Why Higher Ed Needs to Bridge the Critical Thinking Skills Gap

Opinion | Higher Education

Why Higher Ed Needs to Bridge the Critical Thinking Skills Gap

By Frank Connolly     Sep 2, 2017

Why Higher Ed Needs to Bridge the Critical Thinking Skills Gap

Critical thinking is a tremendously important skill. But, it turns out, teaching this skill is no easy task.

The most recent results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) test—a standardized testing initiative designed to measure college students’ critical thinking skills—are not encouraging. Relatively few students who took the test showed any improvement between freshman and senior years, even at schools where critical thinking was part of the curriculum.

This is a serious problem that educators need to understand and address. But before diving into the potential solutions, it’s worth spending a few moments digging deeper into the results and the test itself.

The CLA+ tests are administered to incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors at more than 200 public colleges and universities. The results are typically not published, but this year The Wall Street Journal filed a public records request and was able to get details on the results at a number of colleges and universities that administered the test between 2013 and 2016.

Those results show wide divergences between schools, but they don’t necessarily explain why some schools perform well while others do not.

The Journal looked closely at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, which saw the largest improvement in critical thinking skills between freshmen and seniors. Both professors and students at Plymouth State noted that classes at the school provide little direct information about critical thinking; instead, they provide a framework for critical reasoning that leads students to ask the right questions and seek out information on their own. Essentially, critical thinking is baked into many different courses, rather than being the formal subject of any one course.

In this approach, students are given a problem to solve. At Plymouth State, students were asked to conduct a mock trial of Lizzie Borden, who was accused (but eventually acquitted) of the sensational 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts. Students in the course were also asked to design a class to teach how to create résumés and cover letters.

In courses like these, students are forced to think not just about the subject matter, but also about how to find relevant information, how to organize and consider that information, and how to structure and present what they find—all important critical thinking skills.

While these courses produced positive results at Plymouth State, similar courses at other schools did not achieve similar success. And, based on the Wall Street Journal's review of the data, it seems that large-scale successes are the exception rather than the rule.

Beyond question, this is a serious problem; without critical thinking skills, students can fall into, or reinforce, bad intellectual habits. One example: according to a recent survey in the United Kingdom, 52 percent of university admissions officers report that students have a hard time remembering facts. They blame a “Google It” mentality that encourages young people to rely on the Internet, rather than their own memories, for basic information.

In an environment rife with fake news and “alternative facts,” over-reliance on Google and other search engines poses obvious problems. Pair that with confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out and believe information that maps to one’s own beliefs) and you have a recipe for trouble.

Today’s educators need to do a lot more to help students understand how to evaluate information. One way they can do that is by giving them real-world problems to solve on their own; giving students the freedom to do their own research and draw their own conclusions is good preparation for the challenges of life outside the classroom.

That’s not to say that educators should simply sit back and take a hands-off approach. Obviously, when a student’s proposed solution is based on false information or faulty logic, the instructor needs to step in to provide corrections and guidance. Indeed, providing appropriate guidance in critical thinking needs to become a central part of the college value proposition.

Consider two paths: the first taken by a student for whom facts exist independently of reality, and for whom all facts (as long as they fit into an existing world view) have equal merit. That student’s intellectual development will be stunted, and her ability to make sense of new information will be compromised. Now consider the second path: one taken by students who have learned to evaluate all information that they encounter, and who understand the need to adjust previously held views in light of new data.

These paths diverge like those in the yellow wood. The travelers on those paths, while perhaps heading in the same direction, will have very different experiences.

Unlike the roads of Robert Frost’s poem, our two paths are not equal. Educators need to provide students with the critical thinking skills they will need in college and to navigate the garden of the forking paths that is their—and our—future. While the CLA+ illustrates the difficulty in preparing students for this path, it should also serve as a clarion call to action for America’s educators.

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