Building Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Author: Carrie Ellett
Akilah Academic Director & Burundi Country Director

We often ask employers in the private sector what skills Akilah graduates need to succeed in the job market. We get the same response year after year: “We want employees with critical thinking skills who are strong in analysis and problem solving”.

Akilah prides itself on building curricula that are responsive to employer needs. Our focus on critical thinking means that students are not just absorbing lectures, but they are using the information to make decisions based on analysis, reasoning, and evidence. Their strong critical thinking skills help to deepen their understanding of complex issues and consider diverse perspectives, preparing them for the competitive job market.


Shifting students’ thinking patterns takes time, practice and patience. Akilah students participate in intensive project-based learning exercises that specifically promote critical thinking. As John Mergendoller, Executive Director of Buck Institute for Education, suggests, project-based learning must be structured to demand deliberate, reflective thought. Building critical thinking skills in the classroom requires instructors to give students feedback as they try such thinking on their own. It also requires students to question previously held beliefs and to step outside their comfort zones as they learn new things. This can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for students who previously attended schools where learning is based on memorization.

To help students overcome habitual difficulties and build the skills they need to succeed, Akilah has developed a six-part formula:

  1. Never Say ‘Can’t’ – Instructors in the Akilah classroom don’t let students get away with not trying. Students are asked to push themselves to think beyond what they already know. Instructors use positive reinforcement to encourage students to attempt answers, design solutions, and come up with new ideas.
  2. Asking Questions – Instructors push students to think differently by being strategic about the questions they ask. Our instructors are trained in the questioning techniques presented in Teach Like a Champion teacher training modules and in open-ended questioning for inquiry-based learning.
  3. Content with Context – Akilah has invested significant effort into making sure our curriculum is appropriate and relevant to the context in which students live. As students strengthen their thinking patterns, they apply their new skills to real-life situations outside the classroom.
  4. Character Development – In order for students to see beyond their own perspectives, challenge their knowledge, and strengthen their ethical decision-making, they need to understand who they are and what they value. In their first year at Akilah, students begin the process of assessing their character traits and identify areas for growth. They take an intensive course that addresses the six pillars of character from the Josephson Institute of Ethics as well as the Six C’s from the Step It Up 2 Thrive In their second and third years, students reassess their progress and identify areas for continued improvement.
  5. Inter-Department Collaboration – Instructors are highly encouraged to collaborate throughout the year on projects and even on courses. This helps students apply what they learn from multiple courses to their problem solving, which increases their capacity to transfer skills and draw connections across various topics.
  6. Instructor Professional Development – In the summers of 2013 and 2014 all staff participated in professional development training on how to teach critical thinking. In addition to these annual retreats, instructional coaches worked with faculty this fall to develop new methodologies for teaching critical thinking in the classroom.

Collectively, this unique six-part academic methodology promotes critical thinking in the classroom that prepares our students to secure internships and jobs beyond graduation. As they take their first steps into the professional world, they are equipped with the skills and awareness that will help them become leaders in the workforce.