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Research & Teaching

Overcoming Obstacles and Finding Support for Teaching Critical Thinking in STEM

Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2023 (Volume 52, Issue 5)

By Christa Evangelisto

This qualitative research study aimed to discover what obstacles and supports community college teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) face when teaching critical-thinking skills in their courses. The research was conducted using a basic qualitative research design that employed interviews to learn about the experiences of community college teachers currently teaching in STEM disciplines. Participants were asked to describe what obstacles they faced when attempting to plan and conduct critical-thinking education in their courses and what support they had for teaching these skills. Interview transcripts were analyzed using a constant comparative method to determine common themes. Findings of the study included the following obstacles: underprepared students, students’ poor dispositions, teachers’ limited time and effort, limited training of teachers, and the need to prepare students for future courses and assessments that are not based on critical thinking. Support for teachers was split into negative and positive aspects, with peer group support and resources from professional organizations reported as positive aspects and administrative requirements and isolation reported as negative aspects. The negative responses were reported by adjunct faculty more often than by full-time faculty.


There are multiple definitions of critical thinking in the research literature, but the most encompassing definition is included in “The Delphi Report “(Facione, 1990, p. 3):

We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. … [Critical thinking] is essential as a tool of inquiry.

The goal of critical-thinking education is to help learners think more effectively when they take their place in society. The research literature on critical thinking indicates which educational techniques work for teaching critical-thinking skills (Heft & Scharff, 2017). However, the acquisition of critical-thinking skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses is deficient (Jang, 2016). The goal of this study was to find out what obstacles exist for community college teachers who attempt to teach critical thinking in their STEM courses.

One of the major problems with teaching critical thinking in community college STEM courses is that teachers are not prepared with pedagogical knowledge, yet they have the perception that they know how to teach critical thinking (Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019). If teachers are to provide students with guidance in learning the skills required in today’s classrooms, then offering professional development for teachers should be the focus of education reform (Okogbaa, 2017). Critical thinking has been identified as an essential skill for STEM students (Rayner & Papakonstantinou, 2018; Shim & Walczak, 2012). Cruz et al. (2019) studied the effects of targeted professional development for teaching critical thinking specifically in the form of a course for university teachers. Teachers in Cruz et al.’s study reported that having a greater understanding of critical-thinking education allowed them to design and implement critical-thinking education in their courses. According to Okogbaa (2017, p. 84), “The central task of teaching is enabling learners with different experiences, learning styles, and starting points to acquire common, high-level knowledge and skills.” Teachers cannot achieve the goal of educating students in the high-level knowledge and skills of critical thinking if they do not understand what the knowledge and skills are and how best to teach them.

Janssen et al. (2019) found that teachers’ willingness to teach critical thinking to their students was related to the teachers’ perceptions and dispositions. Teachers who had a stronger critical-thinking disposition—defined as a stronger desire and willingness to think critically and an appreciation for critical-thinking skills—scored higher on the cognitive reflection test, a validated test that measures critical-thinking skills. Therefore, the teachers who had strong critical-thinking skills themselves tended to be more willing to teach critical thinking to their students. Providing professional development to teachers can increase not only teachers’ knowledge and skills but also their willingness to implement critical-thinking education (Cruz et al., 2019; Janssen et al., 2019).

One way to strengthen critical-thinking skills and dispositions is to engage students in their education. Lancaster and Lundberg (2019) stated that engagement in the college experience is important to student success. Community college students often have so many other commitments that they do not engage outside the classroom, so Lancaster and Lundberg recommended that engagement needs to happen in classrooms. Unfortunately, most community college teachers are hired for their subject-matter expertise but have no understanding of pedagogy (Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019). Community college teachers typically do not know how to engage their students, so they teach based on their own collegiate experience and on assumptions (Jitka et al., 2018; Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019). Lancaster and Lundberg’s findings support the idea that professional development benefits teachers by increasing their education experience, which enhances their ability to engage students.

This study was conducted to determine if the obstacle of professional development described in the literature was the only one teachers faced when they attempted to teach critical thinking in their STEM courses, as well as how they attempted to overcome this and other obstacles. The study focused on the following research question: What obstacles have community college instructors encountered when teaching and assessing critical-thinking skills in their STEM courses, and how have they attempted to overcome the obstacles? The study also addressed this subquestion: What supports do community college STEM instructors have available to help them overcome obstacles?


The research questions were answered by conducting interviews with community college teachers in STEM disciplines, then using a constant-comparison method to code resultant transcripts and determine common themes. Protection for participants and reflection on the biases of the researcher were considered in several steps of the research process.

The sampling of participants for this study was a one-point-in-time sample, as described by Patton (2015). Each interview consisted of only one contact with the participant, with all data collection conducted during that visit. The sample is a purposeful sample done in the snowball or network method (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). The initial participants were identified via contact with administrators at colleges and professional organizations. Recommendations for contacts were given by a vice president at a community college and included administrators at other colleges, industry leaders, and leading figures in critical-thinking programs across the state. The individuals recommended were contacted, and they gave references for other administrators or possible participants from various community colleges in the state. Recommended faculty were then contacted directly via the published contact information on their school websites and asked if they would be willing to participate with an Institutional Review Board–approved recruitment email. Additional participants were contacted based on recommendations from the initial participants.

Due to the underrepresentation of women and students from minority backgrounds in STEM fields, a purposive sample that included a balance of participants from minority groups was attempted though unsuccessful (Creswell & Poth, 2018). The sample was not more inclusive than the population. Inclusion criteria included only current faculty who taught at the community college level in one or more of the STEM disciplines. The sample consisted of 10 community college instructors from various regions in one state and included all of the STEM disciplines. The participant demographics were as follows: 60% male and 40% female; 80% White and 20% Hispanic; a range of experience levels, from 2 years of teaching to 29 years of teaching; and both adjunct and full-time instructors.

Discussion of results

Obstacles to teaching critical thinking that were reported ranged from challenges related to teacher work requirements, student habits, and what is expected of students in the future (see Table 1). One problem that the teachers mentioned repeatedly is that students often are not prepared for the effort and time that critical thinking requires. Participant 9 (P9) described the education system through secondary education as a “checkbox system” and said, “The student comes in, they want to know what the checks are that they have to do. They go down their list. They don’t want to think; they want to copy from A to B, get it done, and move on with their life.” P1 stated that the issue stemmed from how students are taught and assessed in high school, and students come to college thinking, “Oh, I was successful in high school. Now I go to college. I just have to repeat the same thing I’ve done before,” but the methods used in high school do not always work in college.

Teachers also stated that students need to be prepared for future assessments and courses that do not require critical-thinking skills, and providing this preparation limits the teachers’ ability to teach critical-thinking skills because of the need to prepare students for those non–critical thinking formats. Participant teachers in this study described attempts to overcome these obstacles as remediating students by teaching them basic reading, writing, and math, then applying a balance of critical-thinking education with traditional fact-based education in an attempt to achieve both goals of increased critical-thinking skills and preparation for the future. The need to prepare students for future classes and assessments is an obstacle to teaching critical-thinking skills, according to three of the 10 participants because the tests students will need to pass to enter programs are fact-based, multiple-choice tests.

P1 described how the lawmakers and decision-makers in education in the United States recommend several of the techniques that are useful for critical thinking, but they expect students to be able to prove their knowledge using assessments that do not match the learning. P1 stated, “You can talk about critical thinking and flipped classroom and formative assessment all you want, but if at the top to get degrees we still have to do things that way, we cannot change it. Because then our students are not prepared for the way they [others] judge.” Participants did not offer suggestions for how to overcome the acute lack of time and the enormous effort needed to design and implement education around critical-thinking skills in STEM courses.

Information was also gathered in interviews with participants about how community college STEM teachers are supported in their efforts to teach critical thinking in their courses (see Table 2). The data on support fall under the umbrella of obstacles because the data relate to teachers’ capacity to overcome the obstacles. When asked about the support they receive, four teacher participants reported obstacles of administrative requirements such as specific textbook use and software program use. P5 described their frustration with being required to use a particular textbook that did not promote critical thinking and their students’ subsequent frustration when critical-thinking activities were added to the course. P5 stated, “My students got really frustrated because they felt like I was taking time away from them learning the stuff they needed to know.”

Feelings of isolation, a lack of professional development, pay, and government regulations were also mentioned as obstacles to effective critical-thinking education. The obstacles mentioned indicate areas in which support was lacking. Seven of the 10 participants described receiving support from peer connections, especially from other teachers of similar subjects. P7 described this process as such: “I have colleagues that are also really good teachers, and so I will bounce things back and forth with them, so we help each other out.” Adjunct teachers were less likely to have these support groups and reported feeling isolated and not supported due to the lack of community and opportunities for professional development. P7 stated, “I always joke with my family that literally nobody has a clue what I’m doing. Nobody pays attention to you unless someone starts complaining.” P9 said, “No one knows what I do; I could be a serial killer and no one would know.” The lack of professional development and peer support may be primary contributors to the reported obstacle of teachers not having the time or putting forth the effort to design and implement critical-thinking education. Without the support and help of their peers and professional organizations, teachers found the requirements much more intimidating.

Obstacles discovered and included in the findings of this study aligned with and confirm those obstacles described in the literature. The obstacles of the lack of professional development (Jitka et al., 2018; Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019; Okogbaa, 2017) and the time and effort required for teaching critical thinking (Ramnarain, 2014; Schuetz, 2002) were mentioned several times in the literature and revealed in the findings of this study. Researchers have suggested offering additional professional development as one solution to that obstacle (Bray et al., 2019; Cruz et al., 2019), but this solution was not suggested by participants in the interviews. The reason participants did not suggest professional development for themselves was clearly articulated by P2, who said, “I have learned that there’s a lot that I don’t even know that I need to know.” P9 stated, “I know that I literally know that I don’t know all the questions to ask.” Although P2 and P9 recognized their lack of knowledge, they did not suggest professional development as the solution. Some teachers are not as self-aware as these two participants, and the suggestion of professional development might not occur to them. As P9 also stated, teachers may not know what or whom to ask with regard to professional development. Previous literature discussing obstacles to teaching critical thinking has also included reports of students with poor critical-thinking dispositions (Tsang & Harris, 2016). This obstacle was reported in this study’s findings as well.

Findings in this study can be attributed somewhat to the level at which the teachers interviewed are employed. Community college teachers in the area sampled for this study are (i) not required to have any pedagogical training, (ii) dealing with students who have recently finished secondary education or are returning to school after a period away, and (iii) preparing students for future steps in education or training. Multiple previous studies include suggestions for increased professional development (Bray et al., 2019; Cruz et al., 2019; Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019; Lucietto et al., 2018; McDonald, 2016; Okogbaa, 2017) and are supported by studies that establish an increase in the self-efficacy of teachers and the effectiveness of teaching practice as a direct result of professional development (Janssen, 2019; Jitka et al., 2018; Soini et al., 2016). The fact that community college teachers often are not taught how to teach can be rectified with professional development in this area. Teachers who have high self-efficacy beliefs in their ability to teach will also be more willing to put forth the effort required to design effective critical-thinking education (Janssen et al., 2019). Professional organization support and peer support were suggested as ways to help teachers improve practice, and the literature includes similar recommendations with suggestions of mentoring (Nelson et al., 2018).


A major implication of this study is the need for professional development for teachers. The findings included comments from teachers who had years of experience as well as those who were new to teaching. Some participants were adjunct teachers, and others were full-time instructors. The shared experience of the teachers who participated was that they did not have a thorough understanding of the definition of critical thinking or understand how to teach critical-thinking skills. Community college STEM teachers need to receive professional development education that is targeted at helping teachers understand how critical thinking is defined and what effective strategies are available for teaching critical-thinking skills.

A second implication of this study is that teachers need the support of their administration and their peers in their efforts to teach critical-thinking skills. Participants described discussions with other teachers to brainstorm, collaborate, and receive emotional support as they attempted new techniques. Adjuncts did not have connections at their schools to obtain the support of peers, but full-time faculty had coworkers as well as peers they had met through professional development opportunities. Adjunct teachers at community colleges frequently make up a large percentage of the faculty, and there is an opportunity to improve their teaching practices by implementing a network that includes other faculty at the institution who can function as support. Administrative support can be improved, beginning with setting up mentors and peers for faculty to work with to improve teaching techniques; this support can continue through regular communication with teachers.


One major obstacle reported by teachers was the burden of teaching basic skills along with the content of a course, then trying to add critical-thinking skills education. Many students entering community college courses have a limited background in basic skills and thinking skills. There is a need for research on critical-thinking practice in other education levels, mainly the elementary and secondary education settings, to determine what teachers at these levels are doing in their classrooms to teach critical-thinking skills.

Another obstacle described was the need to prepare students for assessments required for other programs and a course format at transfer institutions that often does not require strong critical-thinking skills. Research into medical, dental, and veterinary programs and courses at upper-level universities could provide a better understanding of how these entities use critical-thinking education to determine the level of critical thinking needed to enter professional programs. A review of the assessments used for program entry might also be in order to help administrators determine if the kind of assessment used for program entry accurately measures the critical-thinking skills required for success in the program. Skills-based assessments used for critical thinking could be a better way than the current examinations to determine readiness for program entry.

The reported lack of support through administrative support, peer interactions, and professional development also requires more research. There was an obvious disparity revealed in this study between the support and community described by full-time instructors and what was described by adjunct instructors. Further study on how much peer interaction is needed to change the perceptions of isolation and limited support of adjunct instructors, as well as a study on how that change in perception affects adjunct performance in the classroom, could provide important information.


This article discussed the obstacles to incorporating critical-thinking education in STEM at the community college level, where students may come to class underprepared and have classes in which assessments and courses do not include critical-thinking requirements. The disposition of teachers at community colleges to build and use critical-thinking education opportunities in their courses relates to the lack of support for many and the lack of education for most. The situation as described in the community college sounds ominous and difficult to remedy without a complete education system overhaul. However, a good place to start is to offer professional development in critical thinking for community college teachers and to set up support in the form of mentors and peer networks.

Systemwide reform at all levels that includes the implementation of critical-thinking skills is the ideal; if implemented, this reform could eliminate some of the obstacles reported in this study. However, as Bill Widener said, in education, it is imperative to “do what you can, with what you have, where you are” (Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, n.d.). The most significant potential impact concluded from this study is that ongoing education for practicing teachers is key to improving students’ education. Teachers at the community college level in the STEM disciplines need professional development to learn to teach critical-thinking skills, and they need the support of others to succeed.

Christa Evangelisto ( is a biology department chair in the Division of Engineering, Technology, Mathematics, and Sciences at Dallas College in Dallas, Texas.


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