In a recent article in Times Higher Education (3 August), David Matthews explored how well universities were teaching critical thinking. Below is an excerpt from the feature.
According to Bryan Greetham, a philosopher and university researcher who has written several books on how students and professionals can improve their thinking, “We tend to want to do the simple thing – which is to teach students what to think, not how to think.” And it has long been an open secret in higher education that the sharpening effect, however defined, of a university education on students’ minds is far from well evidenced.
This was most famously explored in the 2011 book Academically Adrift: limited learning on college campuses.
The authors, American sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that 45 per cent of US undergraduates failed to significantly improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years at university. Other US-based studies have raised similar concerns. One from 2009, “Improving Students’ Evaluation of Informal Arguments”, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, warned that college and high school students have “difficulty evaluating arguments on the basis of their quality”.
But definitive studies of the issue are still lacking.
Robert de Vries, a lecturer in quantitative sociology at the University of Kent, became “convinced pretty quickly” that many UK students need “explicit, remedial instruction in these abstract skills. I get the sense that students are used to being marked for content – ‘Have you covered this topic? Have you mentioned this fact from the textbook?’ – rather than for the quality of their reasoning or argumentation.”
However, according to de Vries, university courses “often can’t devote the time needed to explicitly teach the abstract tools of critical thinking: how to construct a good argument, how to spot weak evidence for a claim. They have a lot of substantive content to cover, and, to an extent, they have to assume that students will have already picked up a lot of this stuff by the time they get to university.”
This state of affairs, he says, explains why he teaches a specific critical-thinking course, which is compulsory for Kent’s sociology, social policy and social research students, and can be taken as an optional module by other students.
For the full feature, see bit.ly/CriticalGrads