An Innovative Way of Analyzing Critical Thinking Skills

The goal of most majors is to develop the kind of critical thinking skills students will need to address the not clearly defined and conceptually complicated problems that most professionals regularly face. Faculty in the Finance Department at Seattle University wondered if they were preparing their majors to solve these kinds of problems.

They gave senior students enrolled in a capstone course an ill-defined problem (financial issues and options facing an about-to-retire couple) and asked them to write a two-page memo that offered advice to these clients. They discovered that students struggled mightily with the assignment. In order to better understand what made this such a difficult task for students, the authors gave students in an intermediate corporate finance problem another ill-defined problem and then analyzed the 35 response memos students prepared. In addition, they conducted 60-minute interviews with two students who wrote strong memos and two students who wrote weak memos. Their analysis led them to identify five critical thinking difficulties exhibited by the students.

  1. Students had difficulty understanding what makes a messy problem messy. Rather than recognizing the complexity of the problem, students tried to make the problem into one that had a “right” answer, one that contained an issue that could be resolved. They thought the instructor wanted them “to perform the right calculations rather than to justify a recommendation with reasons and evidence.” (p. 157)
  2. Students had trouble seeing the problem from the client’s perspective. Rather than writing to the client, the students still saw the instructor as the real audience and so they wrote to the instructor, trying to impress him with how much they knew. This meant many of the memos were filled with jargon unfamiliar to a lay audience.
  3. Students couldn’t decide how much detail a nonexpert would find useful. “The strongest students tried to turn their memos into minitextbooks.” (p. 159) They wrote long “teacherly memos” that really aimed once again to show the teacher that they had mastered the material.
  4. Students had difficulty writing client-focused memos with claim and support. “The memos were organized around the writer’s process of discovery rather than the reader’s needs for points stated first.” (p. 159) These student memos contained long, dense paragraphs that did offer advice supported with argument and evidence. But that information did not jump out at the reader.
  5. Students had difficulty creating effective graphics. They stapled spreadsheets to their memos without adding labels or explanations. The finance professor could figure out what was relevant on the spreadsheet, but the other two authors had not a clue what the spreadsheets were intended to show.

In addition to identifying these problems, the authors explore their implications for finance teachers and finance curricula. They start by recommending that critical thinking be defined explicitly. Students cannot be expected to understand what that means intuitively. “To think critically, we tell our students, you must ‘wallow in complexity.’” (p. 162) They reinforce the message with a handout that details what a critical thinker in finance needs to be able to do.

If students are to be able to solve messy, ill-structured problems, then students must be exposed to them throughout the curriculum. The authors recommend that teachers and curricular designers take a developmental approach, starting with less complex problems and moving to those that are more difficult. To get students past wanting to use a response memo to impress the teacher, the authors recommend that in addition to the memo, students prepare supporting documentation that can be addressed to the teacher.

Students might also be asked to write a reflection piece in which they explain how they determined what to include in the client memo and what to share with the teacher. Teachers should also work to play the role of the client—to respond as a client and not as the teacher. Among other suggestions, they advocate creating good models and graphics so that students have examples. This author team is currently “creating a handbook for finance students with annotated examples of rhetorically effective memos and graphics …” (p. 167)

Both of these articles (the one highlighted in the June/July issue and this one) are great examples of scholarly work on teaching and learning, but even more important, they offer an eminently sensible and innovative approach to assessing critical thinking skills and adjusting the curriculum based on the findings.

Reference: Carrithers, D., Ling, T., and Bean, J. C. (2008). Messy problems and lay audiences: Teaching critical thinking within the finance curriculum. Business Communication Quarterly, 71 (2), 152-170.

Excerpted from “An Innovative Way of Analyzing Critical Thinking Skills.” The Teaching Professor, 24.7 (2010): 3