APR Update: Facilitating Students' Critical Thinking

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network

Many readers may be familiar with Stephen D. Brookfield, author of the book, The Skillful Teacher. His latest book, Teaching for Critical Thinking, was recently the focus of a small discussion group on my campus. Participants from various disciplines came together to reacquaint themselves with the concept of critical thinking and to brainstorm ideas about how they could stretch their students to engage in more and better forms of critical thinking within their academic and personal lives. After reading, meeting, and sharing on four different occasions, everyone was excited to put new teaching strategies into action. Unanimously, they said they would recommend the book to colleagues. If the summer months allow you more time to read, consider this book. To provide further enticement, I share a few highlights below.

After a brief departure, I have returned to writing a column for this newsletter that focuses on one of the CFLE Content Areas. This time, it is the fifth content area, Interpersonal Relationships. As a refresher, the Handbook for Academic Program Review Application states the following with regard to this content area:


Content: An understanding of the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships.

e.g., Research and theories related to: Self and Others; Communication Skills (listening, empathy, self-disclosure, decision making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution); Intimacy, Love, Romance; Relating to Others with Respect, Sincerity, & Responsibility.

Practice—A CFLE is prepared to:
a) Recognize the impact of personality & communication styles

b) Recognize the developmental stages of relationships

c) Analyze interpersonal relationships using various theoretical perspectives

d) Develop & implement relationship enhancement & enrichment strategies

e) Develop & implement effective communication, problem solving, & conflict management strategies

f) Communicate aspects of relationships within the context of their developmental stages

As has been mentioned in previous newsletter columns, one purpose of these curriculum guidelines is to provide a foundation for faculty as they design or redesign a course to fulfill this content area. According to D.L. Fink, course design processes involve formulating course objectives and student learning outcomes; identifying the nature and scope of crucial content; determining the best ways to deliver instruction and at what pace; selecting reading and other resource materials; developing meaningful learning activities for students; and devising various methods and tools for measuring students' mastery of relevant knowledge and skills (2003). A syllabus is a document of primary importance for a course in that it outlines all of the design features the instructor has carefully chosen.

When academic programs are under review for first-time CFLE APR approval or subsequent renewal of approved status, reviewers and/or I pay considerable attention to each syllabus that is submitted. We assess the degree to which one element of course design is consistent with other elements. For example, we first want to see that course objectives or student learning outcomes match the level of course (e.g., introductory undergraduate/100-level; upper undergraduate/300 or 400-level; or graduate level) with regard to cognitive rigor. Next, we want to see that the level of cognitive rigor matches the reading material and learning activities the students are to undertake, as well as the methods of measuring student mastery of pertinent knowledge and skills. Upper and graduate level courses, instructors should be expecting students to engage in and demonstrate critical thinking.

So, exactly what is critical thinking? Brookfield provides this answer: "Critical thinking happens first when we try to discover the assumptions that influence the way we think and act…When we become aware of the assumptions that are guiding our actions and ways of thinking, we begin to check out whether those assumptions are as accurate as we think they are…Key to this process is identifying and assessing what we regard as convincing evidence for our assumptions…One of the best ways to decide whether or not an assumption is accurate--or under what conditions it does or doesn't make sense--is to try and see our assumptions and actions from multiple, and different, points of view…The main reason we need to think critically is so we can take informed action…action that is based on thought and analysis, which means there is some evidence we take seriously as supporting such an action" (pp. 12-13).

If one were to put Brookfield's views of critical thinking in sync with Bloom's Revised Taxonomy of learning outcomes, then course designs that call for students to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create are promoting critical thinking. (Readers unfamiliar with the original taxonomy and/or its recent revision need only search using the key words "Bloom's Revised Taxonomy" in their favorite Internet search engine. Many informative sites, with helpful diagrams, will result.)

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy


Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from long-term memory


Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages through interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining


Carrying out or using a procedure through executing or implementing


Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose through differentiating, organizing, and attributing


Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing


Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing

Source: Anderson & Krathwohl as cited in Forehand (2005).

What might an instructor teaching a course aimed at fulfilling the expectations of Content Area V have as one of several stated student learning outcomes? Perhaps, "upon the completion of this course, the student will be able to analyze interpersonal relationships using various theoretical perspectives." Further, besides reading current, scholarly materials and providing supplemental lecture and illustration related to theoretical perspectives on interpersonal relationships, what kinds of analysis-based learning activities might the same instructor arrange for students to carry out? Here's a possibility inspired by Brookfield.

Provide students with an interpersonal relationship case study. Ask each student to, individually, analyze the dynamics of the relationship using a particular noteworthy theoretical perspective. Students are to be ready to share aspects of their analysis during class discussion time. During such time for discussion, employ Brookfield's "Circle of Voices" strategy (see insert) and, once concluded, join the students in debriefing the activity, both with regard to the protocol for the activity, as well as to any new insights about the theoretical perspective that surfaced for them during the discussion.

The Circle of Voices
Participants form into a circle of about 5. They are allowed up to three minutes of silent time to organize their thoughts. During this time, they think about what they want to say on the topic once the circle of voices begins. After this silent period, the discussion opens with each person having a period of uninterrupted air time. During the time each person is speaking, no one else is allowed to interrupt. People can take their turn to speak by going round the circle in order or volunteering at random. Although the latter arrangement sounds the most relaxed and informal, the opposite is often the case. The order of the circle removes from participants the stress of having to decide whether or not they will try and jump in after another student has finished speaking. Not having to decide this is one less thing to worry about. An important benefit of using the circle of voices at the start of a discussion is that it prevents the development early on of a pecking order of contributors. Introverted, shy members, those whose experience has taught them to mistrust academe, or those who view discussion as another thinly veiled opportunity for teachers to oppress or offend, will often stay silent at the beginning of a course. The longer this silence endures, the harder it is for these individuals to speak out. By way of contrast, in the circle of voices, everyone's voice is heard at least once at the start of the session.

After the circle of voices has been completed, and everyone has had the chance to say their piece, then the discussion opens out into a freer flowing format. As this happens, a second ground rule comes into effect. Participants are only allowed to talk about another person's ideas that have already been shared in the circle of voices. A person cannot jump into the conversation by expanding on his/her own ideas, s/he can only talk about his/her reactions to what someone else has said. The only exception to this ground rule is if someone else asks him/her directly to expand on his/her ideas. This simple ground rule prevents the tendency toward 'grandstanding' that sometimes afflicts a few articulate, confident individuals.

To recap the ground rules: Begin by going round the circle with each person contributing & no interruptions allowed. After this, move into open discussion, but remember contributions can only be about, or refer back to, something one of the other group members said in the opening circle. (pp. 183-184)

Brookfield's book is chock full of other tools and techniques that might catch your attention and that of your students. He holds the John Ireland Endowed Chair position at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis. From his website, one can access workshop material that focus on developing critical thinkers, as well as a video of a guest lecture he gave at DePaul University in 2012 on the topic of creative and critical thinking. Surely, among all of these offerings, educators will find at least one or two good ideas to implement in their courses.

Academic Program Review Related Sessions at the NCFR Conference in San Antonio

There will be several sessions specifically related to the Academic Program Review process at the NCFR Annual Conference in San Antonio. If you work at a CFLE-approved program or are interested in getting your program approved, plan to attend these sessions. Members of the APR Committee and I will be on hand to answer any questions you have.

Academic Program Review Networking - Thursday, November 7. 12:00 €“ 1:15 pm

Representatives of NCFR Approved Programs are encouraged to come for a time of networking. You can ask questions about maintaining Academic Program approval, the Abbreviated Application process for students including course substitutions, and more. Brainstorm ways to promote the field of family life education and recruit students for your program.

Academic Program Review Question & Answer - Friday, November 8. 8:30 €“ 9:45 am

Are you considering applying for academic program approval? This roundtable will provide a place for program representatives to ask questions about the Academic Program Review process and receive guidance on making an application for NCFR program approval.

How to Become a Certified Family Life Educator €“ Friday, November 8. 12:45 €“ 2:15

NCFR Staff Dawn Cassidy and Maureen Bourgeois will share the benefits of certification and explain the Abbreviated Application process as well as what is involved in qualifying for and completing the CFLE Exam. If you represent a CFLE-approved program and work with students who might be interested in applying for CFLE, this session can provide you with the information you need to assist them.


Brookfield, S.D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, D. L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Forehand, M. (2005). Bloom's taxonomy: Original and revised. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from the University of Georgia website.