Study Skills

Critical thinking. Almost every teacher everywhere asserts that this is the one skill above all others they are trying to develop in their students. And yet.

And yet, have you ever explicitly taught a student the mechanics of critical thinking? That is, how to take apart the logic of an argument and then evaluate it piece by piece? Or are you assuming that your students should have learned that before they come to college?

I don’t think a single professor I ever had stopped and explained critical thinking to me. In my experience my professors, even the great ones, thought that if they role modeled critical thinking enough times their students would tacitly develop the skill. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that almost no one teaches the skill that we as an industry are intensely focused on?

I’ve heard so many of my peers gripe about how their students couldn’t critically think their way out of a paper bag. Heck, I’ve done my fair share of complaining too. The fact that so many of us are struggling with student critical thinking, or lack thereof, makes it even more perplexing that so few of us teach the skill we are desperately missing.

Teaching Critical Thinking

Last summer I came across and found it’s wonderful Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools pamphlet by Paul and Elder. It’s a 23 page guide to reason, rationality, and logic that only costs $3. The pamphlet begins by explaining why critical thinking is a valuable skill worth developing and then moves into the mechanics of the intellectual approach. Paul and Elder ask students to break apart an article and locate the main purpose of the article, the key questions the author is asking, the important information the author is basing her or his argument on, the inferences/conclusions the author is drawing, the key concepts we would need to understand the author’s argument, the main assumptions the author is making, and finally what we should do if we take the author’s line of reasoning seriously. As that near run on sentence I just wrote makes clear, Paul and Elder take their critical thinking seriously.

I created a worksheet for my students based on Paul and Elder (2009) that asks them to break down an article using all of the points I just mentioned above. (Download: Word | pdf) I assigned it to my students this semester for the first time and guess what? They HATED it! When we discussed the critical thinking guide in class they thought it was simply stating what everyone already knew and they thought it had little to no value what-so-ever. So you can imagine my delight when they came back to class and said the assignment was, “too hard”.

“Wait, last week you said this was too obvious to spend time on. Now you are telling me this was a hard assignment? You can’t have it both ways,” I said to my class with a sly smile. After talking about their experience for a few minutes it became clear that my students found in-depth critical thinking harder than it looked.

Which leads me too…

The Thing I Hate The Most

The thing I hate the most during an in class discussion is when a student says, “I thought the author was totally biased.” It takes everything I have not to cock my head to the side and say, “oh really?” The accusation that some one is biased requires that you have something to compare one author’s claims against. Bias is a relative term; this argument is biased compared to this other argument.

When students say something is biased it’s an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. The next time a student throws the bias card out ask them, “What about the authors argument do you find is biased? What questions did they not ask that you would have liked them to ask? What assumptions were they making that you thought unjust? What are they over emphasizing or under emphasizing? And also, what evidence do you have to suggest this over/under emphasis?” With a few rare exceptions, students who argue that something is biased are dismissing the authors argument WITHOUT critically thinking about it. Often calling something biased is really nothing more than intellectual laziness. Students in our classes best come correct.

I use visual lecture slides in my classes. That is, I have slides with almost no text on them. For many of my students this is alarming. They have been trained to be human Xerox machines who spend class time dutifully writing down what they see on the board. The first semester I did this I thought my students would love it. I was wrong.

They hated the fact that there was nothing written down. My mid-semester evals said, “I have no idea what the important information is by looking at the picture.” I was sympathetic to their situation, but I was unwilling to go back to death by bullet point[1]. The class participation, discussions, and general engagement had all shot through the roof. So I was stuck between two interests. I needed to help them see the structure without assailing them with bullet point slides.

I decided to just give them my lecture notes. I wrote down everything I was going to say, then cleaned it up, and put it in outline form. My students rejoiced, but I felt uneasy. I worried that no one would come to class and that those who did would stop taking notes. As it turns out, only the latter came to fruition.[2]

After the first test I email every student in my class who has less than a 75% in the class and ask them to have a face-to-face with me about how they are studying, what’s going on in their lives, and what they can do to improve their learning. I have 430 students this semester so you might believe me when I say the last two weeks have been wall-to-wall student meetings.

My students all made one thing clear. They had printed off the lecture notes and used them to study. Almost all of them thought that they were well prepared for the exam only to find that they had struggled. I was worried, but the scholar in me was determined to locate the culprit.

Hunting and Gathering in Class

When asked, my students told me that they were bringing the printed out lecture notes and following along as we went through them in class. Students were adamant that they never missed a thing discussed in class. The dozens of student conversations almost all sounded the same. Most said something to the effect of, “I always bring the lecture notes and listen intently. If you add anything that’s not on the print out, I always write it in. I can’t believe I did poorly on the test I had all of the information right in front of me when I studied.”

Most of the struggling students I met with spent their class time as information hunter gatherers doing little more at their desk than filling in the gaps on the lecture notes. When it came time to study for the test they read their “complete” lecture notes and nodded their head. It all made sense and it all seemed to flow logically[3].

This method may work for some students (to be honest, this sounds close to how I studied as an undergraduate). But, almost no one can learn simply by collecting information. All of us have to process and cognitively engage with the information.

I politely pointed out how passive their in class behavior was and almost all of them, to their credit, received it as welcome news. I suggested that instead of having their lecture notes out during class they leave them put away. Then take out a sheet of paper and take notes on what they are learning. This approach would have them listen, think about what they are hearing, and then attempt to rephrase the ideas in their own words. It’s unquestionable that this is a more involved process than simply going down the lecture notes checking that everything said in class is represented.

On Friday one of my students told me how much he liked this new approach, but he suggested that he found it easier to write when he reviewed the lecture notes as he walked to class. Then when he took notes in class on a blank sheet of paper he had some frame or structure to write his notes around.

I’ve yet to see if this turns students grades around, so you should take this advice with caution. Furthermore, this isn’t an empirical study but rather an anecdotal recounting of a trail-and-error approach. So it goes with out saying, your milage may vary. However, all of us who give out our lecture notes should be wary of how they may pacify our students in class experience.

  1. Not everyone who uses PowerPoint is guilty of death by bullet point. In fact some of my favorite teachers use PowerPoint in traditional ways and avoid almost all of the negatives I encapsulate in the term death by bullet point. That said, my PowerPoints before visual based slides were terribly. I had to change.  ↩

  2. This semester I started using the iClickers and my attendance has never been higher. Attendance is up, participation is up, and most importantly grades are up. I’ll talk more about how I use these soon.  ↩

  3. Of course it did, I worked and worked to make sure my lectures flow.  ↩

“How should I study for your test?” is the number one question students have for me hands down. Every time I field this question I want to respond, “How should I know? If I took the test I’d ace it. Not to mention I came to class everyday, I’ve read our text at least five times, and to top it all off, I wrote the damn thing. It’s been over a decade since I took intro. I can’t for the life of me remember how it felt to be a beginning sociology learner. In fact, I might be the worst person you could ask that question to.”

While I’ve wanted to say that to a student just to take in their expression, I would never because helping beginning students learn sociology is what my job is all about.

That said, I still think helping students develop good study skills is one of the harder tasks we all face. We have an “expert mind” compared to our student’s “beginner’s mind”. To you and I everything we discuss is interconnected, but to many of our students everything is small bits of info that are loosely joined to one another. So how do we overcome these hurdles and help students?

One of the best discussions of how to help students prepare for exams came to me last November on the TeachSoc Google Group[1] from Kathleen McKinney of Illinois State University. Her words summed up my approach better than I ever could[2] :

In terms of study tips for my [multiple choice] exams, I talked about active reading and listening. I explained that my MC questions were not simple memory/’spit-back’ questions but rather application/example/story problem questions. This was a struggle for them. So, I explained that when studying, memorizing definitions or ideas or results was step 1, rephrasing those things in their own words but ‘correctly’ was step 2, understanding my or book examples was step 3, generating their own, original and ‘correct’ examples/applications of terms and ideas was step 4, and correctly recognizing new examples/applications in my MC test story problem exams was step 5 (in terms of learning and doing well on the exam)…

I couldn’t agree more with Kathleen; a big step in the right direction is getting students to move from passively reading/listening toward a more active approach. Too often students sit through class or read through the book and just let the information waft over them while they nod their heads knowingly. The problem is, if nodding your head is the most active part of your listening/studying, you are probably going to struggle on the test.

I want to encourage students to take an active studying approach and also help them develop the skill. To this end I put together a handout for theme explaining the approach in detail (download it here). While the handout goes into more detail below is a bulleted outline of my approach.

  1. Understand a concepts definition (this is where many students stop)
  2. Rephrase the concept in your own words
  3. Apply the concept to your life
  4. Come up with an example of your own
  5. Look for concept pairs (i.e. concepts that are opposites, complementary, etc.)
  6. If the concept has a pair, compare and contrast the two.

Beyond active studying, I encourage students to study together, because you often need someone to double check the definitions you rephrase, your applications, examples, and your analysis of concept pairs. That is, if you incorrectly understand the concept, inaccurately rephrase the concept in your own words, misapply the term to your life, etc., then actively studying won’t help you. Studying in groups increases the likelihood that studying mishaps will be identified and rectified.

I’d love to hear how do you help your students prepare for exams either in the comments, on our Facebook page, on Twitter (@SociologySource), or send me an email

  1. Which, if you teach sociology, you should join. Watch this video I made to learn how to join.  ↩

  2. Kathleen gracious gave me permission to reprint her thoughts here.  ↩

“Smart students think they’re dumb, because they know what they don’t know. Dumb students think they’re smart, because they don’t know what they don’t know. So, do you think you’re smart… or dumb?” This was the question one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Julia McQuillian[1], asked me as an undergraduate.

With a single question Julia opened my eyes to the meta-cognitive level of learning. Until then I hadn’t thought critically about my intellectual blindspots and the assumptions I was making based on them[2]. This question helped me graduate from a dichotomous and concrete worldview, to a worldview that was much more complex and uncertain.

As teachers we must remember that our students are not primed for this type of thinking. By acknowledging the limited scope of a 101 course students can more critically assess the information in your class and their understanding of the world around them.


“A 101 class is a tapas restaurant. You eat a little of this, a little of that. If what you want is more of an intellectual meal, then you should take a semester long course like Race and Ethnicity or Social Inequality.” I tell this to my students on the first day of my 101 class to give them a sense of scope. It’s important to remind your students that they are only being exposed to the 1% of all the research on any of the topics you discuss in a 101 class. Novices are vulnerable to prematurely celebrating their mastery of a subject.


“I’ve forgotten more about the research on this topic than you’ve learned, so what makes you think you know enough to dismiss this research out of hand?” I’ve thought this to myself before when students tell me emphatically, “That can’t be true!” A more appropriate response to an outright rejection of the findings of social research would be a simple question: “Well, what evidence makes you so sure that this can’t be true?” Students will typically response with, “Well, my uncle is….” or “The Hispanic people where I’m from…” or some anecdotal evidence from their life. These “n of 1” counter arguments are an easy opportunity to talk about the perils of common sense and intuitive sociology. Students are prone to uncritically reject social research if it doesn’t jive with the worldview they hold. As a discipline sociology seeks counter-intuitive knowledge, so this type of rejection is neither surprising nor uncommon.

Sometimes students make the opposite mistake. They accept uncritically what the research has to say as though it was describing laws of sociology or decoding the Matrix. I know this is an issue when my students look at me like a magician. Mouth agape, they are dazzled by how, “You seem to know it all!” (Their words not mine). While it sure is easier to teach a class where everyone uncritically accepts what you, the sage on the stage, have to say, it’s just as damaging to your students learning as it’s counterpart. We have to be uncomfortable with uncritical thinking in our classes regardless of it’s orientation to the ideas we are teaching.

A third common reaction actually springs from critical thinking. Students, being good critical consumers of information, pick apart the methodological limitations of the research presented in class. Unlike the previous two reactions, this one is uncommon and should be encouraged to a point. I LOVE when students tell me a finding is weak because it only sampled _____ or it operationalized the variable in a narrow way (note: students rarely use this language, but this is what they mean). You simply cannot shoot down students who do this out of fear that they are attacking either your credibility or the researcher’s. Silence one contrarian and you will be telling the entire class, “I am the expert here. You need only ingest my pearls of wisdom uncritically.”

When students are hypercritical consumers of the information you are presenting in class, thank them for engaging with the material and having the courage to challenge the research openly in class. Then remind them of the confirmation bias and that they have a limited scope with which to judge the situation. I’ll often say something like, “You make some excellent points. This research, like all research, is limited in what it can tell us. However, this research is indicative of a whole collection of similar studies. Before we can say definitively that this study is flawed to the point it is inaccurately describing the social world, we would need to delve into the rest of the research in this field.” Hyper-critical students need to be encouraged to remain critical, but not to become unduly dismissive.

If you are teaching sociology, then you have an “expert’s mind.” You’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a “beginner’s mind.” Your perspective on sociology as a discipline is starkly different from the perspective your students have. It’s too easy to assume that your students would “just know” how limited their breadth of understanding of sociology is. You make this assumption at your own peril. Start the term by defining the scope of the course and ask your students to maintain their perspective on what they do and don’t yet know.

  1. I should acknowledge that it’s possible I am remembering this a little different than how it was said. Dr. Julia McQuillian is an outstanding teacher, scholar, and human being. Please don’t read this quote in any other context.  ↩

  2. I love asking my students what intellectual blindspots they think they have. Almost all of them say none. To which I ask, “Would you know if you had a ‘blind spot’? If you could see them, would we call them blindspots?”  ↩