Views of Critical Thinking

Two Views of Critical Thinking Skills in College

The student in the picture is getting advice from his teacher. The professor suggests that he learn and use critical thinking skills. This student is lucky. Most students are told to use critical thinking but get little instruction in what that means.

I have been reading Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and A teacher suggests ways a student can improve his essay.Josipa Roksa. In the conclusion, they write:

“More than 90% of employers rate written communication, critical thinking and problem solving …as ‘very important’ for job success of new labor market entrants. At the same time, they note that only a small percentage of four-year college graduates excel in these skills:16 % excel in written communication and 28 % excel in critical thinking/ problem solving.” p. 143

Most colleges do little to improve student skills in these areas.

Another book, Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation by Don Tapscott, takes the opposite position. He discusses the way young people today are growing up with computers and the skills they acquire as they interact with the internet, including chat rooms and surfing the net to find information.

Because they have the tools to question, challenge, and disagree, these kids are becoming a generation of critical thinkers. I can think of nothing more singularly important to the future of humanity. p. 88

How can respected researchers reach such different conclusions?

1. I wonder if, perhaps, Arum and Roksa focus on tests that show how much a student IMPROVES in these areas. Students who enter college having excellent skills in writing, critical thinking, and problem solving might not show much improvement.  I do, however, agree with them that colleges and universities should put much more effort in learning these skills as well as critical reading skills – rather than focusing on content that is easily forgotten.

2. The real difference, I believe, is in what they mean by their terms. Arum and Roksa are studying colleges and seem to use the terms writing, critical thinking, and problem solving as they apply to academia. Tapscott seems to use the terms as they apply to practical living, especially while using the internet.

Good academic writing is not the same as good practical writing. Academic writing includes an introduction, setting forth an original thesis, presenting evidence and well argued points to prove that thesis, giving sources for facts and ideas, and finally reaching a conclusion. Where, but in the academic environment, do people write this way?

The same is true for critical thinking and problem solving. In the academic setting, there are specific steps for studying a document and critiquing it with standard critical thinking methods. The computer literate students (and many who graduate from our colleges and universities) are not taught these but are somehow expected to know them. Many of these students have learned to think critically about what they read on the internet… Is this true? What is the sources? What to others have to say on the subject?  I imagine that after college graduation, this sort of critical thinking and problem solving may prove to be more helpful.

Does this mean one approach is better than the other? I don’t think the situation is as dismal as Arum and Roksa suggest. The academic and practical skills in these areas are both important. It would be helpful if college students were taught these skills – both academic and practical – in their classes. But changing the educational structures is not easy. I wouldn’t count on them.

My advice to students is this.

1. If you are not computer literate, find a way to learn these skills. Learn word processing, spreadsheets, social networking, and the many ways of learning with the help of the internet. Don’t just accept anything on the internet to be true. Question everything. Think for yourself.

2. If your academic skills in writing, critical thinking and problem solving are not strong, focus on improving them. If there is a writing center on campus, go to them for help in improving your writing. Take classes in writing skills and critical thinking. (I don’t know of any courses on problem solving.) Find books on the subject… and of course… search the web for information.  Hopefully you will also  find this website helpful.

Please share your opinions. Do you agree with one of the authors?

You might also want to read Complex Problem Solving  It describes the kind of questions used on the tests mentioned in Aademically Adrift and you can do well on problems like these.

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