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Module Enhancement
Critical Thinking in the University Curriculum
Critical Thinking
Project: How do we find what we’re looking for? Critical thinking in the university curriculum
Project Team: Martin McNamara, Aoife Ahern, Gerry MacRuairc & Tom O'Connor
Collaborator(s): N/A


Strategic Innovation Fund II


January to September 2010
Critical Thinking

There is considerable interest in the generic attributes of graduates, particularly critical thinking, and considerable discussion about the precise meaning of the term. There has, however, been relatively little investigation into the relationship between disciplines or subject areas and the concept of critical thinking and how it is realised and recognised through curriculum and pedagogy. 
In order to avoid decontextualising a generic attribute such as critical thinking, it is important that it is understood within specific disciplinary or subject contexts, that academics have a shared understanding of the concept and of the teaching and learning strategies that support its acquisition. It is also important that students understand what is expected of them in relation to graduate attributes such as critical thinking and that assessment strategies are designed to determine the degree to which it has been acquired.  

Critical Thinking

The aim of the study is to:

  • Explore the understandings and realisation of critical thinking in the university curriculum
    The objectives of the study are to:
  • Elicit and explore academics’ understanding of critical thinking as a generic graduate attribute;
  • Elicit and explore academics’ understandings of critical thinking within the context of their discipline or subject area;
  • Examine how academics’ understandings of critical thinking are realised in curriculum design and assessment.
Critical Thinking

The study is a multi-method qualitative study, involving in-depth, semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis.  Access to all participants and documentary materials will be negotiated first through Heads of School and then their nominees.  Up to 3 academics from each of 10-15 UCD Schools, representing a range of disciplines or subject areas, will be interviewed in order to uncover their understandings of critical thinking as both a generic and a discipline- or subject-specific attribute.

Selected module descriptors and their associated assessment tasks will be analysed in order to ascertain whether and to what extent critical thinking is made explicit as a learning outcome.

Students’ assessed work for modules in which critical thinking is a key learning outcome will be analysed for evidence of how critical thinking is realised by students and recognised by assessors.

Interview data will be transcribed and directly imported into a computer assisted qualitative data analysis package (NVivo 8). Thematic content analysis (Attride-Stirling 2001), informed by the theoretical framework (Bernstein 2000, Maton 2000, Young 2008) will permit  analysis and interpretation of participants’ responses.

For the documentary analysis both the content and context of data will be examined, and framing of the documentary evidence within both the responses of participants and the theoretical framework will aid interpretation.

Critical Thinking

Final findings will be available in September 2010.  See preliminary findings below:

The fellows delivered a presentation on the first phase of the project on Critical Thinking in the University Curriculum at a Teaching and Learning morning on 14th May 2010.

Critical Thinking
Next Steps:

The next steps will follow from analysis of the findings.