Critical Thinking in Science: Fostering Scientific Reasoning Skills in Students

ALI Staff | Published  July 13, 2023

Thinking like a scientist is a central goal of all science curricula.

As students learn facts, methodologies, and methods, what matters most is that all their learning happens through the lens of scientific reasoning what matters most is that it’s all through the lens of scientific reasoning.

That way, when it comes time for them to take on a little science themselves, either in the lab or by theoretically thinking through a solution, they understand how to do it in the right context.

One component of this type of thinking is being critical. Based on facts and evidence, critical thinking in science isn’t exactly the same as critical thinking in other subjects.

Students have to doubt the information they’re given until they can prove it’s right.

They have to truly understand what’s true and what’s hearsay. It’s complex, but with the right tools and plenty of practice, students can get it right.



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What is critical thinking?

This particular style of thinking stands out because it requires reflection and analysis. Based on what's logical and rational, thinking critically is all about digging deep and going beyond the surface of a question to establish the quality of the question itself.

It ensures students put their brains to work when confronted with a question rather than taking every piece of information they’re given at face value.

It’s engaged, higher-level thinking that will serve them well in school and throughout their lives.


Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is important when it comes to making good decisions.

It gives us the tools to think through a choice rather than quickly picking an option — and probably guessing wrong. Think of it as the all-important ‘why.’

Why is that true? Why is that right? Why is this the only option?

Finding answers to questions like these requires critical thinking. They require you to really analyze both the question itself and the possible solutions to establish validity.

Will that choice work for me? Does this feel right based on the evidence?


How does critical thinking in science impact students?

Critical thinking is essential in science.

It’s what naturally takes students in the direction of scientific reasoning since evidence is a key component of this style of thought.

It’s not just about whether evidence is available to support a particular answer but how valid that evidence is.

It’s about whether the information the student has fits together to create a strong argument and how to use verifiable facts to get a proper response.

Critical thinking in science helps students:

  • Actively evaluate information
  • Identify bias
  • Separate the logic within arguments
  • Analyze evidence



4 Ways to promote critical thinking

Figuring out how to develop critical thinking skills in science means looking at multiple strategies and deciding what will work best at your school and in your class.

Based on your student population, their needs and abilities, not every option will be a home run.

These particular examples are all based on the idea that for students to really learn how to think critically, they have to practice doing it. 

Each focuses on engaging students with science in a way that will motivate them to work independently as they hone their scientific reasoning skills.


Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning centers on critical thinking.

Teachers can shape a project around the thinking style to give students practice with evaluating evidence or other critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking also happens during collaboration, evidence-based thought, and reflection.

For example, setting students up for a research project is not only a great way to get them to think critically, but it also helps motivate them to learn.

Allowing them to pick the topic (that isn’t easy to look up online), develop their own research questions, and establish a process to collect data to find an answer lets students personally connect to science while using critical thinking at each stage of the assignment.

They’ll have to evaluate the quality of the research they find and make evidence-based decisions.



Adding a question or two to any lab practicum or activity requiring students to pause and reflect on what they did or learned also helps them practice critical thinking.

At this point in an assignment, they’ll pause and assess independently. 

You can ask students to reflect on the conclusions they came up with for a completed activity, which really makes them think about whether there's any bias in their answer.


Addressing Assumptions

One way critical thinking aligns so perfectly with scientific reasoning is that it encourages students to challenge all assumptions. 

Evidence is king in the science classroom, but even when students work with hard facts, there comes the risk of a little assumptive thinking.

Working with students to identify assumptions in existing research or asking them to address an issue where they suspend their own judgment and simply look at established facts polishes their that critical eye.

They’re getting practice without tossing out opinions, unproven hypotheses, and speculation in exchange for real data and real results, just like a scientist has to do.


Lab Activities With Trial-And-Error

Another component of critical thinking (as well as thinking like a scientist) is figuring out what to do when you get something wrong.

Backtracking can mean you have to rethink a process, redesign an experiment, or reevaluate data because the outcomes don’t make sense, but it’s okay.

The ability to get something wrong and recover is not only a valuable life skill, but it’s where most scientific breakthroughs start. Reminding students of this is always a valuable lesson.

Labs that include comparative activities are one way to increase critical thinking skills, especially when introducing new evidence that might cause students to change their conclusions once the lab has begun.

For example, you provide students with two distinct data sets and ask them to compare them.

With only two choices, there are a finite amount of conclusions to draw, but then what happens when you bring in a third data set? Will it void certain conclusions? Will it allow students to make new conclusions, ones even more deeply rooted in evidence?


Thinking like a scientist

When students get the opportunity to think critically, they’re learning to trust the data over their ‘gut,’ to approach problems systematically and make informed decisions using ‘good’ evidence.

When practiced enough, this ability will engage students in science in a whole new way, providing them with opportunities to dig deeper and learn more.

It can help enrich science and motivate students to approach the subject just like a professional would.


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