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Learning from great teachers

A multi-site study of strategies to teach critical thinking: ‘why do you think that?’

Huang GC et al. Medical Education 2016; 50: 236-49.


Reviewed by Karen Forbes


What was the study question?

What are the characteristics of the instructional strategies of faculty members actively teaching critical thinking (CT)?

How was the study done?

Faculty who excel at CT were identified at eight institutions and invited to participate in a 30 minute semi-structured interview which explored two main questions:

  1. What approaches do faculty staff recognized by peers as good teachers in CT use to teach CT? 
  2. How explicit is this teaching? 

Interviews were recorded and transcribed and the authors used the framework method to analyze qualitative data.


What were the results?

Authors organized their findings into three main themes:

  1. What faculty teach to learners. This was described as habits of mind, with three major themes related to these processes: higher-order thinking and metacognition, reflection and mindfulness, and considering a deeper perspective (‘zooming in-zooming out’).
  2. How they teach.  Two main principles guided the approach to teaching CT: the relevance to clinical practice and perspective shifting.   Concrete strategies were identified including questioning/probing, reflective writing, and group interaction.  Degree of explicitness of this teaching was variable. 
  3. Why they teach CT. The primary aim identified was to teach developing clinicians who would provide the best possible health care for their patients. 


What are the implications of these findings?

This multi-site qualitative study provides faculty with practical recommendations for the teaching of critical thinking.  Some of the approaches that faculty can immediately incorporate into their clinical teaching include promoting higher-level cognition, asking questions that probe the learners’ understanding and linking discussions to the clinical context.  While many clinical teachers likely already use some of these best practices in teaching, there is value in being more explicit about teaching critical thinking.


Editor’s note:  This well-done and well-written study is a great example of using qualitative methodology to explore and understand an aspect of medical education.  This paper provides practical tips on how to incorporate critical thinking into one’s teaching (SLB).

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