Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking shares a symbiotic relationship with learning. This means the two process are closely connected and interdependent. Effective learners think critically about the subjects they are studying, which leads to authentic and enriching learning experiences. To cultivate deeper learning and reinforce the importance of learning to think well, PVCC has made Critical Thinking its core learning outcome. It is academically sound and civically judicious for PVCC, a learning centered college, to place critical thinking at the heart of everything we do. There are eight supporting college wide General Education Learning Outcome areas, which are: Critical Reading, Diversity and Global Awareness, Information Literacy, Oral Communication, Problem Solving, Written Communication, Civic Engagement, and Personal Development and Wellness. In addition to critical thinking, these areas represent knowledge and abilities that educated persons should possess and apply.

Critical Thinking Framework

For more than decade, the PVCC assessment program has invested heavily and been deeply involved in inquiry related to critical thinking. We have and continue to review critical thinking literature and assessment methodologies, conduct research to measure students’ critical thinking abilities, engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning, and foster a community of practice centered on critical thinking and assessment of learning. After evaluating various definitions of critical thinking and analyzing different approaches to teaching and learning critical thinking, we came to the logical conclusion that the Paul-Elder framework was the most suitable and comprehensive model for critical thinking at PVCC.

The framework was developed by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Their framework is thoroughly explained in academic publications, often cited by scholars in critical thinking literature, and applied at both community colleges and universities for use across the disciplines. The framework consists of the Elements of Thought, which can be used to construct or deconstruct reasoning; the Intellectual Standards, which are applied to assess and improve thinking; and the Intellectual Traits that thinkers can aspire to embody over time (Paul & Elder, 2012). For more information, visit the Foundation for Critical Thinking Website at

Paul and Elder (2012) define critical thinking as:
A unique kind of purposeful thinking in any subject area or topic whether academic or personal, in which the thinker systematically and habitually displays intellectual traits such as intellectual perseverance, intellectual humility, intellectual empathy, and fair-mindedness takes charge of the construction of thinking with awareness of its elements, such as questions at issue, information, concepts, inferences, assumptions, implications and point of view imposing criteria and intellectual standards on the thinking such as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, and fairness continually improving the quality of thinking making it more clear, accurate, precise; with greater depth and breadth, more logical; more relevant and significant, and more fair (p. xxxi).

The Paul-Elder Framework is exceptional because of the emphasis on fair-mindedness, which guides learners and educators to use critical and creative thinking in unbiased and equitable ways. This crucial part of the framework is consistent with the college’s mission to “educate the whole person” and foster positive social change. The application of the framework college wide and infusion of the Intellectual Standards in the General Education Learning Outcomes and Rubrics allows PVCC to place fair-minded critical thinking at the heart of everything we do.

The Critical Thinking Academy is a personal and professional development program for learning facilitators in both academic and student support areas. The program is designed to enhance facilitators’ understanding of critical thinking, promote fair-minded critical thinking (Elder & Paul, 2009), and improve facilitators’ ability to foster critical thinking with students.

The Purpose of the Critical Thinking Academy

  • Develop a clear and consistent concept of critical thinking
  • Enable students to make learning connections across curricular/co-curricular experiences
  • Provide personal and professional development opportunities
  • Create an ongoing community of practice centered on critical thinking
  • Foster fair-minded critical thinking
  • Place critical thinking at the heart of everything we do (explicitly)
  • Respond to employer and student needs
  • Use assessment to improve learning and make the college better

What is CAT?

The Critical Thinking Assessment Test, also known as CAT, is a unique tool designed to assess and promote the improvement of critical thinking and real-world problem solving skills. The instrument is the product of extensive development, testing, and refinement with a broad range of institutions, faculty, and students across the country. Developed, refined, validated, and disseminated by Tennessee Technological University with partial funding from the National Science Foundation.

Why does PVCC use CAT?

PVCC’s overarching general education learning outcome is critical thinking. In 2010, PVCC decided that it was time to strengthen assessment of general education learning outcomes by supplementing PVCC’s rubrics with a nationally normed assessment. CAT was selected for the following reasons:

  • The skill areas assessed by the CAT are closely aligned with the abilities PVCC uses to define critical thinking.

  • CAT is faculty-driven.  Scored by each institution’s own faculty, it is designed to increase faculty awareness of students’ weaknesses and the effectiveness of current teaching practices and to stimulate discussions on how to improve development of students’ critical thinking skills.  Thus, it is aligned with PVCC’s philosophy of using assessments to improve learning.

  • The test format (a short answer essay test emulating a diversity of real-world tasks that require critical thinking skills) engages students and reveals their underlying thought processes.  This gives faculty a more accurate assessment of critical thinking than multiple-choice tests.

  • Train-the-trainer workshops, a detailed scoring guide and training module, evaluation by a minimum of two faculty scorers, and rescoring of a random subset of tests by Tennessee Tech’s Center for Assessment and Improvement of Learning help ensure accuracy and reliability of assessment results.  

  • Much work has been done to ensure the validity of the CAT.

  • National user norms have been developed for four-year institutions and community colleges.

  • CAT is sensitive to class and course effects and suitable for value-added analyses.

  • CAT can be administered in a typical one-hour class.

How Does PVCC use CAT?

In 2011, CAT was administered as a pre-test to first-time, full-time college students and as a post-test to a cohort of students who had taken 8 or more general education courses at PVCC. PVCC’s average CAT score of 15.36 compared quite favorably with the average CAT score for community colleges of 13.48 and the average CAT score for lower division students at 4-year institutions of 13.66.  General education completers scored consistently, and generally, significantly higher on all questions than entering students. 

In Spring 2013, CAT was administered for the second time. We felt is was important to identify a more specific cohort of students which would enable us to have more reliable data, work with a specific group of faculty, and concentrate on particular critical thinking skill sets. We identified five high impact courses (Critical Reading, Public Speaking, English 102, Physics and Calculus). Faculty administered a pre-test, developed supplemental critical thinking materials, and then administered a post-test. The team of faculty discussed their projects, reviewed results, and discussed strategies teaching critical thinking skills. Overall we learned that the treatments faculty implemented were effective. Faculty created additional critical thinking activities, supplemental readings, additional lecture content, case studies, group activities, discussions, and used critical thinking language more deliberately. One theme in particular emerged, which was faculty noticed a need to take a more deliberate approach to teaching critical thinking and using more consistent language. The group felt this idea needed to be further developed.

In Fall 2013, we administered CAT for the third time. In order to conduct a longitudinal study of PVCC’s general education program, we administered CAT to a cohort of incoming Freshman student athletes. Approximately 100 student athletes took the pretest. In Spring 2015, CAT will be administered as a post-test to the same student cohort.