferred solution can be implemented after
critical evaluation. On the lighter side, researchers
have claimed that sleep stimulates lateral thinking
(Wagner, Gais, Haider, Verleger & Born 2004).
Parallel thinking is a way of cooperative or
coordinated thinking as opposed to adversarial
thinking. All parties think in parallel (i.e. there may
be no agreement and the overall direction could keep
changing with time but everyone thinks in parallel
with the rest of the group members). Once all the
ideas including contradictions are laid out in parallel,
a solution is constructed for the problem at hand.
Finally, analogical thinking involves mapping of
one set of ideas onto another. For example, Ernest
Rutherford used the solar system to understand and
explain the atomic structure by mapping the idea
that planets revolve around the sun onto the atom
and argued that electrons revolve around the nucleus.
Analogical thinking can be useful in conducting
experiments and designing engineering systems by
We can help students acquire or develop thinking
skills by either incorporating activities, project
work and exercises into existing modules that
require students to think or teaching thinking
skills as a separate module. Though it is still not
clear which of these approaches is better, it takes
time (several months) for students to acquire and
develop thinking skills. Since the methods used
to teach thinking skills to students are likely to be
unconventional, a significant amount of faculty
commitment (throughout the curriculum) and support
from academic administrators would be essential.
Students must be provided opportunities to explore
and express opinions, analyse controversial topics
from different viewpoints and use logic to justify
their conclusions. The quality of faculty-student
interaction also has a powerful impact on the students' ability to engage in critical thinking.
Project work and open-ended exercises can also
engage students in higher order thinking. In the case
of engineering departments, capstone design projects
and dissertation projects serve this purpose. In these
modules, the teacher takes the role of a manager or
facilitator during one-on-one meetings, small group
meetings and brainstorming sessions with students.
Instead of seeing peers as competitors, students learn
to collaborate and think laterally. Research projects
that balance theoretical and experimental aspects of
problem solving and projects of exploratory nature
would lend themselves to creative and critical
thinking more than narrowly constrained ones.
Field trips may serve as a trigger for higher order
thinking in certain domains. Another way to help
students acquire and develop thinking skills is to get
them to participate in activities (e.g. the NUS FSAE
Race Car project, RoboCup) organised by national
and international bodies. NUS students and project
supervisors have won global laurels in these events
that provided opportunities for students to exercise
thinking skills and exhibit their creativity.
We can help students acquire and develop thinking
skills even in large classes if concepts are introduced
interrogatively rather than declaratively. Questioning
during lectures can engage students effectively (Ip,
2005). However, students should be given enough
time to respond so that their answers are the outcome
of reasoned thinking rather than subjective reactions.
Teachers who are under pressure to deliver content
can invite students to respond by email or the IVLE
discussion forum. Giving students credits based on
their participation in the discussion forums can also
be an incentive.
During tutorial sessions (given the advantage of
smaller class size) the tutor can get students to discuss the questions among themselves. Unfortunately these
days, some tutorials have degenerated into passive
sessions where the tutor writes answers to tutorial
questions on the board and students simply pen
them down. Such passive tutorials represent wasted
opportunities and efforts must be made to invigorate
Questions in assignments and exams should
encourage students to come out with a variety of
solutions and credit should be given for quality,
originality and variety of ideas. Poorly-defined
questions that lack essential data and those that
require integration of ideas from different subject
areas must be posed to students. The roles can be
reversed as well. For example, students could be
tasked to come up with a question for the final exam
and the grade for this exercise will be based on the
quality of the question. Felder (1985) found this role
switching assessment difficult, but instructive and
enjoyable for his students. Whenever feasible, faculty
members should assign a take-home test or assessment
where students can be tested in higher order thinking
skills rather than a 2- or 3-hour final exam.
At NUS, faculty members are perhaps undone by
large classes and the implementation of some of these
and other ideas may seem daunting or impossible. In
the spirit of the topic, I believe some hard thinking
on our part can certainly enhance students' learning
experience. Raise the stakes higher and our students
will rise to the challenge.
de Bono, E. (1990). Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity.
London: Penguin Books.
Felder, R.M. (1985). 'The Generic Quiz. A Device to Stimulate
Creativity and Higher Level Thinking Skills'. Chemical
Engineering Education. Vol. 19, No. 4, p. 176.
IP, Y.K. (2005). 'The Pros and Cons of Questioning'. Ideas on
Teaching Vol. 3. Singapore: Centre for Development of Teaching
and Learning, National University of Singapore. pp. 28-29.
Ravi Chandran. (2005). 'Getting Students to Ask Questions'. Ideas on
Teaching Vol. 3. Singapore: Centre for Development of Teaching
and Learning, National University of Singapore. pp. 30-31.
Wagner, U.; Gais, S.; Haider, H.; Verleger, R. & Born, J. (2004). 'Sleep
Inspires Insight'. Nature. Vol. 427, No. 6972, pp. 352-355.