Improving Critical Thinking in Higher Education-Possibly

In faculty responsibilities, institutional responsibilities, teaching on March 15, 2011 at 6:43 am

In Chapter 2 of Academically Adrift,  authors note that improving critical thinking is a skill that many university’s tout as one of their leading goals. Yet, according to the study, the improvement in critical thinking during the first two years of school is minimal at best—according to the authors, the improvement is statistically not above zero. The book authors state

An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains  [emphasis added] in general skills as assessed by the CLA. While they may be acquiring subject specific knowledge or greater self-awareness on their journeys through college, many students are not improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.” (ch 2-reading on Kindle so don’t have page #)

How can that be? Institutions require that students take a package of courses and one key goal is to improve critical thinking. How is it that institutions can miss the mark by so much? Similarly GE courses have as one of their goals requiring students to write a minimum number of words in a course. Why is it that students cannot write (well) after their first few semesters in college?

I have a couple of thoughts (I still haven’t finished the book to find the authors’ suggestions). One is that faculty have not been taught how to teach critical thinking. Most of us teach the substantive content in our disciplines and teach primarily in the way that we had been taught. We presume that if we learned that way, then students can learn that way.

I enjoy critical thinking questions and challenges, yet I am not certain that I do a good job teaching students how to think critically. (And we don’t’ always agree what that means.) I try thinking, musing girl silhouetteto model how we think in the discipline through the way I solve problems, but I don’t know whether I’m helping students learn how to do it or not.

Critical thinking is a skill and habit of mind that must be practiced. At the same time, one must have an interest in it. If I am giving a complex problem, case scenario or reading, I dive in. I presume that I will be able to read through it and analyze it enough so that I can understand it. I see it as a challenge to try to understand it.

Many of my students do not approach tough material or a complex scenario with the same gusto. They seem to just want  me to tell them the answer and they are uncomfortable with the idea that there could be multiple ways of approaching the issue and multiple solutions depending on one’s interpretation of the scenario. They are not comfortable with the idea that I want to know how they arrived at the solution—they just want to know whether their solution is the “correct” solution.

So far, the reading implicitly presents an argument that these initial courses should be taught by full time-tenured faculty who have had guidance in learning how to teach someone to develop critical thinking skills. On most campuses, however, the faculty who tech the GE courses are part time or adjunct faculty and those faculty may be excluded from opportunities to learn how to teach critical thinking more effectively.

My theory on lack of writing ability is based on my concerns with student plagiarism. I will not repeat here what I explained in an earlier post.

  1. […] In a later post, I discussed critical thinking as a concern: that students don’t “enjoy” the challenge of traditional problem solving the way I (and other faculty) do and that has an impact on whether students learn. If students do not see tackling and solving problems as a challenge (and we as educators should do as much as we can to make problem-solving interesting), then there will be a significant impact on student learning. […]

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