Skip to main content

Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Course


Critical thinking skills are often assessed via student beliefs in non-scientific ways of thinking, (e.g, pseudoscience). Courses aimed at reducing such beliefs have been studied in the STEM fields with the most successful focusing on skeptical thinking. However, critical thinking is not unique to the sciences; it is crucial in the humanities and to historical thinking and analysis. We investigated the effects of a history course on epistemically unwarranted beliefs in two class sections. Beliefs were measured pre- and post-semester. Beliefs declined for history students compared to a control class and the effect was strongest for the honors section. This study provides evidence that a humanities education engenders critical thinking. Further, there may be individual differences in ability or preparedness in developing such skills, suggesting different foci for critical thinking coursework.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. Aarnio, K., & Lindeman, M. (2005). Paranormal beliefs, education, and thinking styles. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 1227–1236.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Abrami, P. C., et al. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102–1134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Allchin, D. (2004). Pseudohistory and pseudoscience. Science & Education, 13, 179–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn?: a taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612–637. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.4.612.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Boudry, M. (2013). Loki’s wager and Laudan’s error: on genuine and territorial demarcation. In M. Pigliucci & M. Boudry (Eds.), Philosophy of pseudoscience: reconsidering the demarcation problem (pp. 79–100). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  7. Bridgstock, M. (2003). Paranormal beliefs among science students. Australasian Science, 24(4), 33–35.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bunge, M. (2010). Knowledge: genuine and bogus. Science & Education, 20(5–6), 411–438.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Davies, M. (2013). Critical thinking and the disciplines reconsidered. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(4), 529–544.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. DeRobertis, M. M., & Delaney, P. A. (1993). A survey of the attitudes of university students to astrology and astronomy. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 87(1), 34–50.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin Group.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Dougherty, M. J. (2004). Educating believers: research demonstrates that courses in skepticism can effectively decrease belief in the paranormal. Skeptic, 10(4), 31–35.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking: a statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. Millbrae: The California Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Feder, K. (1984). Irrationality and archaeology. American Antiquity, 49(3), 525–541.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Feder, K. (1995). Ten years after: surveying misconceptions about the human past. Cultural Resource Management, 18(3), 10–14.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Feder, K. (2010). Frauds, myths, and mysteries: science and pseudoscience in archaeology (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Fitzgerald, J., & Baird, V. A. (2011). Taking a step back: teaching critical thinking by distinguishing appropriate type of evidence. Political Science and Politics, 44(3), 619–624.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Franz, T. M., & Green, K. H. (2013). The impact of an interdisciplinary learning community course on pseudoscientific reasoning in first-year science students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(5), 90–105.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Freidel, D. (2007). Betraying the Maya. Archaeology Magazine, 60(2), 36–41.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Goode, E. (2002). Education, scientific knowledge, and belief in the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer, 26(1), 24–27.

  21. Gray, T. (1985). Changing unsubstantiated belief: testing the ignorance hypothesis. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 17, 263–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Harrold, F. B., & Eve, R. A. (Eds.). (1987). Cult archaeology and creationism: understanding pseudoscientific beliefs about the past. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Holtorf, C. (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: archaeology as popular culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

  24. Johnson, M., & Pigliucci, M. (2004). Is knowledge of science associated with higher skepticism of pseudoscientific claims? The American Biology Teacher, 66(8), 536–548.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Kane, M. J., Core, T. J., & Hunt, R. R. (2010). Bias versus bias: harnessing hindsight to reveal paranormal belief change beyond demand characteristics. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 17(2), 206–212. doi:10.3758/PBR.17.2.206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Karimi, F., & Sutton, J. (2014). Maryland mom kills two of her children during attempted exorcism. CNN. Accessed 20 Feb.

  27. Lobato, E., Mendoza, J., Sims, V., & Chin, M. (2014). Examining the relationship between conspiracy theories, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscience acceptance among a university population. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 617–625.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Losh, S. C., & Nzekwe, B. (2011). Creatures in the classroom: preservice teacher beliefs about fantastic beasts, magic, extraterrestrials, evolution and creationism. Science & Education, 20, 473–489.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. McAnany, P. A., & Negrón, T. G. (2009). Bellicose rulers and climatological peril? Retrofitting 21st century woes on 8th century Maya society. In In questioning collapse: human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  30. McAnany, P. A., & Yoffee, N. (Eds.) (2010). Questioning collapse: human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  31. Niu, L., Behar-Horenstein, L. S., & Garvan, C. W. (2013). Do instructional interventions influence college students’ critical thinking skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 9, 114–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. NSF. (2014). Chapter 7: Science and technology: public attitudes and understanding. In Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. National Science Foundation, 7–1–7-37.

  33. Pascarella, E. T., Blaich, C., Martin, G. L., & Hanson, J. M. (2011). How robust are the findings of academically adrift? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(3), 20–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Paul, R. (1995). Critical thinking: how to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Rohnert Park: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Pew (2013). Public’s knowledge of science and technology. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April). Accessed 23 Nov 2014.

  36. Pyburn, A. (2006). The politics of collapse. Archaeologies, 2(1), 3–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Ren, A. C. (2006). Maya archaeology and the political and cultural identity of contemporary Maya in Guatemala. Archaeologies, 2(1), 8–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Rice, T. W. (2003). Believe it or not: religious and other paranormal beliefs in the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42, 95–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Ryan, T. J., Brown, J., Johnson, A., Sanburg, C., & Schildmeier, M. (2004). Science literacy and belief in the paranormal—an empirical test. Skeptic, 10(4), 12–13.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Sagan, C. (1996). The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Smith, M. U., & Siegel, H. (2004). Knowing, believing, and understanding: what goals for science education? Science & Education, 13, 553–582.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Tobacyk, J. (2004). A revised paranormal belief scale. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 23, 94–98.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Turgut, H. (2011). The context of demarcation in nature of science teaching: the case of astrology. Science & Education, 20(5–6), 491–515.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Wesp, R., & Montgomery, K. (1998). Developing critical thinking through the study of paranormal phenomena. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 275–278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Wood, M. J., Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2012). Dead and alive: beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 767–773.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anne Collins McLaughlin.

Ethics declarations

This research was approved by the North Carolina State University IRB and informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflict of interest regarding this project.


Appendix 1: Pew test of science knowledge

All radioactivity is man-made. Is this statement true or false?

Correct Answer: False

Electrons are smaller than atoms. Is this statement true or false?

Correct Answer: True

Lasers work by focusing sound waves. Is this statement true or false?

Correct Answer: False

The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. Is this statement true or false?

Correct Answer: True

Which one of the following types of solar radiation does sunscreen protect the skin from?

Correct Answer: Ultraviolet




Does nanotechnology deal with things that are extremely...

Correct Answer: small




Which gas makes up most of the Earth’s atmosphere?

Correct Answer: Nitrogen


Carbon Dioxide


What is the main function of red blood cells?

Correct Answer: Carry oxygen to all parts of the body

Help the blood to clot

Fight disease in the body

Which of these is a major concern about the overuse of antibiotics?

Correct Answer: It can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria

People will become addicted to antibiotics

Antibiotics are very expensive

Which is an example of a chemical reaction?

Correct Answer: Nails rusting

Water boiling

Sugar dissolving

Which is the better way to determine whether a new drug is effective in treating a disease? If a scientist has a group of 1000 volunteers with the disease to study, should she...

Correct Answer: Give the drug to half of them but not to the other half, and compare how many in each group get better

Give the drug to all of them and see how many get better

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?

Correct Answer: Carbon dioxide




Which natural resource is extracted in a process known as “fracking”?

Correct Answer: Natural gas




Appendix 2

Table 2 Belief measure with note of whether covered directly in the History courses

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McLaughlin, A.C., McGill, A.E. Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Course. Sci & Educ 26, 93–105 (2017).

Download citation


  • Critical Thinking
  • Demand Characteristic
  • Belief Change
  • Critical Thinking Skill
  • Conspiracy Theory