Clear skies ahead: optimizing the learning environment for critical thinking from a qualitative analysis of interviews with expert teachers

Amy M. Sullivan
Deborah Lindell
Grace C. Huang
Lynn E. Jaffe
Soort article
Original Research
Critical thinking,
Learning environment,
Qualitative research,
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Introduction The learning environment refers to the physical, pedagogical, and psychosocial contexts in which learning occurs and critically influences the educational experience of trainees in the health professions. However, the manner in which individual faculty explicitly organize the educational setting to facilitate learning of essential competencies such as critical thinking deserves more examination; lack of attention to this component can undermine the formal curriculum. The purpose of our study was to examine how faculty shape the learning environment to advance their learners’ development of critical thinking.

Methods We took a constructivist grounded theory approach using the framework method for qualitative content analysis. Data were derived from interviews conducted with 44 faculty identified as skilled teachers of critical thinking at eight academic health professions institutions.

Results Three major themes emerged regarding participants’ descriptions of their experiences of how they optimized the learning environment to support critical thinking: 1) Setting the atmosphere (establishing ground rules, focusing on process rather than answers, and building trust), 2) Maintaining the climate (gently pushing learners, tolerating discomfort, and adjusting to learner level), and 3) Weathering the storm (responses to challenges to learning critical thinking, including time and effort, negative evaluations, and resistance to effortful learning).

Discussion An optimal learning environment for critical thinking was actively created by faculty to establish a safe environment and shared understanding of expectations. Understanding how to produce a conducive learning climate is paramount in


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