critical thinking skills
How do we make learning messy and unpredictable for our students—and why? I posed this question to the members of the Teaching Professor group on LinkedIn in July, and a lively and insightful discussion immediately began. This article is based upon the insights shared in the discussion.
Critical thinking is defined as a reflective and reasonable thought process embodying depth, accuracy, and astute judgment to determine the merit of a decision, an object, or a theory (Alwehaibi, 2012). Creative thinking involves analysis, evaluation, and a synthesizing of facts, ideas, opinions, and theories. Possessing the capacity to logically and creatively exercise in-depth judgment and reflection to work effectively in the realm of complex ideas exemplifies a critical thinker (Carmichael & Farrell, 2012).
I have taught the senior-level marketing capstone course for more than 15 years. That translates to something like 28 semesters of graduates about to embark on life in “the real world.” We joke in academia about calling it that, but in fact when one considers the sheltered life of a college undergrad of traditional age, the world outside is more real than what they have experienced in our classrooms. I do not profess to be an expert at getting them prepared to face that scary world, but I do have an assignment that I think helps them at least think about who they will be in that new place. It involves blue slips. What’s a blue slip? Pink slips you know, but not blue ones.
While some may be hesitant about teaching critical reflection in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, that’s where students and society can reap multiple benefits from this important skill.
The guidelines suggested below propose how critical thinking skills can be assessed “scientifically” in psychology courses and programs. The authors begin by noting something about psychology faculty that is true of faculty in many other disciplines, which makes this article relevant to a much larger audience. “The reluctance of psychologists to assess the critical thinking (CT) of their students seems particularly ironic given that so many endorse CT as an outcome…” (p. 5) Their goal then is to offer “practical guidelines for collecting high-quality LOA (learning outcome assessment) data that can provide a scientific basis for improving CT instruction.” (p. 5) The guidelines are relevant to individual courses as well as collections of courses that comprise degree programs. Most are relevant to courses or programs in many disciplines; others are easily made so.
The liberal arts college where I teach recently underwent review for accreditation. Like many other colleges and universities, we were criticized for our lack of assessment. Faculty resistance, it seems, may be the biggest barrier to implementing institutional assessment measures (Katz, 2010; Weimer, 2013). Both Weimer and Katz accredited faculty resistance to fears that assessment data could be used for “comparison shopping” and “educational consumerism.” While these fears are justified, at my college another fear prevails; the fear that assessment will lead to hand-holding strategies that will discourage independent thought in our students and result in failure to adequately prepare them for professional life.
Despite almost universal agreement that critical thinking needs to be taught in college, now perhaps more than ever before, there is much less agreement on definitions and dimensions. “Critical thinking can include the thinker’s dispositions and orientations; a range of specific analytical, evaluative, and problem-solving skills; contextual influences; use of multiple perspectives; awareness of one’s own assumptions; capacities for metacognition; or a specific set of thinking processes or tasks.” (p. 127)
Teaching students to think critically has long been a goal of education. Some, like the authors of the article highlighted here, think it’s a goal whose importance has increased. When today’s students graduate, they “must fend for themselves in an information environment characterized by a fragmented media establishment, blurb-driven news coverage, and an increasingly polarized political system. Given the normative bias, questionable logic, and contorted facts that people face these days, it is essential that students learn to discern and evaluate different types of information.” (p. 619)
Most college students struggle with the vocabulary of our disciplines. In their various electronic exchanges, they do not use a lot of multisyllabic, difficult-to-pronounce words. And virtually all college courses are vocabulary rich—unfamiliar words abound. Most students know that the new vocabulary in a course is important. They use flash cards and other methods to help them memorize the words and their meanings for their exams. Two days later, the words and their meanings are gone.
The elderly shop owner opposes a corporation that wants to build a plant in her town. She’s afraid that its products, similar to the ones she manufactures, will drive her out of business. At 70, it’s too late in her life to start over and, even though the corporation says it will hire locally, she doubts it will hire someone her age. Besides, after a lifetime of running her own business, she doesn’t want to work for someone else. How can she convince her fellow townspeople to rally against the corporation?