Higher Learning Research Communications

Digital Object Identifier



Katarzyna Peoples, 0000-0002-2579-9758

C. Todd Correa, 0009-0002-1893-5819

Gary Burkholder, 0000-0002-5084-8099


Objectives: There are essentially three schools of thought regarding critical thinking—humanistic, cognitive, and behavioral. Given the disagreement among them, confusion continues about what critical thinking means, and how it can be taught to students.

Methods: In this qualitative phenomenological study, researchers interviewed students and faculty in a distance education master of public health program about their perceptions and experiences of what critical thinking means and how it is developed in the online classroom.

Results: Themes emerging from student interviews included (a) differing thoughts on the meaning of critical thinking; (b) learning and meeting course requirements as students’ primary role; (c) technology as useful in learning; and (d) confidence in learning linked to engagement, feedback, and course alignment. Themes from faculty interviews included (a) how online classrooms promoted critical thinking; (b) critical thinking identified when students demonstrate the application of independent thought; (c) facilitating and keeping students on track as faculty’s primary role; (d) promotion of critical thinking through questioning and student collaboration; (e) assessment of critical thinking through discussion posts; and (f) faculty facilitation and focus on application as essential to student learning.

Conclusions: Students and faculty engaged in the online classroom agree in some ways that critical thinking skills are gained through practical applications. But this is where agreement ceases. Students believe they are developing critical thinking skills in their online environments, when in fact they are reproducing rote information in assignments.

Implications: Engaging in activities has been shown to develop critical thinking more effectively when it is accompanied by mentoring, dialogue, and authentic instruction. Online educators who want to help students develop their critical thinking skills can use mentoring, dialogue, and authentic instruction alongside online activities.