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Critical Thinking in Science: Fostering Scientific Reasoning Skills in Students

Thinking like a scientist is a central goal of all science curricula.

As students learn facts, methodologies, and methods, what matters most is that all their learning happens through the lens of scientific reasoning what matters most is that it’s all through the lens of scientific reasoning.

That way, when it comes time for them to take on a little science themselves, either in the lab or by theoretically thinking through a solution, they understand how to do it in the right context.

One component of this type of thinking is being critical. Based on facts and evidence, critical thinking in science isn’t exactly the same as critical thinking in other subjects.

Students have to doubt the information they’re given until they can prove it’s right.

They have to truly understand what’s true and what’s hearsay. It’s complex, but with the right tools and plenty of practice, students can get it right.

What is critical thinking?

This particular style of thinking stands out because it requires reflection and analysis. Based on what's logical and rational, thinking critically is all about digging deep and going beyond the surface of a question to establish the quality of the question itself.

It ensures students put their brains to work when confronted with a question rather than taking every piece of information they’re given at face value.

It’s engaged, higher-level thinking that will serve them well in school and throughout their lives.

Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is important when it comes to making good decisions.

It gives us the tools to think through a choice rather than quickly picking an option — and probably guessing wrong. Think of it as the all-important ‘why.’

Why is that true? Why is that right? Why is this the only option?

Finding answers to questions like these requires critical thinking. They require you to really analyze both the question itself and the possible solutions to establish validity.

Will that choice work for me? Does this feel right based on the evidence?

How does critical thinking in science impact students?

Critical thinking is essential in science.

It’s what naturally takes students in the direction of scientific reasoning since evidence is a key component of this style of thought.

It’s not just about whether evidence is available to support a particular answer but how valid that evidence is.

It’s about whether the information the student has fits together to create a strong argument and how to use verifiable facts to get a proper response.

Critical thinking in science helps students:

  • Actively evaluate information
  • Identify bias
  • Separate the logic within arguments
  • Analyze evidence

4 Ways to promote critical thinking

Figuring out how to develop critical thinking skills in science means looking at multiple strategies and deciding what will work best at your school and in your class.

Based on your student population, their needs and abilities, not every option will be a home run.

These particular examples are all based on the idea that for students to really learn how to think critically, they have to practice doing it. 

Each focuses on engaging students with science in a way that will motivate them to work independently as they hone their scientific reasoning skills.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning centers on critical thinking.

Teachers can shape a project around the thinking style to give students practice with evaluating evidence or other critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking also happens during collaboration, evidence-based thought, and reflection.

For example, setting students up for a research project is not only a great way to get them to think critically, but it also helps motivate them to learn.

Allowing them to pick the topic (that isn’t easy to look up online), develop their own research questions, and establish a process to collect data to find an answer lets students personally connect to science while using critical thinking at each stage of the assignment.

They’ll have to evaluate the quality of the research they find and make evidence-based decisions.

Self-Reflection

Adding a question or two to any lab practicum or activity requiring students to pause and reflect on what they did or learned also helps them practice critical thinking.

At this point in an assignment, they’ll pause and assess independently. 

You can ask students to reflect on the conclusions they came up with for a completed activity, which really makes them think about whether there's any bias in their answer.

Addressing Assumptions

One way critical thinking aligns so perfectly with scientific reasoning is that it encourages students to challenge all assumptions. 

Evidence is king in the science classroom, but even when students work with hard facts, there comes the risk of a little assumptive thinking.

Working with students to identify assumptions in existing research or asking them to address an issue where they suspend their own judgment and simply look at established facts polishes their that critical eye.

They’re getting practice without tossing out opinions, unproven hypotheses, and speculation in exchange for real data and real results, just like a scientist has to do.

Lab Activities With Trial-And-Error

Another component of critical thinking (as well as thinking like a scientist) is figuring out what to do when you get something wrong.

Backtracking can mean you have to rethink a process, redesign an experiment, or reevaluate data because the outcomes don’t make sense, but it’s okay.

The ability to get something wrong and recover is not only a valuable life skill, but it’s where most scientific breakthroughs start. Reminding students of this is always a valuable lesson.

Labs that include comparative activities are one way to increase critical thinking skills, especially when introducing new evidence that might cause students to change their conclusions once the lab has begun.

For example, you provide students with two distinct data sets and ask them to compare them.

With only two choices, there are a finite amount of conclusions to draw, but then what happens when you bring in a third data set? Will it void certain conclusions? Will it allow students to make new conclusions, ones even more deeply rooted in evidence?

Thinking like a scientist

When students get the opportunity to think critically, they’re learning to trust the data over their ‘gut,’ to approach problems systematically and make informed decisions using ‘good’ evidence.

When practiced enough, this ability will engage students in science in a whole new way, providing them with opportunities to dig deeper and learn more.

It can help enrich science and motivate students to approach the subject just like a professional would.

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  • What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

Published on May 30, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.

Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment .

To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources .

Critical thinking skills help you to:

  • Identify credible sources
  • Evaluate and respond to arguments
  • Assess alternative viewpoints
  • Test hypotheses against relevant criteria

Table of contents

Why is critical thinking important, critical thinking examples, how to think critically, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about critical thinking.

Critical thinking is important for making judgments about sources of information and forming your own arguments. It emphasizes a rational, objective, and self-aware approach that can help you to identify credible sources and strengthen your conclusions.

Critical thinking is important in all disciplines and throughout all stages of the research process . The types of evidence used in the sciences and in the humanities may differ, but critical thinking skills are relevant to both.

In academic writing , critical thinking can help you to determine whether a source:

  • Is free from research bias
  • Provides evidence to support its research findings
  • Considers alternative viewpoints

Outside of academia, critical thinking goes hand in hand with information literacy to help you form opinions rationally and engage independently and critically with popular media.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Critical thinking can help you to identify reliable sources of information that you can cite in your research paper . It can also guide your own research methods and inform your own arguments.

Outside of academia, critical thinking can help you to be aware of both your own and others’ biases and assumptions.

Academic examples

However, when you compare the findings of the study with other current research, you determine that the results seem improbable. You analyze the paper again, consulting the sources it cites.

You notice that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that created the treatment. Because of this, you view its results skeptically and determine that more independent research is necessary to confirm or refute them. Example: Poor critical thinking in an academic context You’re researching a paper on the impact wireless technology has had on developing countries that previously did not have large-scale communications infrastructure. You read an article that seems to confirm your hypothesis: the impact is mainly positive. Rather than evaluating the research methodology, you accept the findings uncritically.

Nonacademic examples

However, you decide to compare this review article with consumer reviews on a different site. You find that these reviews are not as positive. Some customers have had problems installing the alarm, and some have noted that it activates for no apparent reason.

You revisit the original review article. You notice that the words “sponsored content” appear in small print under the article title. Based on this, you conclude that the review is advertising and is therefore not an unbiased source. Example: Poor critical thinking in a nonacademic context You support a candidate in an upcoming election. You visit an online news site affiliated with their political party and read an article that criticizes their opponent. The article claims that the opponent is inexperienced in politics. You accept this without evidence, because it fits your preconceptions about the opponent.

There is no single way to think critically. How you engage with information will depend on the type of source you’re using and the information you need.

However, you can engage with sources in a systematic and critical way by asking certain questions when you encounter information. Like the CRAAP test , these questions focus on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

When encountering information, ask:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert in their field?
  • What do they say? Is their argument clear? Can you summarize it?
  • When did they say this? Is the source current?
  • Where is the information published? Is it an academic article? Is it peer-reviewed ?
  • Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence? Does it rely on opinion, speculation, or appeals to emotion ? Do they address alternative arguments?

Critical thinking also involves being aware of your own biases, not only those of others. When you make an argument or draw your own conclusions, you can ask similar questions about your own writing:

  • Am I only considering evidence that supports my preconceptions?
  • Is my argument expressed clearly and backed up with credible sources?
  • Would I be convinced by this argument coming from someone else?

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • ChatGPT vs human editor
  • ChatGPT citations
  • Is ChatGPT trustworthy?
  • Using ChatGPT for your studies
  • What is ChatGPT?
  • Chicago style
  • Paraphrasing

 Plagiarism

  • Types of plagiarism
  • Self-plagiarism
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Academic integrity
  • Consequences of plagiarism
  • Common knowledge

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what is critical thinking science

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

Critical thinking skills include the ability to:

You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

Ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?

A credible source should pass the CRAAP test  and follow these guidelines:

  • The information should be up to date and current.
  • The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
  • The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
  • For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.

Information literacy refers to a broad range of skills, including the ability to find, evaluate, and use sources of information effectively.

Being information literate means that you:

  • Know how to find credible sources
  • Use relevant sources to inform your research
  • Understand what constitutes plagiarism
  • Know how to cite your sources correctly

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search, interpret, and recall information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing values, opinions, or beliefs. It refers to the ability to recollect information best when it amplifies what we already believe. Relatedly, we tend to forget information that contradicts our opinions.

Although selective recall is a component of confirmation bias, it should not be confused with recall bias.

On the other hand, recall bias refers to the differences in the ability between study participants to recall past events when self-reporting is used. This difference in accuracy or completeness of recollection is not related to beliefs or opinions. Rather, recall bias relates to other factors, such as the length of the recall period, age, and the characteristics of the disease under investigation.

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Ryan, E. (2023, May 31). What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved January 2, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/working-with-sources/critical-thinking/

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Other students also liked, student guide: information literacy | meaning & examples, what are credible sources & how to spot them | examples, applying the craap test & evaluating sources.

what is critical thinking science

3. Critical Thinking in Science: How to Foster Scientific Reasoning Skills

Critical thinking in science is important largely because a lot of students have developed expectations about science that can prove to be counter-productive. 

After various experiences — both in school and out — students often perceive science to be primarily about learning “authoritative” content knowledge: this is how the solar system works; that is how diffusion works; this is the right answer and that is not. 

This perception allows little room for critical thinking in science, in spite of the fact that argument, reasoning, and critical thinking lie at the very core of scientific practice.

Argument, reasoning, and critical thinking lie at the very core of scientific practice.

what is critical thinking science

In this article, we outline two of the best approaches to be most effective in fostering scientific reasoning. Both try to put students in a scientist’s frame of mind more than is typical in science education:

  • First, we look at  small-group inquiry , where students formulate questions and investigate them in small groups. This approach is geared more toward younger students but has applications at higher levels too.
  • We also look  science   labs . Too often, science labs too often involve students simply following recipes or replicating standard results. Here, we offer tips to turn labs into spaces for independent inquiry and scientific reasoning.

what is critical thinking science

I. Critical Thinking in Science and Scientific Inquiry

Even very young students can “think scientifically” under the right instructional support. A series of experiments , for instance, established that preschoolers can make statistically valid inferences about unknown variables. Through observation they are also capable of distinguishing actions that cause certain outcomes from actions that don’t. These innate capacities, however, have to be developed for students to grow up into rigorous scientific critical thinkers. 

Even very young students can “think scientifically” under the right instructional support.

Although there are many techniques to get young children involved in scientific inquiry — encouraging them to ask and answer “why” questions, for instance — teachers can provide structured scientific inquiry experiences that are deeper than students can experience on their own. 

Goals for Teaching Critical Thinking Through Scientific Inquiry

When it comes to teaching critical thinking via science, the learning goals may vary, but students should learn that:

  • Failure to agree is okay, as long as you have reasons for why you disagree about something.
  • The logic of scientific inquiry is iterative. Scientists always have to consider how they might improve your methods next time. This includes addressing sources of uncertainty.
  • Claims to knowledge usually require multiple lines of evidence and a “match” or “fit” between our explanations and the evidence we have.
  • Collaboration, argument, and discussion are central features of scientific reasoning.
  • Visualization, analysis, and presentation are central features of scientific reasoning.
  • Overarching concepts in scientific practice — such as uncertainty, measurement, and meaningful experimental contrasts — manifest themselves somewhat differently in different scientific domains.

How to Teaching Critical Thinking in Science Via Inquiry

Sometimes we think of science education as being either a “direct” approach, where we tell students about a concept, or an “inquiry-based” approach, where students explore a concept themselves.  

But, especially, at the earliest grades, integrating both approaches can inform students of their options (i.e., generate and extend their ideas), while also letting students make decisions about what to do.

Like a lot of projects targeting critical thinking, limited classroom time is a challenge. Although the latest content standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards , emphasize teaching scientific practices, many standardized tests still emphasize assessing scientific content knowledge.

The concept of uncertainty comes up in every scientific domain.

Creating a lesson that targets the right content is also an important aspect of developing authentic scientific experiences. It’s now more  widely acknowledged  that effective science instruction involves the interaction between domain-specific knowledge and domain-general knowledge, and that linking an inquiry experience to appropriate target content is vital.

For instance, the concept of uncertainty  comes up  in every scientific domain. But the sources of uncertainty coming from any given measurement vary tremendously by discipline. It requires content knowledge to know how to wisely apply the concept of uncertainty.

Tips and Challenges for teaching critical thinking in science

Teachers need to grapple with student misconceptions. Student intuition about how the world works — the way living things grow and behave, the way that objects fall and interact — often conflicts with scientific explanations. As part of the inquiry experience, teachers can help students to articulate these intuitions and revise them through argument and evidence.

Group composition is another challenge. Teachers will want to avoid situations where one member of the group will simply “take charge” of the decision-making, while other member(s) disengage. In some cases, grouping students by current ability level can make the group work more productive. 

Another approach is to establish group norms that help prevent unproductive group interactions. A third tactic is to have each group member learn an essential piece of the puzzle prior to the group work, so that each member is bringing something valuable to the table (which other group members don’t yet know).

It’s critical to ask students about how certain they are in their observations and explanations and what they could do better next time. When disagreements arise about what to do next or how to interpret evidence, the instructor should model good scientific practice by, for instance, getting students to think about what kind of evidence would help resolve the disagreement or whether there’s a compromise that might satisfy both groups.

The subjects of the inquiry experience and the tools at students’ disposal will depend upon the class and the grade level. Older students may be asked to create mathematical models, more sophisticated visualizations, and give fuller presentations of their results.

Lesson Plan Outline

This lesson plan takes a small-group inquiry approach to critical thinking in science. It asks students to collaboratively explore a scientific question, or perhaps a series of related questions, within a scientific domain.

Suppose students are exploring insect behavior. Groups may decide what questions to ask about insect behavior; how to observe, define, and record insect behavior; how to design an experiment that generates evidence related to their research questions; and how to interpret and present their results.

An in-depth inquiry experience usually takes place over the course of several classroom sessions, and includes classroom-wide instruction, small-group work, and potentially some individual work as well.

Students, especially younger students, will typically need some background knowledge that can inform more independent decision-making. So providing classroom-wide instruction and discussion before individual group work is a good idea.

For instance, Kathleen Metz had students observe insect behavior, explore the anatomy of insects, draw habitat maps, and collaboratively formulate (and categorize) research questions before students began to work more independently.

The subjects of a science inquiry experience can vary tremendously: local weather patterns, plant growth, pollution, bridge-building. The point is to engage students in multiple aspects of scientific practice: observing, formulating research questions, making predictions, gathering data, analyzing and interpreting data, refining and iterating the process.

As student groups take responsibility for their own investigation, teachers act as facilitators. They can circulate around the room, providing advice and guidance to individual groups. If classroom-wide misconceptions arise, they can pause group work to address those misconceptions directly and re-orient the class toward a more productive way of thinking.

Throughout the process, teachers can also ask questions like:

  • What are your assumptions about what’s going on? How can you check your assumptions?
  • Suppose that your results show X, what would you conclude?
  • If you had to do the process over again, what would you change? Why?

what is critical thinking science

II. Rethinking Science Labs

Beyond changing how students approach scientific inquiry, we also need to rethink science labs. After all, science lab activities are ubiquitous in science classrooms and they are a great opportunity to teach critical thinking skills.

Often, however, science labs are merely recipes that students follow to verify standard values (such as the force of acceleration due to gravity) or relationships between variables (such as the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration) known to the students beforehand. 

This approach does not usually involve critical thinking: students are not making many decisions during the process, and they do not reflect on what they’ve done except to see whether their experimental data matches the expected values.

With some small tweaks, however, science labs can involve more critical thinking. Science lab activities that give students not only the opportunity to design, analyze, and interpret the experiment, but re -design, re -analyze, and re -interpret the experiment provides ample opportunity for grappling with evidence and evidence-model relationships, particularly if students don’t know what answer they should be expecting beforehand.

Such activities improve scientific reasoning skills, such as: 

  • Evaluating quantitative data
  • Plausible scientific explanations for observed patterns

And also broader critical thinking skills, like:

  • Comparing models to data, and comparing models to each other
  • Thinking about what kind of evidence supports one model or another
  • Being open to changing your beliefs based on evidence

Traditional science lab experiences bear little resemblance to actual scientific practice. Actual practice  involves  decision-making under uncertainty, trial-and-error, tweaking experimental methods over time, testing instruments, and resolving conflicts among different kinds of evidence. Traditional in-school science labs rarely involve these things.

Traditional science lab experiences bear little resemblance to actual scientific practice.

When teachers use science labs as opportunities to engage students in the kinds of dilemmas that scientists actually face during research, students make more decisions and exhibit more sophisticated reasoning.

In the lesson plan below, students are asked to evaluate two models of drag forces on a falling object. One model assumes that drag increases linearly with the velocity of the falling object. Another model assumes that drag increases quadratically (e.g., with the square of the velocity).  Students use a motion detector and computer software to create a plot of the position of a disposable paper coffee filter as it falls to the ground. Among other variables, students can vary the number of coffee filters they drop at once, the height at which they drop them, how they drop  them, and how they clean their data. This is an approach to scaffolding critical thinking: a way to get students to ask the right kinds of questions and think in the way that scientists tend to think.

Design an experiment to test which model best characterizes the motion of the coffee filters. 

Things to think about in your design:

  • What are the relevant variables to control and which ones do you need to explore?
  • What are some logistical issues associated with the data collection that may cause unnecessary variability (either random or systematic) or mistakes?
  • How can you control or measure these?
  • What ways can you graph your data and which ones will help you figure out which model better describes your data?

Discuss your design with other groups and modify as you see fit.

Initial data collection

Conduct a quick trial-run of your experiment so that you can evaluate your methods.

  • Do your graphs provide evidence of which model is the best?
  • What ways can you improve your methods, data, or graphs to make your case more convincing?
  • Do you need to change how you’re collecting data?
  • Do you need to take data at different regions?
  • Do you just need more data?
  • Do you need to reduce your uncertainty?

After this initial evaluation of your data and methods, conduct the desired improvements, changes, or additions and re-evaluate at the end.

In your lab notes, make sure to keep track of your progress and process as you go. As always, your final product is less important than how you get there.

How to Make Science Labs Run Smoothly

Managing student expectations . As with many other lesson plans that incorporate critical thinking, students are not used to having so much freedom. As with the example lesson plan above, it’s important to scaffold student decision-making by pointing out what decisions have to be made, especially as students are transitioning to this approach.

Supporting student reasoning . Another challenge is to provide guidance to student groups without telling them how to do something. Too much “telling” diminishes student decision-making, but not enough support may leave students simply not knowing what to do. 

There are several key strategies teachers can try out here: 

  • Point out an issue with their data collection process without specifying exactly how to solve it.
  • Ask a lab group how they would improve their approach.
  • Ask two groups with conflicting results to compare their results, methods, and analyses.

Download our Teachers’ Guide

(please click here)

Sources and Resources

Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2007). Scientific thinking and scientific literacy . Handbook of child psychology , Vol. 4. Wiley. A review of research on scientific thinking and experiments on teaching scientific thinking in the classroom.

Metz, K. (2004). Children’s understanding of scientific inquiry: Their conceptualizations of uncertainty in investigations of their own design . Cognition and Instruction 22(2). An example of a scientific inquiry experience for elementary school students.

The Next Generation Science Standards . The latest U.S. science content standards.

Concepts of Evidence A collection of important concepts related to evidence that cut across scientific disciplines.

Scienceblind A book about children’s science misconceptions and how to correct them.

Holmes, N. G., Keep, B., & Wieman, C. E. (2020). Developing scientific decision making by structuring and supporting student agency. Physical Review Physics Education Research , 16 (1), 010109. A research study on minimally altering traditional lab approaches to incorporate more critical thinking. The drag example was taken from this piece.

ISLE , led by E. Etkina.  A platform that helps teachers incorporate more critical thinking in physics labs.

Holmes, N. G., Wieman, C. E., & Bonn, D. A. (2015). Teaching critical thinking . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 112 (36), 11199-11204. An approach to improving critical thinking and reflection in science labs. Walker, J. P., Sampson, V., Grooms, J., Anderson, B., & Zimmerman, C. O. (2012). Argument-driven inquiry in undergraduate chemistry labs: The impact on students’ conceptual understanding, argument skills, and attitudes toward science . Journal of College Science Teaching , 41 (4), 74-81. A large-scale research study on transforming chemistry labs to be more inquiry-based.

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  1. Critical Thinking in Science: Fostering Scientific Reasoning

    Critical thinking is essential in science. It’s what naturally takes students in the direction of scientific reasoning since evidence is a key component of this style of thought. It’s not just about whether evidence is available to support a particular answer but how valid that evidence is.

  2. Teaching critical thinking in science

    Critical thinking is at the heart of scientific inquiry. A good scientist is one who never stops asking why things happen, or how things happen. Science makes progress when we find data that contradicts our current scientific ideas. Scientific inquiry includes three key areas: 1. Identifying a problem and asking questions about that problem 2.

  3. Critical thinking

    Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments in order to form a judgement by the application of rational, skeptical, and unbiased analyses and evaluation. [1]

  4. Critical Thinking in Science

    Critical Thinking in Science: How to Foster Scientific Reasoning Skills Critical thinking in science is important largely because a lot of students have developed expectations about science that can prove to be counter-productive.