The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Does College Teach Critical Thinking?

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Written by Jen Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog published a post titled, “Yes, Colleges Do Teach Critical Thinking Skills.” This article reviewed work by Christopher Huber and Nathan Kuncel, who undertook a large-scale meta-analysis on 71 papers published in the last 50 years that reported on changes in critical thinking in college students.

What Huber and Kuncel found was interesting: students’ critical thinking skills DO improve in college. Yet, students seem to develop these skills with or without explicit education in how to be a critical thinker. Beyond this finding, Huber and Kuncel reported that:

  • College students do make measurable and substantial gains in critical thinking during their undergraduate studies.
  • There is no “unequivocal” support for the notion of an “acceleration effect,” wherein students learn more critical thinking skills in the later years of their undergraduate experience.
  • Those interested in studying their students’ critical thinking skills should carefully consider their methodology for doing so, as effect size differences were evident in cross-sectional vs. longitudinal research designs.
  • Observed gains in critical thinking skills seem to have decreased over time, despite increased emphasis on critical thinking pedagogies.
  • College fosters increases in critical thinking disposition, meaning that students identify and appreciate the need to be critical thinkers in different life contexts.
  • When considering all findings together, teaching domain-general critical thinking skills may not be the best use of classroom resources.

Despite these findings, questions remain about critical thinking. If students are learning about critical thinking in college, and that learning is not attributable to coursework focused on critical thinking, where are students learning this skill? Does maturation and experience come into play? If so, how? Do internships or other clinical experiences impact development of critical thinking? What influence might Interdisciplinary education have? Are we measuring critical thinking skills in a valid manner? Should critical thinking be measured differently according to disciplinary teachings/emphases? Yes, many questions about critical thinking still remain!

Have you measured critical thinking in your students? What methods did you use? What did you find out? Can you link critical thinking directly to a course or pedagogical choice? We’d love to hear about your experiences here! Please comment below to share.


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