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.
(Page 2 of 3)
Yet some say efforts like these are still the exception on many campuses - despite a decades-long discussion on the need for critical thought in higher education.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At least since the 1970s, some college faculty have been calling for higher education to refocus on the "liberal learning" model espoused by John Dewey.
The philosopher argued that teaching students to be learners was the whole point of education. His belief that good thinkers make good citizens also seemed an apt message for the times.
Indeed, many seemed ready - even eager to inject critical thinking much more deliberately into higher education. Critical thinking became a 1980s buzzword in academe. Sometime in the 1990s, it lost its buzz - not because it was rejected, but because it was adopted wholesale.
Professors today often believe erroneously that they are already teaching critical thinking in their courses and that students are absorbing it.
But that's not necessarily the case, says Richard Paul, president of the Center for Critical Thinking and author of "Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World."
At the request of California's Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Dr. Paul and his colleagues in 1995 conducted interviews with faculty at 83 public and 28 private colleges and universities in California.
The professors were asked specifically how they taught students to think critically.
"The basic conclusion we came to is that while everyone claims to be teaching critical thinking ... the evidence is that very few can articulate what they mean by it or explain how they emphasize it on a typical day," Dr. Paul says. "It's something everyone wants to believe they are doing."
But if not teaching thinking, then what are colleges doing?
Patricia King and her colleagues in educational psychology at the University of Michigan have spent the last 25 years conducting experiments to assess the degree to which college produces "reflective judgment" and higher-order thinking skills in undergraduates.
The good news, she says, is that an increase in critical thinking appears to be a direct outcome of attending college. The bad news is that even by the time they graduate, most college students don't reach the higher levels of critical thinking involving true reflective judgment.
"They're making what we call quasi- reflective judgments," she says. "Even four years of college only brings traditional-age college students to a very low level of critical thinking and judgment," she says.
Seniors do have the ability to understand that a controversial problem can and should be approached from several perspectives, she says. But they are often unable to come to a reasoned conclusion even when all the facts to solve a problem are present.
"They're left on the fence," she says. "They say, 'Look how open-minded I am.' But when pressed to say, 'What do you think about this? What suggestions would you make and what are they based on?' - that's when the process falls apart. They are unable to reach or defend a conclusion that's most reasonable and consistent with the facts."
Pressure for colleges to cultivate critical thinking is growing, however, as state legislatures interested in accountability press educators to determine what kind of learning an undergraduate diploma represents.
Margaret Miller, a University of Virginia professor and director of the National Forum on College Level Learning, is leading the charge to measure what students at state-funded colleges know and can do, including an assessment of intellectual skills. She worries that critical-thinking skills are not truly valued by many state schools and their students.
"Students and institutions are more and more focused on the vocational - at a high level, but vocational nonetheless," she says. "But producing a group of non- reflective highly competent technicians is something we want to avoid if we want a functioning society."
Because the curriculum is so fragmented across many narrow disciplines, students have a greater challenge in making sense of it. That means colleges can't just ghettoize critical thinking in a few courses, but need to spread the focus on thinking across the curriculum.