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)
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critical thinking skills
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?
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.
The findings of a recent study documenting differences between the priorities that faculty and students give to various learning goals will not come as a surprise to many. Those differences are an undercurrent that flow through most classes.
When learners reflect, they thoughtfully consider (or reconsider) an experience. If the reflection is critical, it challenges the customary ways of understanding or explaining an experience. Critical reflection questions meanings and looks at assumptions. The opportunity to reflect on experiences develops critical thinking skills and helps students to learn things for themselves.
Helping students develop critical-thinking skills and discipline-specific knowledge remain at the forefront of faculty goals for undergraduate education, with 99.6 percent of faculty indicating that critical-thinking skills are “very important” or “essential” and 95.1 percent saying the same of discipline-specific knowledge. Other top goals include helping students to evaluate the quality and reliability of information (97.2 percent) and promoting the ability to write more effectively (96.4 percent).