An Outline of Goals and Outcomes for a Critical Thinking Curriculum and Specifications for Assessment

Robert H. Ennis, University of Illinois, UC (Revised 6/20/02) 1

Critical thinking, as the term is generally used these days, roughly means reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.2 In doing such thinking, one is helped by the employment of a set of critical thinking dispositions and abilities outlined below, and which can serve as a set of comprehensive goals for a critical thinking curriculum and its assessment.

Pedagogical and psychometric usefulness, not elegance or mutual exclusiveness, is the purpose of this outline. It could be used for an overall critical thinking curriculum outline, or as a comprehensive table of specifications for critical thinking assessment. In practice, one will ordinarily select portions to emphasize.

It is only a critical thinking content outline. It does not specify grade level, curriculum sequence, emphasis, teaching approach, or type of subject-matter content involved (standard subject-matter content, general knowledge content, symbolic content, streetwise-knowledge content, special knowledge content, etc.).

Examples, qualifications, and more detail can be found in some items listed at the end.

See also information on


Ideal critical thinkers are disposed to

  1. Care that their beliefs be true3, and that their decisions be justified; that is, care to "get it right" to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Seek alternative hypotheses, explanations, conclusions, plans, sources, etc., and be open to them
    2. Endorse a position to the extent that, but only to the extent that, it is justified by the information that is available
    3. Be well informed4
    4. Consider seriously other points of view than their own
  2. Care to present a position honestly and clearly, theirs as well as others'. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Be clear about the intended meaning of what is said, written, or otherwise communicated, seeking as much precision as the situation requires
    2. Determine, and maintain focus on, the conclusion or question
    3. Seek and offer reasons
    4. Take into account the total situation
    5. Be reflectively aware of their own basic beliefs
  3. Care about the dignity and worth of every person (a correlative disposition)5. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Discover and listen to others' view and reasons
    2. Avoid intimidating or confusing others with their critical thinking prowess, taking into account others' feelings and level of understanding
    3. Be concerned about others' welfare

 Fifteen Abilities
Ideal critical thinkers have the ability to:

The first three abilities involve elementary clarification

  1. Focus on a question to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Identify or formulate a question
    2. Identify or formulate criteria for judging possible answers
    3. Keep the situation in mind
  2. Analyze arguments to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Identify conclusions
    2. Identify stated reasons
    3. Identify unstated reasons
    4. Identify and handle irrelevance
    5. See the structure of an argument
    6. Summarize
  3. Ask and answer questions of clarification and/or challenge, such as,
  4. to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Why?
    2. What is your main point?
    3. What do you mean by…?
    4. What would be an example?
    5. What would not be an example (though close to being one)?
    6. How does that apply to this case (describe a case, which might well appear to be a counter example)?
    7. What difference does it make?
    8. What are the facts?
    9. Is this what you are saying: ____________?
    10. Would you say some more about that?

The next two abilities involve the basis for the decision.

  1. Judge the credibility of a source. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions):
  2. to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Expertise
    2. Lack of conflict of interest
    3. Agreement among sources
    4. Reputation
    5. Use of established procedures
    6. Known risk to reputation
    7. Ability to give reasons
    8. Careful habits
  3. Observe, and judge observation reports. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions, except for the first):
  4. to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    1. Minimal inferring involved
    2. Short time interval between observation and report
    3. Report by the observer, rather than someone else (that is, the report is not hearsay)
    4. Provision of records.
    5. Corroboration
    6. Possibility of corroboration
    7. Good access
    8. Competent employment of technology, if technology is useful
    9. Satisfaction by observer (and reporter, if a different person) of the credibility criteria in Ability # 4 above.

The next three abilities involve inference

  1. Deduce, and judge deduction
    1. Class logic
    2. Conditional logic
    3. Interpretation of logical terminology in statements, including
      1.  Negation and double negation
      2. Necessary and sufficient condition language
      3. Such words as "only", "if and only if", "or", "some", "unless", "not both".
  2. Induce, and judge induction
    1. To generalizations. Broad considerations:
      1.   Typicality of data, including sampling where appropriate
      2.   Breadth of coverage
      3. Acceptability of evidence
    2. To explanatory conclusions (including hypotheses)
      1. Major types of explanatory conclusions and hypotheses:
        1. Causal claims
        2. Claims about the beliefs and attitudes of people
        3. Interpretation of authors’ intended meanings
        4. Historical claims that certain things happened (including criminal accusations)
        5. Reported definitions
        6. Claims that some proposition is an unstated reason that the person actually used
      2.   Characteristic investigative activities
        1. Designing experiments, including planning to control variables
        2. Seeking evidence and counter-evidence
        3. Seeking other possible explanations
      3. Criteria, the first five being essential, the sixth being desirable
        1. The proposed conclusion would explain the evidence
        2. The proposed conclusion is consistent with all known facts
        3. Competitive alternative explanations are inconsistent with facts
        4. The evidence on which the hypothesis depends is acceptable.
        5. A legitimate effort should have been made to uncover counter-evidence
        6. The proposed conclusion seems plausible
  3. Make and judge value judgments:Important factors:
    1. Background facts
    2. Consequences of accepting or rejecting the judgment
    3. Prima facie application of acceptable principles
    4. Alternatives
    5. Balancing, weighing, deciding

The next two abilities involve advanced clarification.

  1. Define terms and judge definitions. Three dimensions are form, strategy, and content.
    1. Form. Some useful forms are:
      1.  Synonym
      2.   Classification
      3.   Range
      4.   Equivalent-expression
      5.   Operational
      6.   Example and non-example
    2. Definitional strategy
      1.   Acts
        1. Report a meaning
        2. Stipulate a meaning
        3. Express a position on an issue (including "programmatic" and "persuasive" definitions)
      2. Identifying and handling equivocation
    3. Content of the definition
  2. Attribute unstated assumptions (an ability that belongs under both clarification and, in a way, inference)

The next two abilities involve supposition and integration.

  1. Consider and reason from premises, reasons, assumptions, positions, and other propositions with which they disagree or about which they are in doubt -- without letting the disagreement or doubt interfere with their thinking ("suppositional thinking")
  2. Integrate the other abilities and dispositions in making and defending a decision

The first twelve abilities are constitutive abilities. The next three are auxiliary critical thinking abilities: Having them, though very helpful in various ways, is not constitutive of being a critical thinker.

  1. Proceed in an orderly manner appropriate to the situation. For example:
    1. Follow problem solving steps
    2. Monitor their own thinking (that is, engage in metacognition)
    3. Employ a reasonable critical thinking checklist
  2. Be sensitive to the feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others
  3. Employ appropriate rhetorical strategies in discussion and presentation (orally and in writing), including employing and reacting to "fallacy" labels in an appropriate manner. Examples of fallacy labels are "circularity," "bandwagon," "post hoc," "equivocation,""non sequitur," and "straw person."6

Summary and Comments

In brief, the ideal critical thinker is disposed to try to "get it right," to present a position honestly and clearly, and to care about the worth and dignity of every person; furthermore the ideal critical thinker has the ability to clarify, to seek and judge well the basis for a view, to infer wisely from the basis, to imaginatively suppose and integrate, and to do these things with dispatch, sensitivity, and rhetorical skill.

In presenting this outline of critical dispositions and abilities, I have only attempted to depict, rather than defend, them. The defense would require much more space than is available, but would follow two general paths: 1) examining the traditions of good thinking in existing successful disciplines of inquiry, and 2) seeing how we go wrong when we attempt to decide what to believe or do.

In any teaching situation, whether it be a separate critical thinking course or module, or one in which the critical thinking content is infused in or immersed in standard subject-matter content, or some mixture of these; all of the dispositions, as well as the suppositional and integration abilities (# 11 and #12) and auxiliary abilities (#13 through #15) are applicable all the time and should permeate the instruction.

In this essay, I have only attempted to outline a usable and defensible set of critical thinking goals, including criteria for making judgments. Space limitations have precluded their application to curriculum and assessment, though I have done so elsewhere. However, goals are the place to start. I hope that this outline provides a useful basis on which to build curricula and assessment procedures.

Other Sources

Here are some other sources (in which similar ideas are presented in varying degrees of detail and exemplification). [The present item is in outline form with no examples.]


  1. This is a revised and expanded version of a presentation at the Sixth International Conference on Thinking at MIT, Cambridge, MA, July, 1994.
  2. This is a judgment about the central tendencies of standard usage of the term "critical thinking", and is based on many years’ experience participating in, reading, and listening to discussions about critical thinking.
  3. With respect to epistemological constructivism (the view that truth is constructed): In expressing a concern about true belief, this conception of critical thinking accepts the view that our concepts and vocabulary are constructed by us, but also that (to oversimplify somewhat) the relationships among the referents of our concepts and terms are not constructed by us. We can have true or false beliefs about these. With respect to pedagogical constructivism (the view that students learn best when they construct their own answers to problems and questions): For some (but not all) goals and types of learning, the pedagogical-constructivism view has empirical support, but it should not be confused with epistemological constructivism. In particular, the validity of pedagogical constructivism (to the extent that it is valid) does not imply the validity of epistemological constructivism. They are totally different ideas.
  4. Several of the dispositions (1d, 2e, and 3a) contribute to being well-informed (1c), but are separate dispositions in their own right.
  5. The first two major dispositions are constitutive dispositions. That is, they are definitionally part of this conception of critical thinking. This, the third major disposition, is a correlative disposition. That is, it is intended to accompany critical thinking. The lack of it makes critical thinking less valuable, or even dangerous. On the other hand, a criticism of critical thinking for a definitional omission of caring for the worth and dignity of every person could well be based on the unreasonable assumption that the concept, critical thinking, should represent everything that is good, an overwhelming requirement indeed.
  6. The fallacy-labels aspect of #15 is partly rhetorical, and partly constitutive of critical thinking. The constitutive parts are covered in #1-#12, leaving the rhetorical part under #15. These labels are useful to know and understand (at least as shorthand), but dangerous when used by, or in the company of, people who do not understand them fully, because the terms are so easy to apply and misapply and, on occasion, are intimidating.
  7. Robert H. Ennis thoughts on curriculum and assessment, as well as further thoughts on the nature of critical thinking.


    Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes