Critical Thinking Activities College Success


Click the above link to view Word documents for all the handouts for this chapter. 



Critical Thinking Exercise: Crime and Punishment

This critical thinking exercise is based on a current news article in which a young woman was arrested for selling $400 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer in 1974.   She was sentenced to a 10-20 year prison term, but escaped after 8 months.   She was caught 34 years later in 2008.  She had become a model citizen with 3 children that she had raised as model citizens.  She was returned to Michigan to complete her jail sentence.  Her family and friends petitioned the governor for clemency.  The details are described in the exercise,Crime and Punishment.  These is also a worksheet that helps students work through the steps of critical thinking for this case.  See theCritical Thinking Worksheet: Crime and Punishment. 

Review the concept that critical thinking involves looking at a problem from many points of view.   Divide students into discussion groups for this exercise.  Have each group write a different point of view on the board.  As a summary, have students volunteer to  state their personal values and reasonable point of view at the end.  This exercise is included in the printed text and available as a supplement for the online edition.   

You can use any interesting and complex current event or social issue for this type of exercise.  Copy interesting shows or news specials from TV and use them for this exercise.  Topics that have been good for class discussion include elections, health issues such as smoking, welfare, violence in the schools, and cults such as Heaven’s Gate. If they are complex and controversial, you will get a variety of opinions and the discussion will be interesting.  This exercise works well if students respect each other’s point of view.  If it becomes a debate, students can get sidetracked and have difficulty going through the critical thinking process.   

Critical Thinking Exercise: Assisted Suicide

A critical thinking exercise on the controversial topic of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is available as a supplemental exercise.  See theCritical Thinking Exercise: Assisted Suicideandthe Critical Thinking Worksheet: Assisted Suicidefor this exercise.    You can also use any current complex issue in the news.  When using these exercises with your class, emphasize that they are complex and controversial issues.  The purpose of discussing them is to practice a critical thinking process rather than to reach a solution.  Stress that there is no right answer, only reasonable views.  Ask students to respect each other’s point of view.   Try to be neutral on these issues and wait until the end of the discussion to share your reasonable view.

For the assisted suicide article, have students discuss the issue in groups and fill out the work sheet provided at the end of the chapter.  You can divide students into groups and ask each group to summarize a different point of view.  Write these headings on the board: the judge in the courtroom, the husband, the wife, the children (of this couple), medical doctors and a member of the clergy.  Sometimes students even want to write down the point of view of animal rights groups.  Wait until the groups have begun the discussion and ask for groups to volunteer to write the point of view for each topic written on the board.  You might suggest that certain groups take a particular topic to match their interests.  For example, if a group is talking about religious issues, assign this group to write under the religious heading.  If they are talking about the law, have them pretend to be the judge and write their answers under the legal heading.  After the different points of view are written on the board, objectively read through them with the class.  Often the group suggests additional ideas, but remind the group that we are just trying to understand the different points of view without making a judgment at this point.  After the discussion, have each student write his or her own reasonable view.  Ask for volunteers to share some of their reasonable views as a summary.  Ask students to be aware of their own particular mindset and to respect views that may be different from their own.  Save your reasonable view for last and share it with the class. 

Stress the fact that there is no right or wrong answer to these situations.  Each person will construct his or her reasonable view based on personal values and experiences.  What is important is to think through the process and look at the problem from many different perspectives. 

Critical Thinking about Your Decisions

Use the worksheet,Critical Thinking about your Decisions, to help students to apply what they have learned about critical thinking to their own decisions. 

Examples of Fallacies in Reasoning

Recognizing fallacies in reasoning is an important part of critical thinking and can help students to avoid using them or allowing someone else use them for their own purpose, power, or financial gain.  Ask students familiarize themselves with the fallacies in reasoning presented in this chapter.  Then have them look for a news editorial, magazine article, or advertisement to illustrate a fallacy in reasoning.  Students can then paste this example to a sheet of paper and identify and explain the fallacy.  These papers can be posted in the classroom or presented to the class. 

(From Carla Edwards, Instructor, Cuyamaca College, El Cajon, CA)



Play jeopardy with the fallacies in reasoning definitions and examples presented in this chapter.  Use the PowerPoint template for theJeopardy Game.  Just substitute your own questions on the slides.

Fun with Critical Thinking


Have some fun using these brainteasers to engage your students in critical thinking using the handout,Fun with Critical Thinking. (From Paul Delys, Cuyamaca College)


Moral Reasoning Exercise

Analyze this dilemma using the stages of moral reasoning:
Mr. Allen’s son was seriously injured, but he had no car to take him to the hospital.The approaches a stranger and asks to borrow the car, but the stranger refused saying that he had to go to an important appointment.Mr. Allen steals the car by force to take this son to the hospital.Was it right for Mr. Allen to steal the car?  Use the handout,  "A Moral Dilemma," to analyze this scenario and guide students through the stages of moral reasoning. 

Brainstorming with a Peanut Exercise

For this exercise, you will need to bring peanuts in their shells for each of your students and a timer.  Review the rules for brainstorming listed in the text and on theBrainstorming Exercise.  For the first half of the exercise, have the students do the brainstorming individually.  Set the timer for 3-5 minutes and challenge them to come up with 10 answers before the time is up.  The first question is, "How is this this peanut like me?"  Half way through the time, remind them that they should have at least 5 answers.  Remind the students that they can be wild and crazy and come up with unusual answers.  Challenge them to use their imagination.

At the end of the time allowed, ask them to place an asterisk (*) next to their best items.  Ask for volunteers to share their best answers.  Here are some answers that have been given in the past:

How is this peanut like me?

It is wrinkled, like me.

It is brown, like me.

It cracks under pressure.

What you see is not always what you get.

Everyone is different.

It just sits in class.
You can find both of us at ballgames.
I can make any sandwich delicious.

For the second half of the exercise, do the brainstorming as a group and have students call out as many ideas as possible in the five minutes.  Pose the question, “How is this peanut like going to college?” and ask for answers from the class as a whole.  Remind students that they can steal other’s ideas, add to them or change them around.  For a warm-up, share some of these ideas:

How is this peanut like going to college?

It’s rough.

There are 2 nuts inside; one is the teacher and the other is the student.

We’re all nuts to a degree.
Some professors are nuts.

We both went to _________’s class today.

College drives me nuts. 
A bag of peanuts is like a room full of students, all different shapes and sizes and not anyone is the same.
The college professor is the peanut farmer and the student is the peanut.  A good farmer makes for good peanuts.
Sometimes a class is not all it's cracked up to be.

You have to pay for peanuts, just like you have to pay for college (only peanuts are way cheaper!)
The instructor is the farmer and the students are the peanuts.
The first step in cracking a peanut is cracking the shell. The first step in college success is cracking a book.
A peanut can be used for many things such as peanut butter or peanut oil. College helps use to develop our skills to prepare for a variety of careers.

After the brainstorming exercise, go over the other ways to cultivate creativity:

Serendipity                            Relaxed attention

Idea Files                               Visualization

Journal                                    Critical Thinking


Brainstorming: How to Graduate from College

Have students brainstorm the answer to this question, "What are all the things that could interfere with graduating from college?"  Then have students choose one item from the list and generate as many solutions for this problem as possible.  This is a good creativity exercise as well as getting students to apply creative problem solving to their own lives.   

Creative Visualization with a Light Bulb Exercise

Bring an ordinary light bulb to class.  Hold the light bulb in your hand so that everyone can see it.  Ask students to close their eyes and see if they can still visualize the light bulb in their minds.  Ask students to raise their hands if they can see the light bulb in their imagination.  Then ask them to visualize the following:

Turn the light bulb on.

Turn it off.

Turn the light on.

Change the color to blue.

Change the color to yellow.

Change the color to green.

Change the color to orange.

Make the light bulb bigger.

Change the light bulb into a television screen.

See your favorite program on the screen.

Change the channel.

Turn the television off.

See another light bulb.

Turn it into a flashlight.

Shine the flashlight on a dog.

Make the dog bigger.

Turn the dog into a cat.

Hear the cat meow.

Turn the cat into a bird.

Put a light bulb in each hand.

Pretend that your light bulbs are jet engines and run down the street for a take-off.

Zoom off into the air.

Circle over your house.

Circle over your city.

Zoom away and look at the mountains.

Zoom back to your house.

Throw the light bulbs away and open your parachute.

Float down into your back yard and tell someone that you are home.

I’ll bet that you never thought that you could make a jet plane out of a light bulb!

You can if you use your imagination.

The above exercise was adapted from Robert F. Eberle, “Developing Imagination Through Scamper” printed in Sidney J. Parnes, Ruth B. Noller and Angelo Biondi,Guide to Creative Action, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977). 

The Tomatoes Exercise

Bring two tomatoes to class.  Hold up the tomatoes and ask the students to come up with as many different words or proper nouns as possible using only the letters in the word “tomatoes.”  After five minutes, write the numbers 10-20 on the board.  Ask how many students came up with 20 words or more.  Tally the result.  Then list the number of people who were able to write 19 words and so on down the list to 10 words.

Then ask students to join together with three other students.  Using the word, “tomatoes,” see how many words the group can come up with in 5 minutes.  Again tally the results. Usually the groups are able to come up with many more ideas than individuals.  You can make this exercise more interesting by offering a prize to the group that comes up with the most words.  When the exercise is complete, discuss the idea of synergy.  When two or more people work together and share ideas, the result is greater than any one person could produce. 

For Online Classes

Online Discussion Question

The topic for this week's discussion is critical and creative thinking.  For the critical thinking part, give an example of a fallacy in reasoning.  Here are some examples: 1. When my children were very young, I would tell them to brush their teeth in the evening.  I told them that if they did not brush their teeth, the sugar bugs would eat their teeth all night and eventually their teeth would turn green and fall out.  By predicting dire consequences, we try to influence behavior.  This is an example of using slippery slope.  Maybe some of you child development majors would have a better way of getting children to brush their teeth, but this worked for me.  Here is another example:  When my daughter was in middle school, she died her blond hair black.  I asked her why she did it and she said that she was tired of blond jokes.  She was the victim of the stereotype that all blondes are dumb. 

For the creative thinking part, read about creativity and brainstorming and have a little fun with this exercise.  Provide at least 3 answers to these questions:  1. How is a peanut like you?  Here are my answers.  1.  A peanut is wrinkled, like me.  2.  A peanut is curvy like me.  2.  I have a hard outer shell and a soft inner shell.  How is a peanut like going to college?   In every classroom there are at least 2 nuts, the instructor and at least one student.  The squares on the peanut remind me of rows of chairs in the classroom.  3.  There is usually something good on the inside. 

If you’re like the majority of college instructors, you teach critical thinking skills in your course. However, you might also be looking for some additional ideas and activities that help students build those skills.

In Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing, authors John Mauk, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk help students learn how to recognize and understand the techniques and strategies performed by skilled academic writers, and then execute and develop these techniques in their own work. The three activities below, taken from this book, can serve as writing prompts that get students thinking—and writing—critically and creatively. After students complete the writing activity, you could also use these questions as the starting point for classroom discussions, which could further encourage students to employ their critical thinking skills as they articulate their ideas and respond to their classmates’ work.

Evaluating and using various sources

Think about the present condition or state of a particular practice like Facebooking or a public trend like voting among college students. Do some online research on your topic and find out what others are saying about it. Try to find the thoughts of both average people and scholars in the most relevant discipline (communications or culture studies). In an essay, describe the trend [by using the following steps]: apply a supportive source, draw from a vital source, and synthesize. Develop a thesis about your topic that takes various viewpoints into account. Keep going back to your sources, letting them inform each new idea you develop. Search for insights in your sources and apply them, in the form of summary, quotation, or paraphrase, as you develop your points. (Cite sources according to the documentation style your instructor specifies.) (Mauk et al., 68-69)


Applying concepts

Living in a society means adopting, and probably wrestling with, some basic concepts, such as freedom, responsibility, patriotism, justice, nature, childhood, adulthood, and terrorism, and more specific concepts, such as religious freedom, free market capitalism, corporate responsibility, and social justice. Consider one of these concepts and discuss how it influences your thinking or daily life. (74)


Understanding arguments

Architecture on college campuses makes claims. The structures and geography indirectly assert ideas about learning, education, enlightenment, freedom, and so on. The paved roads winding their way through a commuter campus might say, “Thanks for coming. See you next time.” The immense stone columns on a library might say something about the immensity of an intellectual tradition. Or the flashing lights of a student union might assert something about an institution’s timeliness or trendiness. In a small group, consider a piece of architecture (a statue or building) on your campus. Closely inspect the details and find a pattern that suggests an argument. Do the details add up to some point about education, freedom, learning, hardship? Also consider the context. What is the relationship between the subject and the surroundings? Do they complement one another or oppose one another? Try to express that argument in writing. (106-107)


What activities and strategies do you use to help students develop their writing and critical thinking skills? Share them in the comments.


Reference: Mauk, John, Jayme Stayer, and Karen Mauk. 2014. Think About It: Critical Skills for Academic Writing Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

© 2014 Cengage Learning.


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