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Dispositional factors predicting Chinese students’ critical thinking performance
Kelly Y.L. Ku a,*, Irene T. Ho b
a Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong b Department of Psychology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t
Article history: Received 4 May 2009 Received in revised form 3 August 2009 Accepted 21 August 2009 Available online 16 September 2009
Keywords: Thinking disposition Critical thinking Chinese student Individual difference
0191-8869/$ – see front matter � 2009 Elsevier Ltd. A doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.08.015
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +852 95580149. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (K.Y.L. Ku)
Dispositional factors have been suggested to affect individuals’ critical thinking performance. The relative and combined effects of thinking dispositions and cognitive ability on the critical thinking performance of a group of 137 Chinese undergraduates were examined. Participants were administered the Need for Cog- nition Scale, Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness Subscales of the NEO Five Factor Inventory as well as the Concern for Truth Scale. Cognitive ability and critical thinking performance were respectively estimated with the WAIS-III Verbal Comprehension Index and the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Using Everyday Situations. Hierarchical regression analysis showed that only the disposition of concern for truth accounted for unique additional variance in critical thinking beyond that explained by cognitive ability. The findings are discussed in the light of cultural factors affecting critical thinking in the Chinese context.
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Critical thinking is ‘‘reasonable reflective thinking that is fo- cused on deciding what to believe and do” (Ennis, 1987, p. 10). In this Information Age, critical thinking enables us to reason effec- tively, evaluate myriads of information and consider alternative views to arrive at sound judgments. The examination of individual factors that contribute to differences in critical thinking perfor- mance thus becomes important, as it would inform about effective ways to enhance this kind of ability.
There is general consensus among psychologists and educators that besides cognitive ability, dispositional factors also determine thinking performance (e.g., Ennis, 1987; Facione, Sanchez, Facione, & Gainen, 1995; Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993). Cognitive abilities affect how well an individual is able to tackle a thinking task, whereas personal dispositions influence the manner in which one approaches the task. A person’s ‘‘characterological profile” (Facione et al., 1995, p. 1) has been suggested to relate to how he or she reasons, argues and makes decisions.
1.1. Critical thinking dispositions
Experts have described the ideal critical thinker to be ‘‘habitu- ally inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking rele-
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vant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit” (The Del- phi Report; American Philosophical Association, 1990). Based on this description, Facione and Facione (1992) proposed a conceptu- alization of critical thinking disposition in terms of seven traits: inquisitiveness, open-mindedness, systematicity, analytic- ity, truth-seeking, critical thinking self-confidence, and maturity.
Descriptions such as these indicate that dispositional influences on thinking are multifaceted. In the first place, an interest in or enjoyment of thinking is a prerequisite for active engagement in thinking (inquisitiveness, need for cognition). Secondly, an open attitude underlies the willingness to consider different viewpoints and options before arriving at conclusions (open-mindedness, flexibility). Thirdly, a careful approach in thinking would certainly contribute to effective decision-making and problem-solving (conscientiousness, systematicity). Finally, values such as uphold- ing fairness and truth fuel the striving for judgments that are sound and unbiased (truth-seeking, fair-mindedness). These four dimensions of thinking disposition emphasize different aspects of an individual’s response to situations that call for thinking.
1.2. Previous research
Western research has generated clear evidence that the disposi- tional aspects of critical thinking could be differentiated from the cognitive or ability aspects, although the two may be related. For example, Taube (1997) examined need for cognition, tolerance of ambiguity and dualistic/relativistic thinking together with a num- ber of critical thinking and cognitive ability measures. Findings
K.Y.L. Ku, I.T. Ho / Personality and Individual Differences 48 (2010) 54–58 55
from factor analyses indicated that critical thinking performance could be better explained in terms of separate disposition and cog- nitive ability factors than a single factor. A number of studies using hierarchical regression analyses also showed that dispositional fac- tors predicted unique variance in critical thinking scores after cog- nitive factors had been controlled (Clifford, Boufal, & Kurtz, 2004; Macpherson & Stanovich, 2007; Sá, West, & Stanovich, 1999; To- plak & Stanovich, 2002; West, Toplak, & Stanovich, 2008). Never- theless, it is worth noting that researchers have variably emphasized the different dimensions of critical thinking disposi- tion in these studies, often including only one or two of the above dimensions in their examination.
Need for cognition refers to the tendency to engage in and enjoy cognitive activities. In a study by Toplak and Stanovich (2002), it was revealed that need for cognition and reflectivity were posi- tively associated with six of nine disjunctive reasoning tasks, whereas only three of the nine tasks displayed relationships with cognitive ability. A number of other studies have also found need for cognition to be positively associated with performance on var- ious thinking tasks or thinking-related constructs (e.g., Halpern, 2007; Taube, 1997; West et al., 2008).
Personal characteristics associated with openness to experi- ence, such as being intellectually curious and flexible, or tolerance of ambiguity, have been suggested to be important for the making of objective and sound judgments (Perkins et al., 1993). Similar to need for cognition, openness has been found to be positively re- lated to various other thinking dispositions, thinking skills, and cognitive abilities (e.g., Clifford et al., 2004; Sá et al., 1999; West et al., 2008). For example, Sá and colleagues (1999) found that scores on actively open-minded thinking contributed 2.8% and 8.6% unique variances in the participants’ performance on two of three reasoning/evaluation tasks. Likewise, hierarchical multiple regression analyses in two studies by Clifford et al. (2004) showed that among the Five-Factor Model personality traits, openness was the only trait accounting for significant 6.3% and 5.5% incremental effects on critical thinking, on top of the effects explainable by cog- nitive ability.
People who score high on conscientiousness have been found to be persistent, goal-directed and productive thinkers (Hogan & Ones, 1997). Although not as often researched as need for cogni- tion or openness as a construct of thinking disposition, there has been some evidence showing this personality dimension to be pos- itively related to problem-solving and critical thinking (Halpern, 2007; Spector, Schneider, Vance, & Hezlett, 2000). However, in Clifford et al.’s (2004) study, conscientiousness was found to be unrelated to scores on a critical thinking test. So evidences in this regard have been mixed.
Compared to the other dimensions of thinking disposition, the tendency to seek truth and to be fair-minded in judgments seems to be least studied, although it is clear from the American Philo- sophical Association’s Delphi report (1990) that this is an impor- tant dispositional characteristic of the ideal critical thinker (see quotation above). As researchers have pointed out, good thinkers would pay attention to ‘‘evidential foundations” of arguments (Perkins et al., 1993, p. 8) characterized by an alertness to potential errors or misuse of information and an emphasis on justification based on facts. This tendency reflects a concern for truth and an urge to be objective and unbiased in judgment. The limited re- search available revealed that students generally scored low on truth-seeking (Bers, McGowan, & Rubin, 1996; Facione et al., 1995; McBride, Xiang, & Wittenburg, 2002a). However, empirical evidence for the relationship between this disposition and critical thinking performance is very limited due to the lack of related studies.
To sum up, theorists have conceptualized critical thinking dis- positions in terms of the tendencies to enjoy thinking, to be
open-minded, to be conscientious, and to be concerned about truth and fairness. Yet the extents to which these dispositions have been examined in relation to thinking performance vary. Need for cogni- tion and open-mindedness appear to have been studied more, while research focusing on conscientiousness and a truth-seeking attitude has been relatively rare.
1.3. Studies in the Chinese context
As critical thinking has received significant attention among Chinese communities only in the last decade, there has been a pau- city of research on Chinese people’s critical thinking dispositions. Major findings from the few studies on this (Ip et al., 2000; McBride, Xiang, Wittenburg, & Shen, 2002b; Tiwari, Avery, & Lai, 2003) indicated that Chinese students scored lower on most dispo- sition scales than Western students, especially with regard to truth-seeking. Limitations of these studies include the fact that participants consisted only of nursing or education students, that none of them examined dispositions in relation to actual thinking performance, and that the reliability (internal consistency) coeffi- cients of some of the scales used were not quite satisfactory.
The present study aimed at investigating the extent to which various thinking dispositions predict individuals’ critical thinking performance in the Chinese context. This examination is timely as the importance of critical thinking has gained recognition be- yond Western societies, yet related research in non-Western con- texts has been scarce. More empirical evidence concerning the effects of thinking dispositions in different cultural contexts would contribute to the development of more refined theories and en- hance our understanding of how critical thinking may be fostered in different cultural environments.
Participants were 137 Chinese undergraduate students (40 men and 97 women) at a comprehensive university in Hong Kong, re- cruited through campus-wide advertising. The mean age of the participants was 20.7 years (SD = 1.28; range = 19–25). There were 52, 24, 29, 17, and 15 students majoring in social science, arts, sci- ence, business, and ‘‘others”, respectively. Approval to conduct the study was obtained from the respective Institutional Review Board and all participants gave written informed consent for their partic- ipation. After the study, they received a debriefing sheet as well as a remuneration equivalent to US$25.
2.2.1. Critical thinking performance The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Using Everyday Situ-
ations (HCTAES; Halpern, 2007) was administered. The test con- sists of 25 everyday scenarios, each followed by questions that ask for both open-ended and multiple-choice responses requiring judgment and evaluation. These questions tap a variety of critical thinking skills including verbal reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, likelihood assessment as well as problem- solving and decision-making. The HCTAES has been used with dif- ferent samples of American students, with reliability coefficients (Cronbach’s alphas) of over 0.80 being reported for different groups of students (Halpern, 2007).
Preliminary studies on the appropriateness of the Chinese ver- sion for use with Hong Kong Chinese students were conducted (Hau et al., 2006). Analyses of the results from these studies helped to establish the validity and reliability of the test with Hong Kong
Table 1 Means, standard deviations, and ranges of scores for all variables (N = 137).
Variable Mean SD Rangea
Cognitive ability (VCI) 105.86 6.94 83–131 Need for cognition (NCS) 58.66 9.48 37–81 Openness 42.19 5.41 29–56 Conscientiousness 41.64 5.65 25–53 Concern for Truth 40.45 5.66 26–57 Critical thinking (HCTAES) 115.29 14.10 52–147
Note: VCI = Verbal Comprehension Index of WAIS-III. NCS = Need For Cognition Scale-Short Form. Openness = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Openness to Experience Subscale. Conscientiousness = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Conscientiousness Sub- scale. Concern for Truth = Concern for Truth Scale. HCTAES = Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Using Everyday Situations.
a Mean for VCI = 100. Possible range of NCS scores = 18–90. Possible range of scores for Openness, Conscientiousness, Concern for Truth = 12–60. Possible range of HCTAES scores = 0–194.
56 K.Y.L. Ku, I.T. Ho / Personality and Individual Differences 48 (2010) 54–58
Chinese students, with Cronbach’s alphas for different samples of secondary and university students ranging from .65 to .74.
2.2.2. Cognitive ability As verbal abilities have been found to be the strongest cognitive
predictor of critical thinking performance (Clifford et al., 2004), the Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI) of the Chinese version of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Third Edition (WAIS-III Chinese version, 2002) was used as an estimate of participants’ cognitive ability for critical thinking. The VCI is derived from scores on the Vocabulary, Similarities, and Information subtests of the WAIS-III.
2.2.3. Thinking dispositions A number of measures covering the four aspects of critical
thinking disposition as reviewed above were subject to prelimin- ary studies aimed at establishing their validity and reliability for use with the current population. A total of 487 university students across two major universities in Hong Kong participated in these studies. The final scales chosen for the present study were those found to have good reliability for use with Chinese students. These measures are described below, with all items answered on 5-point Likert-type scales, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
The Chinese version of the revised Need for Cognition Scale-Short Form (NCS-SF; Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984; Hui, 2003) measures the tendency to engage in activities that require cognitive effort and the enjoyment of such activities. It consists of 18 statements, such as ‘‘I enjoy abstract thinking”. The Cronbach’s alphas (as) for the NCS ranged from .84 to .88 in the preliminary studies.
The Openness to Experience Subscale of the NEO Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI; Costa & McCrae, 1992) measures open-mind- edness or non-dogmatic attitudes and values, It consists of 12 items, such as ‘‘I believe controversial topics will only confuse stu- dents”. The as for the scale ranged from .80 to .81 in the prelimin- ary studies.
The Conscientiousness Subscale of the NEO Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI; Costa & McCrae, 1992) measures a cautious and method- ical approach to tasks. It consists of 12 items, such as ‘‘I work to- wards my goal systematically”. The as for the scale ranged from .80 to .82 in the preliminary studies.
As attempts to find a measure of fair-mindedness and truth- seeking attitude with satisfactory reliability failed in the prelimin- ary studies, a new Concern for Truth Scale was constructed and administered. The scale aims at measuring one’s tendency to en- gage in independent thinking based on best understanding, objec- tive evidence and good reasoning in order to arrive at the fairest and most truth-based judgment. A low concern for truth is re- flected in judgments based on preconceptions, prior beliefs, self- interest, authority view, or majority opinion. Individuals with this tendency are prone to making naïve, biased, or premature judg- ments. The construction of this scale started with an initial pool of 27 items adapted from related scales (e.g., the Maturity and Truth-seeking Subscales of the California Critical Thinking Disposi- tion Inventory; Facione & Facione, 1992). There were four rounds of administration to a total of 801 high school and university stu- dents. In each successive round, items were selected and modified based on item correlations, validity checks, and internal consis- tency examination until the scale attained reasonable stability (as > .65). The resulting scale consists of 12 items (Appendix 1).
The measures were administered to participants in two sessions within a week. In the first session, participants reported on demo- graphic information including age, gender, GPA, academic major and completed the HCTAES in group-testing situations. In the sec- ond session, the NCS-SF, Openness to Experience Scale, Conscien-
tiousness Scale and Concern for Truth Scale were administered, followed by individual administrations of the VCI subtests of the WAIS-III.
Internal consistency reliabilities as estimated by Cronbach’s al- phas for the HCTAES, NCS, Openness to Experience Scale, Conscien- tiousness Scale, and Concern for Truth Scale were .73, .87, .67, .76, and .70 respectively. The mean GPA for the participants was 2.92 (SD = 0.51). The mean, standard deviation and range of scores for each of the measures are given in Table 1.
Correlations among cognitive ability, thinking dispositions, crit- ical thinking performance and GPA were examined (Table 2). Re- sults showed that among the dispositional variables, need for cognition, openness, and concern for truth were positively related with each other, whereas conscientiousness was set apart from them. It was also observed that cognitive ability was positively re- lated to openness and concern for truth but not need for cognition or conscientiousness. Furthermore, only cognitive ability and the tendency to be concerned about truth were significantly related to critical thinking performance.
In contrast, academic performance (GPA) bore no relationship with either cognitive ability (VCI) or critical thinking performance (HCTAES scores), yet higher GPA was related to the tendency to be conscientious.
A hierarchical multiple regression analysis was conducted to predict the HCTAES scores with the variables entered in the follow- ing steps: (1) gender and age, (2) the cognitive index of VCI, (3) thinking dispositions of need for cognition, openness, conscien- tiousness, and concern for truth. Results showed that after control- ling for the effects of age, gender, and cognitive ability, concern for truth contributed a 7% unique variance in the HCTAES score (Table 3). Together these variables accounted for 32% of the variance in the HCTAES score.
As in previous Western studies, the results provide clear evi- dence that dispositional factors exert significant and unique influ- ences on critical thinking performance. In other words, cognitive ability alone is not adequate as an explanation of individual differ- ences in critical thinking performance. Furthermore, insights about the relative importance of various dispositional factors affecting Chinese students’ critical thinking were generated.
While need for cognition, openness, conscientiousness, and truth-seeking have been well recognized in the Western literature as important traits in good critical thinkers, the present results
Table 2 Correlations among cognitive, dispositional, and performance measures (Pearson correlation coefficients).
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. Cognitive ability (VCI)
2. Need for cognition (NCS)
3. Openness .23** .56** – 4. Conscientiousness �.01 .16 �.10 – 5. Concern for Truth .35** .31** .35** .07 – 6. Critical thinking
(HCTAES) .45** .10 .06 �.08 .34** –
7. GPA .11 �.14 .03 .21* .17 .08 –
Note: VCI = Verbal Comprehension Index of WAIS-III. NCS = Need For Cognition Scale-Short Form. Openness = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Openness to Experience Subscale. Conscientiousness = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Conscientiousness Sub- scale. Concern for Truth = Concern for Truth Scale. HCTAES = Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Using Everyday Situations. * p < .05.
** p < .01.
K.Y.L. Ku, I.T. Ho / Personality and Individual Differences 48 (2010) 54–58 57
indicate that only the tendency to be concerned about truth signif- icantly predicts Chinese students’ critical thinking performance. Specifically, the Concern for Truth Scale contains items that reflect the tendency to look for answers or solutions from preconceptions, authorities or other people, rather than exercising independent judgment based on truth, evidence, and reasoning. This pattern of results, together with previous findings about Chinese students scoring particularly low on truth-seeking when compared to Wes- tern students (Ip et al., 2000; McBride et al., 2002b; Tiwari et al., 2003), probably reflects differences in the cultural context in which critical thinking is exercised in Western and Chinese societies.
In the Western context, where individualistic orientations are generally recognized to be strong (Hofstede, 1983), diversity in opinion is respected and indeed valued. When the situation calls for judgment, what is considered good thinking is characterized by analyses based on objective standards of rationality, with di- verse opinions being treated in a fair manner. The willingness to put in cognitive effort, to be open to various possibilities, to direct one’s thinking in a systematic manner and to seek truth are all dis- positions that would contribute to this active process of thinking where many different viewpoints need to be considered.
In contrast, Hong Kong is a Chinese society where traditional Confucian-collectivistic values still exert potent influences (see, for example, related studies reported in Bond, 1996; Watkins & Biggs, 1996). In this cultural context where higher values are placed on respect for authority, tradition and social harmony, diversity in opinion may not be well appreciated. When issues arise, people are encouraged to judge and act with reference to the perceptions and feelings of others (Gabrenya & Hwang, 1996). For an individual to exercise the kind of independent judg- ment encouraged in the West, which may generate viewpoints that
Table 3 Hierarchical regression analysis predicting critical thinking performance (standardized Be
Gender Age VCI NCS Open
1 �.06 �.21*
2 .01 �.13 .46** 3 �.01 �.12 .40** .00 �.12
Note: VCI = Verbal Comprehension Index of WAIS-III. NCS = Need For Cognition Scale- Conscientiousness = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Conscientiousness Subscale. Truth = Conc Situations. * p < .05.
** p < .01.
are not compatible with the dominant ethos, a strong desire to up- hold truth and objectivity would be needed. In other words, in a society where people are tuned into giving priority to consensus and avoidance of arguments, the importance of a truth-seeking attitude as a determinant of critical thinking performance is highlighted.
It is worth noting that although need for cognition and open- ness did not predict critical thinking performance, both were pos- itively related to the concern for truth. Probably these traits are also a part of the composite of good thinking habits for Chinese students, yet their effects might have been subsumed under the salient need to uphold objective truth if one is to think critically in this cultural context. Indeed, an active engagement in thinking and the willingness to consider multiple perspectives could only contribute to the process of good and fair thinking when there ex- ists a strong motive to arrive at the best judgment based on truth.
Of interest is the revelation about the function of conscientious- ness. This personality trait appeared to be set apart from the other thinking dispositions and was unrelated to either cognitive ability or critical thinking performance. However, it was most related to academic performance (GPA) among the variables examined. This pattern of results could also be interpreted in the light of cultural factors. The high value placed on academic pursuit has always been a central tenet in the Confucian-collectivistic culture (Lee, 1996; Li, 2002). In contrast, critical thinking as conceptualized in the West has never been actively advocated in this culture, and careful rea- soning might not be considered most important in judgment pro- cesses. Therefore it is not surprising to see conscientiousness being more relevant for the pursuit of academic success than in everyday evaluative thinking. With the latter, the tendency to conform or adhere to preconceptions might represent the more habitual or even desired response, as discussed above.
The fact that conscientiousness rather than intellectual ability turned out to be a better predictor of academic achievement, to- gether with the finding that neither cognitive ability nor critical thinking performance bore any relationship with GPA, probably re- flects the strong Chinese belief that academic success is to be at- tained through effort rather than by ability (Hau & Salili, 1996; Lee, 1996; Li, 2002). A related factor is the traditional emphasis on rote learning and quantitative assessment methods in Chinese education (Tang & Biggs, 1996). In an instructional environment where the curriculum and assessment methods encourage effortful memorization rather than deep thinking, students with good cog- nitive or critical thinking ability may not stand a better chance of obtaining high grades than their counterparts who study diligently and conscientiously.
The present results do point to important implications for the nurturing of critical thinking in Chinese or other societies sharing the Confucian cultural heritage, many of which have only recently acknowledged the importance of critical thinking with the advent of the Information Age. There is clear evidence indicating the need to nurture critical thinking dispositions alongside the training of
Conscientiousness Truth R2 R2 change
�.12 .28** .32 .07*
Short Form. Open = NEO Five Factor Inventory, Openness to Experience Subscale. ern for Truth Scale. HCTAES = Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment Using Everyday
Table A1 Items of the Concern for Truth Scale.
Item descriptions (all items reverse-coded)
1 People say I am too quick to judge 2 I will hold firm to my belief even if there is evidence against it 3 I seek only evidence that support my opinions 4 The best way to solve problems is to ask someone else for the solutions 5 Things are as they appear to be 6 Correct solutions to problems should be determined by people in
authority 7 One cannot be truly open-minded when deciding what is right and what
is wrong 8 My views on controversial issues largely depend on whom I consult 9 Intuition helps us make the best judgment 10 Diverse views cause confusion rather than help clarify matters 11 No matter what the truth is, I will go along with the majority view 12 I do not enjoy reading widely to gain understanding
58 K.Y.L. Ku, I.T. Ho / Personality and Individual Differences 48 (2010) 54–58
related thinking skills. In particular, it is important to cultivate the value for truth-based judgment emphasizing objective evidence and good reasoning. Without this motivational factor, critical thinking performance would be significantly hampered even though the person may possess the ability to reason skillfully. In- deed, it has been demonstrated that in training programs, students with stronger initial dispositions toward critical thinking would show a greater improvement in critical thinking skills than those with a weaker initial inclination (Facione & Facione, 1997).
A related implication is that for societies with this cultural her- itage, efforts at nurturing critical-minded citizens may encounter greater obstacles due to the need to reconcile demands of indepen- dent and rational thinking with sometimes incompatible tradi- tional values and thinking habits. For example, fostering critical thinking in the Chinese classroom would entail fundamental changes in the learning culture, with students being encouraged not to rely too much on cue-seeking or model answers in their learning, to challenge authorities or assumptions when there is good reason to do so, and to engage more in reflection rather than memorization in their study.
The present research is limited in its reliance on a non-random convenience sample of students. The lack of a Western sample for direct comparison also limits the drawing of more definite conclu- sions about cultural effects. Future studies should include more varied samples of participants in order to examine the stability of results. Furthermore, the inclusion of different cultural groups for comparison and the use of experimental or longitudinal designs would help generate more conclusive findings. Despite these limi- tations, the current study has provided important insights that are worth following up. Cultural issues in critical thinking definitely warrant greater attention in future research.
This study was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (Project no. CUHK 4118/04H).
See Table A1.
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West, R. F., Toplak, M. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (2008). Heuristics and biases as measures of critical thinking: Associations with cognitive ability and thinking dispositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 930–941.
- Dispositional factors predicting Chinese students’ critical thinking performance
- Critical thinking dispositions
- Previous research
- Studies in the Chinese context
- Critical thinking performance
- Cognitive ability
- Thinking dispositions
- Appendix 1