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.
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.' "
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.
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.
"All disciplines need to become more liberal-arts-like in their focus on the intellectual skills that underlie what they do," she says. "Some of that is critical thinking, some of it is broader and encompasses that."
If undergraduates aren't learning to think, one major reason may be that most higher education institutions don't know how to systematically teach it, says Elizabeth Minnich, professor of philosophy at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.
In an article last month entitled "Teaching Thinking: Moral and Political Considerations" in Change magazine, a higher-education publication, she argues that thinking can and should be taught more deliberately and intentionally in college courses.
She then goes on to describe the kind of thought process she most values.
"Thinking is neither coerced nor coercive," she writes. "It is exploratory, suggestive; it does not prove anything, or finally arrive anywhere. Thus, to say people are 'thoughtful' or 'thought-provoking' suggests that they are open-minded, reflective, challenging - more likely to question than to assert, inclined to listen to many sides, capable of making distinctions that hold differences in play rather than dividing in order to exclude, and desirous of persuading others rather than reducing them to silence by refuting them."
Rather than trying to "cover the material" in a class and force-feed terms and concepts to undergraduates, she says in an interview that she tries to cultivate open-mindedness, reflection, and a questioning attitude.
She might, for instance, begin a class using Plato's Republic as an occasion for "thinking practice."
Before the students are even assigned to read the Republic, she explains to her class the confusing mixture of tongues and nationalities Socrates and his friends would encounter at the port of Athens. For help, they turned to an old man, Cephalus, to ask questions.
"Then I ask the students, 'To whom would you take a question raised for you by an encounter with people(s) whose differences suddenly make you unsure of your own, hitherto unquestioned, values? Would you take it to an old person? A religious authority? A political leader? Your mother or father? A scientist? A friend?' "
Rather than just downloading content of the Republic, she wants to be sure "the students are bringing something to it."
The idea is that the students then begin to read Plato as if reading it through the lens of their own experience.
She often asks at some point: "What would you do if you were an Aristotelian? How would you see that tree, or how would you listen to your friend when they are trying to tell you their problem?"
There are, of course, a number of liberal arts college and a few public universities that consciously pursue critical thinking across the curriculum.
George Nagel is a professor of communications at Ferris State University, just north of Grand Rapids, Mich.
"I was pretty skeptical, probably a little cynical, like a lot of our faculty," he says. "I had the attitude [three years ago] - 'Hey, I'm already doing that and doing it well.' But it's funny, when you ask [the faculty] what they're doing so well, they can't really explicate it for you."
Now he and a growing number of faculty on campus are warming to the idea of specifically and intentionally teaching critical thinking in every discipline. Professor Nagel has received training from the Center for Critical Thinking in Dillon, Calif., and is now teaching others at Ferris to do the same.
But such notions are not always immediately welcomed on campus.
At Ohio University, Wyatt at first had to buck the tide of opinion among some colleagues when she retooled her courses to focus on critical thinking.
"What I'm doing is different than what normally is done," she says. "When I first started, people said that's going to be a lot more work and students won't get it. This is the way you do lab: You run the lab, the cook book, and this is what you get."
Today, instead of being in the academic doghouse, Dr. Wyatt finds her thinking-based classes are a hit - popular with both students and a growing number of faculty who believe she offers something of genuine value.
"They like the product we're turning out," she says, "kids who are actually thinkers."