Critical Thinking In University Education
Educational institutions, accrediting bodies, students and employers all agree: students need to develop better critical thinking skills.
Modern-day access to instant answers means many of us are falling behind in our ability to ask the right questions or analyse the answers we get.
Given our belief in the importance of critical thinking and our assumption that students learn it, I would argue that this debate is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood issues in higher education today.
But Daniel Willingham points out that evidence shows that such courses “primarily improve students’ thinking with the sort of problems they practiced in the program -- not with other types of problems.” That suggests that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the thinking skill from the content.The next steps involve identifying quality resources to support educators, reaching agreement on when and how to integrate critical thinking into the curriculum, and having much deeper discussions between corporations and educators on what critical thinking looks like in the work setting.These actions will enable students to become well-prepared employees and citizens.This study has been criticized for relying too much on the CLA, but that overlooks a much more fundamental issue underscored by a growing body of research: we don’t know what critical thinking actually is, and we can’t be sure that it even exists. Yet, if we realize that “critical thinking” implies a set of general thinking skills that transfer from one subject or domain to another, then the task of identifying exactly what those skills are becomes extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to accomplish.Those of us who work in higher education have assumed that we know what critical thinking is -- how could we not? It’s becoming increasingly clear that higher education has gambled on critical thinking, and it makes sense: given that so much information is accessible via digital technology, and given the rising costs of tuition, classrooms must move beyond being places where content is delivered and become places where students learn how to process that content -- or, in other words, where they learn to think.The challenge is identifying the best practices and incorporating them into the curriculum on a systematic basis.Across most institutions, the majority of educators have not been formally trained in critical thinking, they do not know where critical thinking best fits into the curriculum or where to access quality educational resources and, as a result, they are not in the best position to teach others or to evaluate the most effective teaching models.The good news is that there is substantial evidence showing that critical thinking can be improved with training.Research also suggested that improving critical thinking ability has a knock-on effect in improving problem-solving ability, openness, creativity, organisation, planning and making the right choices in life.A key question in the debate, therefore, is whether thinking skills can exist independently from discipline-specific content in a meaningful way such that transfer is possible.Writing on this, Tim John Moore, a senior lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, called this “the generalizabilty debate.” On one side are the generalists, who believe “critical thinking can be distilled down to a finite set of constitutive skills, ones that can be learned in a systematic way and have applicability across all academic disciplines.” Some notable proponents of this position are Robert Ennis, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois; Peter Facione, former provost at Loyola University of Chicago; and Richard Paul, director of research and professional development at the Center for Critical Thinking.