When today's university student is asked to apply critical thinking skills to a specific social problem, does that student understand what is being asked and how to go about applying critical thinking skills? When questions from the professor involve, for example, the current dilemma in the United States Congress -- Democrats and Republicans engaged in a near-constant standoff when it comes to ideology and legislation -- does the typical university student understand how to approach those questions utilizing critical thinking skills? This paper investigates what the average student probably knows about critical thinking, what he or she should know, and how that student can become more effective in scholarship using critical thinking skills.
ONE: Address a Topic While Embracing Critical Thinking Skills
What are critical thinking skills? How are they taught?
An Australian university -- the University of Wollongong -- presents for its students a meaningful definition: "It can be thought of as better, more rigorous thinking" (uow.edu.au). Moreover, the idea of critical thinking revolves around the "…intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information…" that has been gleaned from a person's careful observation, experience, reflection or reasoning "…or communication" (uow.edu.au).
If that seems a bit too broad a description, the university provides a chart for the student to identify which everyday life activity involves critical thinking (and which do not). This is a very pedestrian exercise, but it makes a point. Obviously brushing one's teeth does not involve critical thinking, nor does jogging. But choosing courses at a university, buying an automobile, deciding between job offers, selecting a phone or "…traveling from A to B. with time and budget constraints" do involve critical thinking.
Moreover, the University of Wollongong goes on to explain that being "critical" in an educational setting involves evaluating and making judgments; and when one is in the process of making a judgment, he or she must distinguish between opinion and fact. And he or she must do the research and evaluate theories and examples through careful reading, giving valid consideration to all available viewpoints on the subject. The questions to be asked include: "What if?" And "How could?" And "What does this mean?"
Teaching critical thinking from a textbook:
An article in the peer-reviewed Educational Research Quarterly (Cotter, et al., 2009) points out that while many students are asked to conduct critical thinking on certain areas of study, and textbooks provide exercises on how to improve critical thinking skills, how effective those exercises are "…has not been closely examined" (Cotter, 3). Given that introduction, Cotter and colleague Carrie Tally conducted a study in which college students completed measures of "…formal operational thought" (another skill that has not been researched very thoroughly, according to Cotter) using the Group Assessment of Logical Thinking -- GALT, and also the students were to use critical thinking skills (3). For the critical thinking skills part of the assessment the researchers employed the California Critical Thinking Skills test (CCTST) both after and before several written assignments given to the students.
One of the points of this research paper is that textbook exercises have not shown to date to have provided students with any "…tangible improvement in critical thinking skills"; hence, the authors felt the need evaluate the quality of those textbook exercises (Cotter, 3). They speculate as to why it appears so difficult for students to grasp critical thinking strategies; possibly, they conjecture, it could be that critical thinking involves "abstract and deductive reasoning" and moreover it could be that without the proper "…cognitive tools" it is not possible to be fully competent with critical thinking skills (Cotter, 4).
The researchers conducted a project using 51 undergraduate students that were enrolled in a developmental psychology course in a regional university in a Southern state. The average age of these students was 22 and 47% of the class was made up of sophomores. Three-quarters of the class was female and just over half of the class was Caucasian. The remainder of the class was Asian / Asian-American, African-American and Latino (Cotter, 5).
The participants completed four written assignments that came from their textbook in the psychology class. The four assignments were due each month in the four-month semester. These were not intellectually challenging but they did require the use of "critical thinking" skills; the assignments required just two-pages of writing. The authors make the point that it was "assumed" that the assignments involved critical thinking because that's how the psychology textbook presented the assignments. The grades given to these four assignments were based on writing mechanics, clarity, and depth of thought -- along with the ability to "…formulate and present a logical, coherent argument" (Cotter, 6).
The results of the critical thinking assignments: a) the GALT and CCTST were "…significantly correlated, as had been anticipated"; b) the scores on the GALT and CCTST "…declined over the course of the semester, contrary to initial expectations" (Cotter, 9). The bottom line (Cotter, 10) is that the textbook's critical thinking assignments were not useful in helping to develop students' critical thinking skills. The authors suggest that textbook developers should "…examine more closely the connection between these resources and the skills they target" (Cotter, 10). In other words, though these exercises were not considered a "waste of time" by Cotter and colleague, the project they engaged in shows them that perhaps "…a more standardized definition of critical thinking" should be provided to students in order for them to learn the value of critical thinking.
Evaluating the article by Cotter through critical thinking:
The critical thinking that is applied in the here and now in this paper goes a step further than the authors of the previous article. To wit, why would alert professors and instructors rely on a textbook to teach critical thinking skills? Every instructor should take responsibility for providing the leadership needed to help students become critical thinkers. Whether the class is in history, geography, psychology or contemporary politics, it should be up to the instructor or professor to provide effective pedagogy. Moreover, every instructor has his or her own conception of what critical thinking is and its importance vis-a-vis the particular field of study being taught, and hence, teaching how to go about thinking critically is a craft in itself and should be utilized by every university instructor or professor.
Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking Skills in Psychology
This article explores several methods for teaching critical thinking skills in a psychology context. The authors used three groups of students in this research; group number one received critical thinking skills that were linked "…directly into their course," and two other groups did not receive the "explicit" instructions on how to conduct critical thinking (although they had the opportunity to look up the definitions for critical thinking from several contexts) (Bensley, et al., 2010). Not surprisingly, the group that had been given "…explicit critical thinking skills instruction" showed gains in understanding that were "…significantly greater" than the other two groups. Especially in terms of the analysis and arguments presented by students in the first group, there was substantial progress made by group one.
This study involved forty-seven psychology students (39 females, 8 males) in a small mid-Atlantic university. As a reward for participating in this critical thinking exercise, these 47 students were given 1% extra credit for the specific class they were enrolled in. The hypotheses used were: a) the more psychology courses that had been taken by the students the "…better the critical thinking skills would be"; and b) the class that was given a "…direct infusion of critical thinking skills would improve their CT skills more than similar psychology classes that received no explicit CT skill instruction" (Bensley, 92).
In reviewing the first hypothesis mentioned, the number of psychology course taken "…was significantly correlated with pretest argument analysis" (Bensley, 93). And of course those students in the class that was presented with explicit instructions on what critical thinking is and how to engage in critical thinking pointed to success for the second hypothesis.
The authors note that in the three groups that were used in this research, their scores on the SAT and their GPA results were very similar. Also, they had all taken roughly the same amount of science classes albeit the group that had taken the most psychology classes scored higher because there is a powerful element of psychology in the process of critically evaluating a subject or an event.
Developing First Year Students' Critical Thinking Skills
An article in the peer-reviewed journal Asian Social Science explains that well-educated students can utilize critical thinking skills in order to: a) make "well-informed judgments"; b) explain their "reasoning" when they arrive at required answers; and c) be able to arrive at solutions to "unknown problems" (Thomas, 2011). While earlier in this paper it was suggested that each individual instructor should take time in his or her classroom to provide explicit instructions (and training) as regards critical thinking strategies and skills, in this article the…