Critical Thinking@Olin

Critical Thinking

Welcome to the Critical Thinking@Olin portal, a website dedicated to helping educators advance students’ critical thinking. The purpose of the portal is to provide educators like you with the tools they need to enhance their teaching of critical thinking. On this portal you will find course syllabi, publications, cases, and tips and tricks to successfully advance your own students' critical thinking. The content on this website is available either free or at low-cost to academic institutions. And, the content is continuously updated as new cases are developed, new approaches tried out, and new class modules developed. And, if you are looking for something specific, can’t find something you are looking for, or have a question, please email us at CriticalThinking@Olin.wustl.edu and we will do our best to provide you with a useful response.

In 2011, Olin Business School received the MBA Roundtable’s inaugural Innovator’s Award for its initiative Critical Thinking@Olin. The initiative was featured in the 2011 AACSB symposium entitled "Redesigning the MBA: A Curriculum Development Symposium" and discussed in "Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads" by Datar, Garvin, and Cullen. Presently, AACSB offers a course on Critical Thinking as part of its curriculum development series that features Critical Thinking@Olin.

The foundation of the Critical Thinking@Olin initiative is its content. While standard approaches to critical thinking conceptualize it in terms of logic and overcoming logical fallacies, Olin’s approach offers a different conceptualization—overcoming biases and impediments especially with respect to problem formulation. Indeed, a primary objective of the initiative is to help students formulate problems comprehensively without jumping to a solution—a common source of many biases and thinking impediments. To do so, the initiative inculcates in students a set of informal and formal processes for inquiry, eight elements of thought to enhance completeness of thinking, a set of intellectual standards with which to evaluate thinking, and a disposition of student responsibility, assessment, and reflection to accelerate the development of their critical thinking.

Critical thinking content is organized around two objectives. The first objective is to improve an individual’s critical thinking ability. The central elements for improving an individual’s critical thinking and problem formulation is called Individual Inquiry and is described below. The second objective focuses on improving a team’s critical thinking. The central process for improving a team’s critical thinking and problem formulation is called Collaborative Structured Inquiry.

Individual Inquiry

Individual Inquiry Process

Process. While Critical Thinking@Olin introduces a variety of thinking processes to students, the primary process—called Individual Inquiry (I2)—is depicted in the diagram to the right. Through case studies, written assignments, and classroom conversations, students develop the capability to launch an inquiry and engage in divergent thinking to expand the range of alternative problem formulations. While doing so they are cautioned and trained to forestall committing to and even mentioning a solution. With an expansive set of alternative formulations, students then engage in choosing which formulation or set of formulations is relevant to solve, making appropriate assumptions to support the narrowing of the problem’s formulation.

With the formulation chosen, they again engage in divergent thinking by identifying and exploring alternative solution methods. With methods identified, they evaluate methods and investigate alternative solutions, ultimately converging to a decision. Another important part of Critical Thinking@Olin is to engage in reflection after making a decision. Reflection reviews the process by which a decision was made, seeks out potential biases and responds to them, and causes students to identify and understand long-run consequences with the goal of mitigating downside risk while capturing upside benefits.

Elements. Critical Thinking@Olin introduces eight elements of thinking using an acronym "pickaxe" (spelled PPPICACC), which are used to enhance the I2 process. Using the first letter of each element to form an acronym, PPPICACC stands for Points of view, Purposes, Problem, Information, Concepts, Assumptions, Conclusions, and Consequences. Students enhance their I2 process by exploring how each one of these elements contribute to generating more comprehensive problem formulations as well as arriving at valuable solutions to challenging problems. Each element represents a set of questions and probes that students then can utilize to help them comprehensively formulate problems without jumping to solutions.

Standards. While processes that rely on the eight elements can enhance critical thinking ability, they are not sufficient to do so without standards against which thinking can be assessed and the disposition not only to take responsibility for their thinking but also to engage in assessments and reflections that advance the capabilities. To help make the standards more readily applicable they are presented in four categories: Clarity and precision; Accuracy and logic; Relevance, depth, breadth, and significance; and Evenhandedness and ethicality. Combining the first letter of each category forms the acronym CARE. Whereas students are encouraged to apply "pickaxe" to difficult problems they are advised to attend to the intellectual standards if they "care" about their thinking. As described below, the intellectual standards are used in processes of assessment so that students can accelerate advancing their critical thinking ability.

Disposition. Advancing critical thinking depends fundamentally on the students’ disposition to take full responsibility for learning through reflection and assessment. The initiative asserts that critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-motivated, and self-corrected thinking. Reflection involves three steps: developing an accurate account of what happened; taking full responsibility for thinking, words, and actions; and identifying what could have been done better and how they could have figured it out beforehand. A variety of techniques are offered to help students advance their reflection skills. Assessment offers a range of methods for evaluation; yet, Critical Thinking@Olin places special emphasis on exploiting peer and self-assessments as a primary means to engage students in reflection and to accelerate improvement of their thinking abilities.

Collaborative Structured Inquiry

When confronting complex problems, critical thinking often must be accomplished through teams of individual with diverse information, knowledge, and motivation. Such diverse teams often skip over problem formulation and jump to a solution. Collaborative Structured Inquiry (CSI) offers a specific approach for helping teams to comprehensively formulate their difficult problems.

"Are you solving the right strategic problem" is a publication found on this portal that provides, in layman’s language, a specific process to help groups overcome thinking traps and comprehensively formulate their challenges.

Thank you for visiting Critical Thinking@Olin. Please let us know how we can help you advance critical thinking at your school!

Best wishes,

Dean Mahendra Gupta