Dr. Anne Niccoli, Captain Dante Vinciguerra, and Master Chief Kevin Leask tell the story of three initiatives at the US Coast Guard Leadership Development Center (LDC) in New London, CT to infuse critical thinking: a senior enlisted course, a command preparation course, and a service-wide leadership resource portal. These three examples illustrate the methods for infusing critical thinking in both online and classroom instruction; however, they are also a lesson about Coast Guard members as innovators and change agents.

Challenging Senior Enlisted Leaders

“I gained much from the Critical Thinking segment. Utilizing the references and providing the scenarios I was able to better understand the thought patterns and apply steps to make good sound decisions keeping with my values and the CG's. It was a benefit to see how others in Senior Leadership from various rates and backgrounds look at the CG and its people.” [SELC student reflection, 2014]

In 2012, not long after MC Kevin Leask became school chief of the Senior Enlisted Leadership Course (SELC), he was on a mission to make course corrections to deepen students’ understanding of their role in the organization. More important, he wanted his students to have more time to explore ideas, immerse themselves in different experiences, and apply new concepts.

It was the right time with the right people that led to a high-quality change in course design. When MC Leask sought assistance of the instructional support staff, he could not evade Dr. Anne Niccoli’s soapbox on critical thinking. While Dr. Niccoli offered data from education and organizations to support the urgent call for critical thinking, MC Leask was also keenly aware that the military also valued critical thinking. The enlisted and officer Joint Professional Military Education Continuum programs are clear about expectations: Professional Military Education should develop members’ learning from how to do to how to think. Thus, the mission was clear: redesign the SELC course map, in content and delivery, while also providing new conditions for enduring skills.

However, the first step was defining what critical thinking means to the Coast Guard:

Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion”.

Together with the instructional support staff, the team extended course foundational learning by developing a blended course; one that leverages the flexibility of online tools with classroom instruction. Moreover, the blended model afforded students an opportunity to acquire basic concepts prior to resident classroom experiences. The new course was deliberately designed to include three distinguishing features.

First, four of the five online topic modules were purposely designed to repeatedly interweave throughout the course. Although students read, explored, and engaged in graded discussions about Coast Guard Core Values, history, traditions, and leading change, these topics continued to permeate throughout classroom experiences. For example, while at the resident class, the students continued their learning on Coast Guard history and values through immersive experiences, such as visiting the Coast Guard Museum and by touring the historical tall ship, the Barque EAGLE. Furthermore, while at the campus, students completed a graded assignment in which they each proposed a plan to lead change in the Coast Guard, demonstrating application of foundational concepts learned online.

Second, principles of critical thinking framed the discussion board topics and expectations. But more essential, MC Leask guided the discussion by crafting follow-on questions and responses to prompt critical thinking. Moreover, student reflection discussions provided another entry point for fostering critical thinking. This supports ideas by John Dewey who espoused that we do not necessarily learn from experience, but rather by reflecting on experience. Researchers continue to uphold this view, and that reflection also enhances learning, self-efficacy, and performance.

Lastly, the third distinct feature ensures that student discussion board responses are graded using critical thinking criteria. Students’ reflections illustrate higher order thinking, synthesizing new ideas, and extending learning.

 “This lesson contained several things that I will take with me back to the fleet, including the Critical Thinking segment and looking at problem solving in a more structured way to improve upon. I enjoyed reading Character in Action and look forward to receiving the actual book. I also had to revisit several CG manuals for a refresher. I obtained 11 new references in my personal library and got to know a little more about my shipmates that I will be meeting in a few weeks. I would say most of classmate’s views are all generally aligned with one another as well as my own with a few things that I didn’t take into consideration especially with the Values Conflict (recreation).” [SELC student reflection, 2014]


But an essential question is how do we know these design and instructional strategies make a difference in learning and performing? As evidenced by statistical data analysis of student grades, we can point to the discussion boards, designed and assessed using critical thinking criteria, as a significant contributing factor to the student’s final grade. In addition, students must apply critical thinking skills to other graded assignments, such as their requirement to develop an organizational change proposal.

Preparing Commanding Officers

Within months of launching the redesigned blended SELC course, another new course was introduced: the Command Assignment Preparation Training (CAPT) course. The purpose of this course is to prepare officers for their first assignments as commanding officers ashore. This afforded another opportunity for infusing critical thinking and rigor in the ethics module. The Command and Operations school chief, Captain Dante Vinciguerra, was convinced of the potential value and quickly endorsed the idea because this deepens understanding about complex situations and enhances decision making skills required of commanding officers for nuanced situations they will encounter.

Prior to arriving at the LDC, students completed pre-work by reading ethical legal cases. Students interpreted allegations and applied fundamental learnings from pre-work in order to complete independent and group assignments that demonstrated critical thinking. Through classroom discussions, instructors guided and prompted students to engage in critical thinking. Student survey comments stated overwhelmingly the most valuable portion of the course resulted from classroom discussions.

Similar to SELC, the CAPT course also interweaves topics throughout the length of the course such as Coast Guard Core Values, accountability, decision making, and relationships with a goal of improving unit command climate. Likewise, the CAPT course instructors continuously impart reflection questions and challenge students to examine cognitive chains of errors. This technique initiated in-depth and thoughtful conversations, inspiring one student to reflect, “The command climate discussions really brought everything home for me and I will bring the lessons back to my unit.

A New Portal

The most recent innovation is a new online tool, the Leadership Development Resources (LDR) portal, which deploys resources Coast Guard-wide for unit-based training. Dr. Niccoli developed a library of over 50 resources with examples of questions and key points to engage members in meaningful, "round table" group discussions. The central aim is to deliver resources that nudge quality conversations to stimulate thinking, deepen understanding, and develop leadership skills.

The LDR homepage is simply organized with links to topic folders that include Core Values, Inspiring Leaders, Teams, and Communications. Each resource contains a one-two page facilitation guide sheet that includes links to short videos, summaries, and suggested discussion questions. To further assist with facilitation, the portal site includes a job aid for guiding discussions. The framework for developing discussion questions draws upon critical thinking criteria (1 - 4). More specifically, the questions seek to uncover assumptions, expand perspectives, take into account the situational context, and advance consideration of long-term implications and ethical consequences.

Akin to the preceding course examples (SELC and CAPT), the LDR infuses critical thinking by framing discussion questions to increase cognitive complexity and reasoning. Moreover, the LDR also interweaves Coast Guard Core Values across several topics.

Interweaving Themes and Anchors

We highlighted three innovative ways of infusing critical thinking to structure our approach using different deliveries and formats that encompass face-to-face and online experiences. But just as important, we illustrate the significant value of interweaving concepts throughout a course of study. We deliberately selected topics to create interconnections in course maps, such as core values. The interweaving is evident by the activities, questions, and reflections that guide not only instruction, but also student learning as indicated in assignments. More crucially, we anchor students’ learning experiences in core values and traditions within and between courses.

Keys to Success

While the notion of integrating critical thinking does not meet resistance from instructors, the challenge we encounter relates more to the “tactical” approach. MC Leask was the first to embrace change by deliberately integrating the critical thinking model. Other LDC programs also adopted the facilitation model and incorporated critical thinking more deliberately in their lessons.

Essential Critical Thinking Elements

Assumptions Perspectives



Missing Information









We believe an illustrative simple model hooks instructors because it easy to adopt, yet, it represents the essentials of critical thinking. Instructors can use these key elements to frame discussions, craft questions, and design assignments. Moreover, this approach offers a greater chance that instructors and students will draw upon critical thinking skills throughout their Coast Guard careers. We are expanding our efforts to provide instructors with the tools and skills they need to lead change while maintaining a steady course. In the near future we will create brief demonstration videos and offer workshops with the LDC’s Instructor Development Program.

About the Authors

Dr. Anne Niccoli: Instructional designer at the LDC; CAPT Aldante Vinciguerra: The head of Command and Operations School (recently posted out); and Master Chief Kevin Leask: The Senior Enlisted Leadership Course Chief.

Contact Dr. A. Niccoli at Anne.M.Niccoli@uscg.mil ; CAPT A. Vinciguerra at Aldante.Vinciguerra@uscg.mil; and MC K. Leask at Kevin.L.Leask@uscg.mil



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  2. Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). (2007). College learning for the new global century. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking. Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. California State University. (2002). General education scoring guide for critical thinking. California State University, Fresno: Author. Available at http://www.fresnostate.edu/academics/policies-forms/general-education/rubrics.html
  5. Di Stefano, Gino, F., Pisano, G. & Staats, B. (2014, April 11). Learning by thinking: How reflection improves performance. Working Knowledge. Harvard Business School. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7498.html