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Developing critical thinking: student perspectives

Angus Nurse (University of Lincoln) presented interim findings from a research project looking at the teaching and learning of analytical thinking and problem solving skills among undergraduate law students.

Download Angus’ full paper (Word file, 9 pages, 120 KB) at the bottom of the page.

Previous research concluded that generic/standard teaching strategies generally do not teach critical thinking skills (see for example Bowers, 2006 and Paul R , Elder L & Bartell T, 1997). This project examines the difficulties that undergraduate law students experience in developing their analytical legal problem solving skills, testing the theory that students do not naturally develop these skills through ordinary law teaching but may require dedicated teaching or an alternative approach.

Prensky (2001) explains that as contemporary students are the first generation to have grown up surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones and other digital media they have a different learning style to previous generations. Specifically, he states that “today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV)”. Modern students may, therefore, have considerable difficulty with text based learning and the sheer volume of reading required in subjects like law, which can impact on their ability to develop adequate problem solving and analytical thinking skills.

Specific aims of the research are to:

  • increase the employability of undergraduate students by developing and increasing their ability to apply knowledge and the law to complex real world situations
  • address the needs of vulnerable and failing students by identifying the core skills needed in critical thinking and legal problem solving skills
  • develop a model for students to provide them with practical skills in applying knowledge and the law to complex situations and so far as is possible to develop and test their practical skills in critical thinking and problem solving
  • develop specific legal problem solving resources for third year undergraduates

Focus groups undertaken so far indicate that students favour the use of practical teaching and simulated learning environments (such as street law, moots and the law clinic) as mechanisms that most closely match their ‘normal’ ways of accessing and retaining information. They argued that lectures and seminars need to be interactive so they can gain practical experience develops their problem solving skills, favouring the use of practical workshops over lectures. They indicated that the method of teaching impacts on their attendance, which may be an issue for a number of institutions.


Alison Bone (University of Brighton) reports:

Angus’ research into developing critical thinking arose because a couple of years ago his students reported that they lacked such skills, even though lecturers said they were teaching them.
After a definition of critical thinking that was so complex that we understood why students couldn’t grasp it an animated discussion followed as to how different law schools dealt with critical thinking. Unsurprisingly, this was usually addressed in a legal skills module.
Angus asked his students what their issues were with answering problem questions or applying critical and analytical thinking. They replied that they needed to learn how to do it – they wanted practice and longer and in-depth seminars on techniques. They wanted to explore reasoning processes and to develop reflective practices.
This might seem a big ask – but it had become clear that the traditional one-off session present in many courses with the assumption that students were regularly practising their skills thereafter was not effective.

About Angus

Angus Nurse joined Lincoln Law School in January 2008. He was previously an Investigator for the Local Government Ombudsman as well as Legal & Data Protection Officer and Investigations Co-ordinator at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and has seven years teaching experience with the Open University, using blended learning techniques to teach undergraduate law and sociology.
Angus has interests in and experience of teaching practical legal skills dating back to 1993, having run practical training courses for charity staff, police officers and magistrates associations and contributing to a number of Law Society accredited privacy law CPD courses.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010