Auburn University Logo

Office of University Writing

Office of The Provost


Office of University Writing

Office of The Provost

Thinking Critically, Like a Professional

Critical thinking. We all want students to do it, and we’ve all felt the disappointment when students parrot back what they’ve read or heard in our classes without demonstrating any independent thought. We know critical thinking is important, we know professionals need this skill and so our students need this skill, but how exactly do we TEACH it? In this month’s feature we turn to the discipline of Nursing to learn how Professor Libba McMillan uses writing assignments to help students practice the critical thinking skills they’ll need as nurses.

I’m not a nurse, but what I’ve learned from Dr. McMillan and the other nursing faculty I work with is that nursing requires a systematic process of Assessment, Diagnosis, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation. Reinforcing these steps and connecting them to the assignment helps students understand why they are being asked to write and gives them practice in using these steps to think more deeply about the content they are learning and the processes they are using. In Dr. McMillan’s assignment, students are asked to create an annotated bibliography and then write a review of literature using these familiar steps. They Assess the evidence-based sources, Diagnose by sorting and clustering the information into a precise statement of the problem, Plan as they establish and practice the APA format standards, Implement their ideas by communicating in a final document intended for a professional audience, and Evaluate as they work with peers to review their documents and make revisions. As Professor McMillan explains, using these steps helps students understand that the assignment uses writing to help them learn the thinking they’ll need to do as nurses – and being nurses, not being writers, is what McMillan’s students want to be. Perhaps other disciplines have a similar set of steps that students need to internalize in order to become practicing professionals. If your discipline teaches such a process, we’d love to hear about it and learn how you’re using this process to help students with critical thinking and writing.

We’ve now heard from professors in multiple disciplines who are using the professional genres, tools, or strategies their students will encounter once they graduate to make their assignments more realistic and engaging. (See the posts on adapting professional tools, budding professionals, learning by teaching others, engaging writing assignments, writing for synthesis, and assignments that outlast the course). What all these examples have in common is that they ask students to USE the information they’ve been learning to DO something rather than simply parrot back what they’ve learned. None of them are fill-in-the blank or multiple choice and students can’t complete the assignment in autopilot mode; they have to THINK. In other words, each of these assignments prompt students to move to the more complex thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and application and they almost always require some level of creativity and individual ownership as student authors make decisions about how to complete the assignment (see: Bloom’s Taxonomy).

What’s your approach to teaching students critical thinking?

Do you have an assignment, tool, or strategy to share with others? Contact us at

Learn more about teaching students to think critically:


Want to share this post? Yes you do.