Digest No. 07 - January 2020

Effect of Critical Thinking Education on College Students’ Unwarranted Beliefs

Dyer, K. D., and R. E. Hall. 2019. “Effect of Critical Thinking Education on Epistemically Unwarranted Beliefs in College Students.” Research in Higher Education 60 (3): 293–314.



The purpose of this study was to assess the efficacy of critical thinking courses on helping students reduce their epistemically unwarranted beliefs, defined as “beliefs not founded on reliable reasoning or credible data” (p. 293). By using a longitudinal design with control groups, the authors were able to associate unwarranted belief reductions with exposure to and participation in a course titled “Science and Nonsense.” In addition, the authors also examined whether this association was due to demographic characteristics or other specific profiles. They conclude that their classroom-based intervention “has the potential to reach all students” and is “good news for educators” (p. 311).



The authors argue that science—and by extension fact—is under fire. Recent national narratives about climate change and homeopathy have offered scientists an opportunity to help students understand the differences between fact and belief. Recently, scientific course offerings have been designed to teach not only didactic knowledge about historical occurrences in the scientific community, but also the epistemic skills needed for students to separate notions of science from pseudoscience, or as the authors contend “science from nonsense” (p. 295).

The authors studied six sections of a critical thinking class called “Natural Science 4: Science and Nonsense,” which “explicitly addresses common human errors of perception and logic by applying critical thinking skills to the claims of specific epistemically unwarranted beliefs” (p. 296). The authors describe the objectives of the course sections in detail, including the articulated learning outcomes, the assessments used to measure content mastery, and a list of topics mentioned in class. The authors compared students enrolled in these sections with those enrolled in two other conditions: students enrolled in research methods classes that focused on scientific inquiry, but not pseudoscience, and students enrolled in comparison courses that did not fulfill the university’s critical thinking requirement. To be clear, the authors note that not all courses in any condition were taught by the same instructor, nor could they fully account for selection effects.

The Inventory of Epistemically Unwarranted Beliefs (IEUB) scale was longitudinally administered to students across the three course conditions: the intervention, the research methods courses, and the comparison courses. In addition to collecting information contained in these scales, the authors obtained students’ university records, including SAT scores, high school grade point average, academic major, year in school, and cumulative grade point average.

Results indicated that students in the intervention condition, Natural Science 4: Science and Nonsense, experienced a statistically significant reduction in epistemically unwarranted beliefs compared with peers in either the research methods or control condition. In addition, students in the research methods condition did not statistically differ from their peers in the control condition in terms of reduction in epistemically unwarranted beliefs. Taken together, these findings suggest that students must be explicitly taught how to differentiate science from nonsense and that educators cannot leave this type of learning to chance—neither as a byproduct of participating in research methods courses designed to teach general critical thinking skills, nor as an outcome of participating in any college course.



Can the skills needed to separate fact from fiction be taught? Results from this study suggest that they can. While seemingly trite, these results are critically important to institutions that value designing educational experiences to produce the next generation of informed and responsible citizens. As students continue to be bombarded with misinformation as well as narratives suggesting that belief is fact, institutions must respond with curricula designed to help students make sense out of the nonsense and separate fake from real news.

The idea that this type of learning cannot be a byproduct of participation in general education curricula, whether specifically designed to help students think critically or not, is equally important. As institutional leaders continue to revise educational offerings to meet the dynamic and changing needs of students, they must take pedagogical strategies seriously by asking faculty members to design courses with specific purposes (like separating science from nonsense) and assessing these courses rigorously. Leaving learning to chance is never a good idea and one that this study cautions against.

About the Authors

Kathleen D. Dyer is an associate professor in child and family sciences at California State University, Fresno.

Raymond E. Hall is a professor of physics at California State University, Fresno.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Abrami, P. C., R. M. Bernard, E. Borokhovski, A. Wade, M. S. Surkes, R. Tamim, et al. 2008. “Instructional Interventions Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A Stage 1 Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 78: 1102–1134.

Lobato, E., J. Mendoza, V. Sims, and M. Chin. 2014. “Examining the Relationship between Conspiracy Theories, Paranormal Beliefs, and Pseudoscience Acceptance among a University Population.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28: 617–625.

McLaughlin, A. C., and A. E. McGill. 2017. “Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Course.” Science and Education. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from SpringerLink.