Developing Critical Thinking in Doctoral Students: Issues and Solutions

Developing Critical Thinking in Doctoral Students: Issues and Solutions

Peter Smith (University of Sunderland, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch015
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The PhD is the highest level of academic qualification, and is by its very nature an exercise in the development of critical thinking. This chapter discusses what it means to study for a PhD and the problems that students have with developing skills of criticality. The author discusses his own experiences of supervising over 50 doctoral students and relates this to the relevant literature. The role that the supervisor, research training, the thesis, dissemination and the viva can play in developing critical thinking are discussed. The power of specific techniques including reflection, action research and action learning are also explored. The chapter presents areas worthy of future study and concludes by presenting an agenda which PhD students and their supervisors might follow.
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It is generally accepted (van den Brink-Budgen, 2006) that the basis of critical thinking is the argument, and the reasoning behind that argument. Similarly, a doctorate is also about a thesis, which is itself; a reasoned argument. Doctoral study is all about researching to find the evidence to back up the reasoning behind the thesis, or the argument. Facione (1998) proposes that there are six core critical thinking skills: interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and self-regulation. All of these skills are evident within doctoral studies. However, on reflection, the author realises that critical thinking is also one of the most difficult skills to develop, or teach, and one of the things that students find most challenging about their doctoral studies.

Much has been written about critical thinking, and the need to develop this in students (Beyers, 1995; Paul, 1995; Terenzini et al, 1995). Surprisingly, however given the nature of the doctorate, little has been written about the development of critical thinking in doctoral students. King et al (1990) discuss the issue of assessing critical thinking in graduate students, noting that there is little agreement as to what constitutes critical thinking. Onwuegbuzie (2001) compared critical thinking skills in Master's and doctoral students and concluded that, as might be expected, the doctoral students exhibited considerably greater criticality than the Master's students. Zipp and Olson (2011) discuss the role of mentors in promoting critical thinking in doctoral students and conclude that ‘good mentors lead students on a journey that forever changes the ways in which they think and act’.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Thesis: An academic document which a higher degree student produces to report on their project. This is the normal means of assessment for the degree of PhD.

Reflection: The action of thinking and analysing one’s actions in order to learn for the future.

Viva: An oral examination of a higher degree (e.g. a PhD).

Action Research: A research approach which involves iterations of practical action, followed by reflection.

Doctorate: A higher degree obtained by research.

Professional Doctorate: A practice-based research degree.

Supervisor: A member of academic staff supporting a higher degree student.

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