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Critical Thinking, Reflective Practice, and Adaptive Expertise in Engineering

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Student Learning, Problem Solving, & Critical Thinking 2

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.342.1 - 24.342.17



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Paper Authors


Nathan M. Hicks University of Florida Orcid 16x16

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Current graduate student in materials science and engineering at the University of Florida. Spent three years teaching high school math and science before returning to graduate school for an advanced degree.

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Amy Elizabeth Bumbaco University of Florida


Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

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Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Dean's Fellow for Engineering Education, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida. He conducts research in the areas of engineering problem-solving, critical thinking, active learning, and qualitative methodologies.

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Critical Thinking, Reflective Practice, and Adaptive Expertise in EngineeringThis synthesis paper examines the concepts of critical thinking, reflective practice, and adaptiveexpertise as represented throughout academic literature. The ABET EAC does not explicitlymention critical thinking in its accreditation criteria, however, many of the expected studentoutcomes listed are considered to require the use of critical thinking. Further, the missionstatements of many engineering programs now reflect this desire to develop critical thinking andits related skills. Despite these trends, in their book, Academically Adrift, Arum and Roskachallenged the ability of the educational community to develop the ability of students to employcritical thinking.An evaluation of some definitions of critical thinking shows a relationship between criticalthinking, reflective practice, and adaptive expertise, and though articles exist discussing eachtopic individually, the discussion incorporating the three topics as a whole remains limited. Thispaper aims to provide a thorough understanding of each concept, review techniques ofoperationalization for each, consider the present application of each concept within engineering,develop a connection between the topics, and suggest limitations of current applications andpotential areas for future exploration.Literature searches were conducted across all academic literature accessible through GoogleScholar and the university library database available to the researcher to determine a baseline forthe definition of each concept. A second set of searches sought to capture the most relevanttechniques that have been developed related to measuring the extent to which individuals usecritical thinking, reflective practice, and adaptive expertise. A third set of searches lookedspecifically for the relevance and use of each concept within the field of engineering. Aconsideration of these sources as a whole allowed for a comprehensive understanding of thecurrent state of each concept and their relationships to engineering and one another.The literature describing the meaning, operationalization, and implementation within engineeringappears most prevalent for critical thinking. Discussions regarding reflective practices occur lessfrequently and the quantity of articles referencing adaptive expertise dwindle in comparison. Thedefinitions of these concepts lack an empirical basis and do not relate specifically to engineering.As each concept appears relevant and beneficial to the education of engineers, translating theseideas into the engineering vernacular seems to be a logical and progressive step. In general,engineering students lack a clear understanding of the way they think, but many investigatorshave attempted approaches to strengthen students’ techniques in various ways. Finally,operationalization for critical thinking is significantly more established than for either of theother two processes, and in general does not relate specifically to engineering tasks. In order foreducators to assess the growth of their students, a more comprehensive battery of measurementtechniques for engineers should be developed.

Hicks, N. M., & Bumbaco, A. E., & Douglas, E. P. (2014, June), Critical Thinking, Reflective Practice, and Adaptive Expertise in Engineering Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20233

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