Critical Thinking Instruction Through Project-Based Learning in Chinese EFL Classes- A Case Study in HE

  • Qiuling Bi

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for undergraduates in the twenty first century. The Chinese Ministry of Education has conducted a series of national curriculum reforms since 2017, aimed to cultivate university students' higher-order thinking skills. Although research in critical thinking pedagogy has attracted increasing attention in recent years, there is no consensus on it (Nagjie et al., 2020; Zou and Lee, 2021). This case study intended to explore whether CT-oriented PBL pedagogy is applicable and practical to developing students' thinking using a mixed method.

The setting was undertaken in a Chinese medical university with a group of 98 first-year undergraduates who studied College English as one of their modules. A 15-week CT oriented PBL teaching intervention programme was designed and delivered to the participants. Both quantitative and qualitative data was collected before, during and after the PBL intervention using the California Critical Thinking measurements (the simplified Chinese version), students' writing projects, questionnaires and interviews.

Three findings of this study indicate that CT-oriented PBL intervention is applicable and effective for students' thinking enhancement. Firstly, the results of CT tests demonstrated that students significantly developed generic CT skills (i.e. Evaluation, Analysis and Inference) and dispositions (i.e. Inquisitiveness, Confidence in Reasoning, Open-mindedness and Analyticity) after PBL intervention. Data from their writing projects during and after PBL instruction confirmed these findings of a significant increase in the use of content-specific thinking skills. In addition, the result from interviews with learners after PBL were partly in line with the finding in developing thinking skills. Secondly, results from the post-PBL questionnaires suggested that students held positive attitudes towards the effectiveness of CT strategies (i.e. thinking maps, group discussion and peer review) and PBL pedagogy. The interview results confirm the most positive attitude towards the strategy of thinking maps. Finally, data from the interview also indicated that CT strategies enhanced their thinking skills, especially in Analysis and Evaluation.

Taken together, these findings contribute to the empirical study of combining CT teaching and PBL pedagogy in an EFL field and a CT-oriented course design to improve students' thinking in the Chinese context. In particular, this study fills the gap between a unsatisfactory thinking learning outcome of the College English subject and CT requirement in the national educational policy. It is recommended for researchers to design a study with a control and experimental group to examine if positive results are achieved by integrating CT strategies into PBL pedagogy or the pedagogy alone. In addition, it is suggested for practitioners to create a learning community, increasing their CT awareness, acquiring related professional knowledge and developing thinking teaching literacy. Finally, it is advised for the policymakers or the leaders in HEIs, especially in the exam-oriented context, to reduce the pressure of the test results, increase the thinking teaching time and the percentage of measuring CT in the tests, eventually offering more opportunities for learners to practice and measure their thinking.
Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorQian Zhang (Supervisor), Emel Thomas (Supervisor) & Amanda O'Shea (Supervisor)


  • Critical thinking
  • Project-based learning (PBL)
  • Thinking maps
  • Group discussion
  • Peer review
  • EFL learners

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