Critical Thinking Strategies For College Students

Strategies for College Success: Critical Thinking and Effective Learning


Many students come to college and struggle their first year. In most cases, it's due to how they study. They use the same study skills they used in high school. College is different.

During this transformative six-week program, you'll learn how to address your college coursework and develop new strategies to help you succeed in college from the moment you arrive. You'll learn and practice essential skills such as:

  • how to approach each assignment;
  • how to manage your time;
  • how to think about and discuss the personal relevance of a text;
  • how to reduce stress and anxiety about your daily coursework;
  • how to access the college library and research materials;
  • how to read more efficiently, effectively, and critically; and
  • how to read, take notes, and prepare for exams the college way.

In this program you'll develop academic and personal goals, write reflective papers, participate in weekly discussions, learn how to complete college-level research, and engage in activities in and out of the classroom.

You'll learn about the realities of college life and begin to identify potential obstacles to academic success. And with our individualized help, you'll prepare for an exciting and successful college career as you refine your study skills and gain self-confidence.

In addition to the two-credit course Strategies for College Success, you will choose one or two additional courses, which will allow you to customize the program to your interests, work with world-class faulty members, and access Cornell's roster of more than 50 outstanding six-week Summer Session courses in a wide range of subjects—all while living on one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses.

For one recent College Success student, Max Mailman, the benefits of the program were many: "I dramatically improved my proficiency in speed reading, which I used in my labor history class. I read more efficiently and quickly, which has benefited me greatly in school. [The professor] helped me personally, often staying after class to assist me in making a time-saving schedule for the week. To this day, studying in Israel 6,000 miles away, I'm still using her style of calendar construction. I recommend [this] class to anybody who wants to improve themselves in high school, college, and in life."

Course expectations

Students are expected to:

  • participate in hands-on class activities,
  • develop a multi-media presentation,
  • conduct library research,
  • read up to 15-20 pages nightly,
  • write weekly reflective essays,
  • produce a study skills portfolio, and
  • collaborate with other students.


You'll be enrolled in the two-credit course Strategies for College Success: Critical Thinking and Effective Learning (HE 1105) and the one-credit Reading Lab (HE 1006). (Note: The official description for Strategies for College Success lists "Permission of the instructor" as its prerequisite. If you're accepted into this program, it means you have met this prerequisite.)

HE 1105 meets Mondays through Wednesday from 2:30–4:00 p.m.

Maximum enrollment: 20

HE 1006 meets Thursdays from 2:30–4:00 p.m.

Maximum enrollment: 20

In addition you'll select one or two additional courses (totaling no more than 8 credits for the entire program) from the more than 50 on this website (see the six-week course roster).

The length of this program will depend upon which additional course(s) you select and the date of your final exams.

Note: If you select a writing course (such as ENGL 1131 or 1132) as one of your classes, your program will end after you turn in your final paper on Friday, August 3, otherwise, your program will end after the final exam for that course, on either Monday, August 6, or Tuesday, August 7. See Final exams and checkout for details.

Required textbooks

The Science and Strategies of Expert ReadersJanet Nay Zadina, Rita Smilkstein, Deborah Daiek, and Nancy Anter$TBD

These titles will be available at The Cornell Store.

Special scheduling


  • Wednesday, July 4: In observance of Independence Day, we will not have classes.
  • Mondays, July 9 or 16: College Admissions Workshops, 2:30–3:45 p.m.
  • Monday, July 23: College Fair, 4:00–6:00 p.m., Statler Hall Ballroom

Checkout dates and times

Before making travel plans, review the checkout dates and times for your program. We strictly adhere to these deadlines.

Program director

Heather Furnas

Heather Furnas earned her PhD in American history from Cornell University in 2014 and has been teaching in higher education for over fifteen years. She has worked with Summer College students since 2007 and has taught writing, history, and study skills at Cornell, Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Ithaca College, and at the Auburn Correctional Facility as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program. She has also taught English in French secondary schools.

Professor Furnas now works at Cornell University Library as an outreach, instruction, and reference librarian, assisting students through all stages of the research and writing process through one-on-one consultation and classroom instruction.

“College is a time when you are called to garner your personal strengths to meet the opportunities and challenges that come your way. I am excited to teach Strategies for College Success because I love to help students find their own methods for tackling problems, and to give them the opportunity not just to learn content, but to develop time management habits and improved reading and thinking skills that can be used in any area of life.”

Student experiences

". . . the lessons from both Hjortshoj's and Pauk's books (used in College Success) have already been useful. For example, when I wrote an essay for my mentor at my research lab at NYU, I used the steps Pauk discussed, such as outlining and then re-outlining after a first draft is already written. The resulting essay was solid and my mentor made extremely positive comments on my writing. I owe the success of the essay to you and your class." — Sam Oppenheim

"Life changing and life affirming! (Our daughter) competed successfully academically while growing and maturing as a person. Her academic gains were almost overshadowed by her personal gains in self-confidence and self-assurance. She can go anywhere now knowing she will do very well." — Martha and Phil Egan

Student blogs

Dates: June 23-August 7, 2018 (6 weeks)
Credits: 6-8 credits
Eligibility: current sophomores, juniors, seniors
(see eligibility requirements)
Apply by: May 4, 2018

There are entire courses on critical thinking, helping college students learn to go beyond common sense and deeply consider the implications of an idea through the application of logic and reason. But teaching critical thinking skills can be important to any class, and asking students to apply those skills can help them gain a deeper understanding of the course material. In addition to the excellent textbooks that flesh out the application of logic and statistics to teaching critical thinking, here are some concrete examples of critical thinking exercises you can use in your courses.

Why teaching critical thinking is important

“Critical thinking is the cornerstone of higher education, the hallmark of an educated person,” wrote John Chaffee in his Thinking Critically, 11th edition. He went on, “The prospect of expanding students’ thinking implies expanding who they are as human beings—the perspective from which they view the world, the concepts and values they use to guide their choices, and the impact they have on the world as a result of those choices” (Chaffee, xv).

Teaching critical thinking to your college students means not only giving them tools, but also helping them discover how to think beyond the media they consume. Giving students a grasp of how to understand statistics, for example, enables them to interpret news data, look for bias, and explore the ways in which the data is used to support a point that may or may not be true. Those skills are not just useful in their careers, but in their personal lives as well.

Critical thinking lesson ideas

A key technique in critical thinking is to avoid lecturing your students. Enabling them to explore scenarios gives them the time to create the cognitive process they need to further develop their critical thinking skills.

A writer for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies Web site offered some discipline-specific examples of critical thinking exercises in “Teaching Critical Thinking,” such as:

  • Biology: College students should already be aware of the scientific method before their introductory level biology courses, but utilizing the scientific method can help students engage their critical thinking skills. “As students learn the scientific method, they build the foundation of research skills used for future work,” the contributor noted, pointing out that those skills include describing and defining an issue, applying that knowledge, and making deductive and inductive inferences.
  • Mathematics: Divide students into groups to solve a problem without giving them the full instructions on solving it. Instead of telling the students how to solve it, ask them questions: What steps are you taking? Why are you taking this approach?
  • Engineering: Dividing students into teams, ask them to slow down the problem-solving process into steps, comparing their results with other student teams, or with an imaginary team you’ve created for the exercise (which may come up with the correct solution, or may not!).
  • Literature: For beginning literature students, ease them into literary analysis by starting them out with an exercise: use a metaphor to describe one of the characters. Build on this by asking them to explain why they chose the metaphor.

A writer for the St. Petersburg College Critical Thinking Gateway offered tips for designing “Critical Thinking Games” that require students to “analyze, evaluate, synthesize information from various sources, or solve problems in order to find the answers.” One style of game is the simulation, in which students tackle an imaginary problem relevant to the course, using information and skills that are part of the course curriculum. At various points in the simulation, the students see the results of their decisions, which impact any further decisions they must make.

How do you teach critical thinking skills in your courses? Share your ideas below.

Reference: Chaffee, John. 2015. Thinking Critically, 11th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

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