Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sticky Theories: A Lesson for Critical Thinking

Sticky Notes City by wsilver

A sticky theory is an idea, opinion, leaning, or belief we may "know" is wrong, but we just can't seem to be convinced is wrong. Our students have them, but teachers have them, too.

Falling victim to a sticky theory is often a matter of falling victim to confirmation bias or faulty assumptions, things we generally don't want to admit to others.   However, talking about sticky theories with our students on the first day of our Critical Thinking, Political Science, Philosophy, or other Humanities classes can introduce them to the course in an active way while inspiring them to open up to you and one another right away, too.  It always helps, as educators know, if we share a little of ourselves with our students.    Therefore, in order to truly discuss sticky theories and get to know your students, be prepared to participate.  Have one or two sticky theories ready to share with your students as an example of both the concept of sticky theories and as an example of intellectual humility.  Have vocabulary and prompts or examples at the ready to help coach students through group discussion.  In the end, prepare an assessment that emphasizes the most important aspect of sticky theories: overcoming them!

Be warned, however, that if you ask, you have to be prepared to handle any answer or response your students might give.  This is a brave first assignment, as students may be passionate about their sticky theories.  As another option, you can lecture about sticky theories during class time and ask students to respond to prompts in a journal, blog, online discussion post, or essay.

Critical Thinking Vocabulary and Key Terms

A great way to begin the lesson is with an overview of the vocabulary you'll be using in the lesson.  In addition to getting all of the students on the same page, it gives you a way to set ground rules before the discussion.  For example, you may want to define all or some of the following terms before beginning your lecture or activity.  Alternately, you can ask your students to define the terms.

  • Critical thinking
  • Confirmation bias
  • Assumptions (Generalizations or Stereotypes)
  • Sticky theory
  • Evidence
  • Intellectual humility
  • Self analysis
  • Ad hominem
  • False fact
  • Judgement
  • Hot-button issue
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy

After introducing the vocabulary terms, ask the students to take a few moments to jot down a sticky theory they might have.  Most will be benign, like having a strong belief about name brand versus off-brand groceries.  Some might be fact-based or localized, like thinking a "short cut" to school is shorter when really it takes longer.  Others might be more controversial and might be based on gender, religious, or racial stereotypes.  Walk around the room and be prepared to monitor and guide responses.   Coach and remind students that inflammatory opinions or opinions that may hurt or offend others should be kept private.

Sticky Theory Discussion

Conversations about sticky theories can help students not only identify, but learn to overcome, erroneous sticky theories.

If your class is small, the discussion can be with your entire class.  However, for larger classes, break the students into groups of 3 to discuss their sticky theories.  Ask the students to try to come to a conclusion about why they have their sticky theories, what the source of the theory might be, and what kind of evidence might one day convince them to change their minds.  Walk from group to group to listen to their conversations and share your sticky theories with them.  Ask questions to prompt students who may be having a difficult time coming up with a sticky theory.  Redirect any conversations that veer off topic or get too heated.  Remind students that oftentimes people carry sticky theories with them from childhood, even when they suspect the theory is erroneous.

Homework or Flipped Lesson

Because the activity and discussion takes place during class hours, a flipped lesson plan can be used in place of the traditional lecture.  Prior to the class meeting you could ask your students to look at the original source of the sticky theory theory, a paper entitled "Sticky Theories"  presented by Dorsten and Hotchkiss in 2005.

As homework or assessment following the discussion activity, any number of objective-based assessments can be given based on both the activity and the reading, depending on the level of your class.  For example, questions on a quiz or exam might include the following Bloom's Taxonomy verbs.

  • Students will define "sticky theory" and identify their own sticky theories.
  • Students will explain the type of evidence they would accept in order to counter their sticky theories.
  • Students will research sources that both support and refute their sticky theories.
  • Students will use evidence to argue against their sticky theories.

Just as with any lesson, faculty must prepare ahead of class in order to effectively discuss sticky theories.  Introducing vocabulary to the students gives faculty the opportunity to introduce the lesson while setting ground rules for academic discussion.  Preparing personal examples of sticky theories can help a faculty member relate to and offer examples to the students.  Preparing additional prompts and gauging the appropriateness of discussion will make the class run much more smoothly. Last, but not least, preparing an assessment activity that emphasizes the importance of overcoming sticky theories by the use of evidence will help ensure student understanding.

Want to read more about critical thinking?  Try

Stages in the Development of Critical Thinking
Why Do I Have to Prewrite?
The Difference Between Persuasion and Argumentation
Writing an Argumentative Essay: Basic Terminology
Assessing Critical Thinking


  • Dorsten, L. & Hotchkiss, H. L. (2005). Sticky Theory.   Retrieved from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p21989_index.html

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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