CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



Although engaging students in the learning process is a daunting task, it is necessary if we want to teach students thinking skills that will help them to be critical thinkers and independent learners. This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students discusses the importance of engaging students in the process of teaching them thinking skills.

July 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching Students to Think: A Matter of Engaging Minds
Dr Lakshminarayanan Samavedham
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

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 processes.

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 solutions.

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 mimicking nature.

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 them.

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.

 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Teaching Students to Think: A Matter of Engaging Minds
Academic Culture Online
Thinking Skills: A Discipline-centred Approach