Erica M. Leung, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“People grow best where they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge.” -Robert Kegan1

Cognitive Development of College Students

Most students enter college with the notion that there are right and wrong answers and the road to knowledge is straightforward.2 Students undergo significant cognitive growth during college, shifting their view of knowledge from objective duality to subjective multiplicity (i.e. there are various opinions, which are all valid).2 By the time of their graduation, few students reach the cognitive stage of relativism (i.e. not all opinions are equally valid, so facts and context matter), which relies heavily on critical thinking skills to make judgments.2

This may come as a surprise as instructors tend to expect students to have the same cognitive abilities and critical thinking skills as they do. Instead, college students are just learning how to reframe knowledge. With this in mind, instructors need to meet students where they are in their cognitive development and guide them through the process. A short epistemological belief survey may help in determining students’ stage of cognitive development.

Techniques for Developing Critical Thinking Skills

What is critical thinking? Can it be taught in the classroom? How is it measured? How can instructors help students navigate the road to independent critical thinking? Here are a few promising approaches to facilitate and encourage critical thinking:

  • Collaborative learning wherein students learn from each other and work together using activities like discussion boards, case studies, role playing, peer teaching, and group projects. This technique exposes students to different interpretations of information and the diversity of fellow students’ experiences and knowledge. Collaborative learning allows students to discuss information, clarify ideas, and evaluate the validity of others’ ideas in a safe and positive environment.3-5
  • Higher-level thinking questions that prompt students to answer questions like whether they “agree or disagree” and “why”. Well-written questions will challenge students to interpret, analyze, and recognize assumptions before reaching a conclusion.6 Examples of different levels of questions according to Bloom’s Taxonomy can be viewed here.
  • Reflective written assignments that ask students to apply their experiences to different concepts, allowing students to play a more active role in their learning and self-growth. These reflections can encourage students to identify the relevance of the information to their own lives, question the information’s validity, and seek better sources.6-8 A framework for reflective writing that can help guide students through the process can be found here.
  • Open-book assessments that allow students to use notes, textbooks, and/or other resources. These foster intellectual engagement with the material instead of rote memorization, cramming, and anxiety before the exam. Since students are afforded more resources, instructors have an opportunity to ask higher level questions. Overall, these types of assessments simulate a more real-world environment, which promotes problem solving over recall.9

Although there is debate on its definition, critical thinking is an important outcome of higher education and is highly valued by employers. It is therefore up to the instructor to incorporate ways to improve critical thinking in their students to prepare them for their futures.


  1. Kegan, R. In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994). 
  2. Black, S. & Allen, J. D. Part 3: College Student Development. TRL 58, 214-228 (2017). 
  3. Loes, C. N. & Pascarella, E. T. Collaborative Learning and Critical Thinking: Testing the Link. J. High. Educ. 88, 726-753 (2017). 
  4. Gokhale, A. A. Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking. J. Technol. Educ. 7, 22-30 (1995). 
  5. Szabo, Z. & Schwartz, J. Learning methods for teacher education: the use of online discussions to improve critical thinking. Technol. Pedagog. Educ. 20, 79-94 (2011). 
  6. Walker, S. E. Active Learning Strategies to Promote Critical Thinking. J. Athl. Train. 38, 263-267 (2003). 
  7. Mintzberg, H. & Gosling, J. Educating Managers Beyond Borders. Acad. Manag. Learn. Educ. 1, 64-76 (2002).
  8. Naber, J. & Wyatt, T. H. The effect of reflective writing interventions on the critical thinking skills and dispositions of baccalaureate nursing students. Educ. Today 34, 67-72 (2014). 
  9. Johans, B., Dinkens, A., & Moore, J. A systematic review comparing open-book and closed-book examinations: Evaluating effects on development of critical thinking skills. Nurse Educ. Pract. 27, 89-94 (2017).

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.