Using TAMPA to Teach Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

teaching critical thinking

What does Tampa, that palm-fronded gem on Florida’s Gulf Coast, have to do with critical thinking? Nothing.

But in all caps, TAMPA is the acronym for a method of teaching critical thinking that I devised and have used for several years now with some success.

When I say I “devised” this method, I don’t mean I invented its component parts. Indeed, many of these tried-and-true strategies have been classroom staples for years. What I’ve attempted to do is pull them together into a unified approach, creating an organized, systematic framework for teaching critical thinking that can be used by instructors in all disciplines and at all levels—but especially, I believe, in college.

In this context, then, TAMPA stands for Teach, Analyze, Model, Practice, and Assess.

Teach. Yes, I know most of us teach critical thinking in some form or other—or at least we tell ourselves we do. But do we really? Or do we just toss the term around like the educational buzz phrase it has unfortunately become?

In the TAMPA approach, teaching critical thinking becomes a much more focused and deliberate activity. It requires us to:

  • Identify critical thinking, on the course syllabus as well as verbally on the first day of class, as a key course outcome. (That’s something every college course should do, in my opinion.)
  • Clearly define critical thinking at the beginning of the term and reiterate that definition as frequently as necessary.
  • Break critical thinking down into specific actions, such as asking the right questions, researching the answers, recognizing biases, and forming and testing hypotheses.
  • Use frequent examples from the course material to illustrate those concepts.
  • Constantly reinforce critical thinking skills by pointing out when someone is using them: “Very good, Sarah, those are exactly the kinds of assumptions we ought to be questioning.” “So, Todd, what exactly is your hypothesis?”

We might not do all those things in every class meeting, but we should do them often enough that critical thinking comes to infuse the entire course. It shouldn’t just be one of the things we teach; rather, it should become the framework for everything we teach. There’s little point in students learning anything if they don’t also have the capacity to determine its veracity, its value, its connection to other pieces of knowledge, and its long-term ramifications.

Analyze. I alluded above to the importance of studying examples of critical thinking at work. These can come from the course materials or from outside sources that we bring into the classroom, perhaps via the Internet—or some combination of the two.

Since all course materials are the product of thinking, teachers should have plenty of opportunities to pause in the middle of a lecture or discussion and point out where the author of a textbook, for instance, has used elements of critical thinking to make an argument. But it’s not enough just to point it out; you have to go a step further and break it down, to show exactly how the writer did it, so students can understand clearly how they might do it.

You can do the same thing with contemporaneous newspaper articles or op-eds that you present to the class as illustrations of clear thinking or not-so-clear thinking. Either way, you can help students break down the arguments in order to understand why they’re effective—or not. (I recommend against being too overtly political in these demonstrations, or at least reflecting some balance. In any argument, both sides tend to offer both reasonable and hare-brained premises.)

This strategy applies to any discipline, because whatever you bring into your class is essentially an argument, whether it’s from the textbook or a newspaper or your own head. Even if it’s fact-based, it’s still an argument. The questions are: Is it a good argument? Why or why not? Determining the answers to those questions requires penetrating analysis.

Model. Modeling goes a step beyond analysis. This is where you allow your students to see YOU using critical thinking skills—the very skills you’ve been talking about and identifying in others’ work. Of course, we all use logical reasoning in our lectures and class discussions. But do our students know that’s what we’re doing? Do we go to the trouble of pointing it out to them?

I know this might sound a bit silly on the surface: “Hey kids, look at me, I just formulated a hypothesis.” But I would argue that, in many cases, if we don’t tell students what we’re doing, they won’t necessarily make the connection on their own. Meanwhile, by pointing it out, we’re not merely reinforcing a concept that we’ve taught, we’re setting a powerful example. We’re not just demonstrating how to use that concept but showing that it’s more than just a concept: it’s something people do in real life.

Practice. The next step is to make sure students have ample opportunity to practice these concepts for themselves. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, from class discussions to written assignments to examinations.

Once again, class discussion is a technique that has been around for a long time; it’s something practically all of us do. But too often, I think, we get caught up in the discussion itself, or in the subject matter being discussed, and neglect to use those discussions as teachable moments—opportunities not only to analyze and model critical thinking skills but to encourage our students to practice those skills themselves, through our questions and responses. The Socratic method, or some variation thereof, is an excellent tool for accomplishing this, as long as we’re intentional about it and students understand what we’re doing.

Likewise, we can use written assignments to make students think. I’m not going to harp here on writing, except to say that it sometimes astonishes me how many college courses require little or none of it. Professors in those courses are missing a golden opportunity, because few activities help us examine and organize our thoughts like having to put them in writing.

I recognize that many students aren’t very good at this. Even our best first-and-second-year student writers tend to be skilled not so much at writing as at producing formulaic essays, which are basically a means of regurgitating information in jargon-laden, quasi-academic sentences. And yet, they’re never going to get better at organizing their thoughts in writing if we don’t require them regularly to attempt it.

I understand, too, that many professors balk at assigning writing because of all the grading it entails. Just remember that, in non-writing-based courses, perhaps only a couple of assignments need to be graded in the traditional sense. The rest can simply be checked off and factored into the overall grade as “daily work” or something like that. The point is that being forced to write down their thoughts makes students think, whether they’re composing formal essays or not.

The last type of practice I’ll mention is test-taking, which we don’t normally think of as an exercise in critical thinking. However, tests needn’t just be tools for assessment; they can also become tools for learning, requiring students to use their critical thinking skills in both the studying and the test-taking phases.

Which brings me to the last element of TAMPA:

Assess. Our tendency, when we give tests, is to seek to determine how much students know. Allow me to suggest that this focus is misplaced; instead, we should be trying to gauge how well they think. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we need to be doing a combination of the two: evaluating how well students think about what they’ve learned.

Let me illustrate by using an example from my own discipline. To this day, I model my literature exams after the ones I took in a particular professor’s course as an undergraduate. I realized, after completing his first test, that I had learned more from the act of taking the test than I had from attending class or even studying for the test. His questions required me to actually think, not merely recite information I had committed to memory (something, by the way, that can happen on essay tests as well as on multiple-choice exams).

For example, each of his tests had an “Identification” section, in which he gave a short passage from a literary work and asked us to identify the work and its author and then briefly explain the significance of the passage. This forced me to use critical thinking skills, like questioning and hypothesizing, as I was studying, because I was constantly trying to anticipate what passages might appear on the test. But the “explain the significance” part is what really required me to think during the exam itself. Even though we might have talked about that in class, and I might have some relevant information in my notes, I still had to ask myself, “Why did he put this particular passage on the test? What am I supposed to get from it?” That led me to come away from each test with an even deeper understanding of the works.

I’m sure, if you think about it, you can devise similar types of test questions in your own discipline. The key is to truly think about it—to use critical thinking skills yourself before expecting students to do the same. Because the truth is, as a professor, you’re always modeling intellectual behavior, for good or for ill, whether you’re aware of it or not.

I apologize if some of what I’ve said in this short essay seems to lack specifics. That’s by design because—besides the fact that I only have a couple thousand words—you’re the one who has to figure out how these principles apply to the courses you teach. My contention is that they almost certainly do apply, regardless of your discipline.

I’ll close, then, by reiterating a point I made at the beginning: that teaching and reinforcing critical thinking skills is a responsibility shared by all of us who teach college courses, not just faculty members in the humanities or social sciences. In fact, helping students learn to think for themselves may be the single most important thing we do as educators, whatever the specific subject matter we cover in our classrooms. You may already have an effective strategy for accomplishing that, but if not, or if it’s something you haven’t really thought about much, I’d invite you to try TAMPA.

Oh, and be sure to visit the city in Florida sometime, too—preferably in the winter.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College.

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