College classes that make one think - it's a basic concept assumed as a given. But many grads walk away with a diploma yet still lack critical-thinking skills. That's why some educators are asking students to close their textbooks and do a little more reflecting.
While pondering a problem in a plant biology course at Ohio University one semester, John Withers suddenly realized something unusual was going on: This class was actually requiring him to think.Skip to next paragraph
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Thinking is presumed to be the bread and butter of higher education. Beyond simply getting a diploma to land a job that pays well, the promise of sharpening thinking skills still looms as a key reason millions apply to college.
Yet some say there is a remarkable paucity of critical thinking taught at the undergraduate level - even though the need for such skills seems more urgent than ever.
Americans can now expect to change jobs as many as a half-dozen times in their lives - a feat requiring considerable mental agility. The ability to sift, analyze, and reflect upon large amounts of data is crucial in today's information age.
Yet a major national report released last year entitled "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College" raises serious questions as to whether undergraduates are absorbing these essential skills.
"Outsiders who find college graduates unprepared for solving problems in the workplace question whether the colleges are successfully educating their student to think," the report notes.
Critical thought certainly receives considerable lip service on many campuses. College websites beckon students to "learn to think critically." Classes with "critical thinking" in the title are abundant.
But Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington isn't convinced.
"Critical thinking, social responsibility, reflective judgment, and evidence-based reasoning ... are the most enduring goals of a first-rate liberal education," says Ms. Schneider. Yet research shows "many college graduates are falling short in reaching these goals."
That's why some college faculty are leading the charge to move the teaching of thinking skills out of isolated courses and into all classes. Much as writing is now often taught as part of every discipline, they argue, learning to think ought to be the goal of every class.
In the case of Mr. Withers's biology class, that's exactly what his professor, Sarah Wyatt, was aiming at.
Inspired by an initiative at Ohio University in Athens - where she was teaching - to focus harder on teaching students critical thinking skills, she directed her class to turn away temporarily from the usual round of textbooks, lectures, notes, and tests.
She asked them instead to break into teams and work to develop original hypotheses of a plant's development.
As Withers and his group began designing an experiment to test their hypothesis, they were forced to reconsider methods and conclusions.
What flaws and limits might be embedded in their approach? What could they know with certainty? What could they not know?
It was a challenging mental exercise, and as a result, Withers found he began thinking about biology outside class with more clarity, precision, and reflection than ever before.
At the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Esther Kingston-Mann is interested in training her students to think like historians rather than biologists.
But her goal of encouraging her students to do their own thinking is similar to that of Professor Wyatt's.
Like Wyatt, she has her students occasionally close their textbooks. In her course on the cold war, she asks them to read newspaper accounts instead.
They scan articles dating from the "red scare" in the 1920s on through World War II and then read further new accounts of relations between the US and the Soviet Union in later decades.
Later they collaborate in small groups, trying to identify in the newspaper clippings the voices being used to tell the story at a particular moment - and to note which perspectives and voices are missing.
"They're looking directly at the newspapers and not at a textbook," she says. "They find it difficult, but they end up liking it, and they feel more confident intellectually."
It's all part of asking students to hone their own thinking skills, rather than simply allowing them to absorb and repeat the material they find in their textbooks or absorb from lectures.
Unless the professor creates a situation where students are required to reflect explicitly on an issue, says Professor Kingston-Mann, "they don't necessarily carry it anywhere else; it's just 'something I took in that class.' "