Promoting critical thinking – full article

Promoting critical thinking – Interdisciplinary approaches: a matrix for critical thinking

Critical Thinking has a long tradition in Anglo-Saxon academia (see e.g. Claser, 1941; Moore & Stanley, 2010; Paul, Elder & Bartell,1997; Wisdom & Leavitt, 2015). At ETH Zurich it has assumed great significance since former Rector Lino Guzzella launched the Critical Thinking Initiative in 2013. This initiative addresses not only the further theoretical development of the concept in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but primarily the shaping of an education which facilitates student acquisition of practice-related skills relevant to authentic scenarios.

ETH has also identified key critical thinking skills which should be fostered in students:

  • Analysis and reflection
  • Opinion-building and development of courses of action
  • Communication, argument and responsible behaviour

The goal of the Critical Thinking Initiative is to train students during their ETH studies to become critical and independent thinkers. During their time here they should not only acquire knowledge and methodological skills but also learn to address their own disciplines and scientific methods critically. Here the ability to think critically is not only desirable in the academic context, but is also increasingly important within society. The primary reasons for this are global developments such as digitisation and automation which shift human input to the value chain. The assumption is that persons with repetitive tasks will become increasingly replaceable (Deloitte, 2016). Abilities such as creativity, interdisciplinarity and critical thinking, however, are becoming more and more important because they cannot be replaced by automation.

The annual programme of the Critical Thinking Initiative lists events which deepen and practice the skills described above. These events and the associated methods are meant to inspire and assist faculty in their ETH teaching efforts.

Two Refresh Teaching events present two different approaches in more detail:

Prof. Anthony Patt (D-USYS) will report on how he helps students to reduce complex systems to their most significant elements. This simplification always means critical reflection on what has been left out, and the associated implications.

Dr Erik Jentges (D-MTEC) will report on Prof. Volker Hoffmann’s “Corporate Sustainability” course, where students use argumentation methods and peer review the arguments of their fellows according to a list of criteria.



Claser, E. M. (1941). Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking. Columbia University Teachers College Contributions to Education No 843: AMS Press, NY.

Deloitte (2016). Mensch und Maschine: Roboter auf dem Vormarsch? Folgen der Automatisierung für den Schweizer Arbeitsmarkt. Online verfügbar:

Moore, B & Stanley, T. (2010). Critical Thinking and Formative Assessments: Increasing the Rigor in Your Classroom. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Paul, R.; Elder, L. & Bartell, T. (1997). A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking. Online verfügbar:

Wisdom, S. & Leavitt, L. (2015). Handbook of Research on Advancing Critical Thinking in Higher Education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.