Large numbers of college students aren’t learning to think critically

In late 2010, Professor Richard Arum led an extensive four year study that examined the development of critical thinking skills in 2,322 college students spread across 24 universities and colleges. The participants were your traditional college aged students. The study’s impact and what it means for our education system are still resonating across academia and the web.

The findings actually confirm what many of us suspected: Our higher education system fails to significantly improve the critical thinking skills in a large number of college graduates. Here’s the basic findings of the study:

  • Forty-five percent (45%) of the students made no significant improvements in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college.
  • Even after four years of higher education, thirty-six (36%) [that’s almost 4 in 10] of those in the study showed no significant improvement in what’s called “higher order” thinking skills.

I don’t think most of us were necessarily surprised at all by the first two bullet points. And I know those of us who’ve studied the Liberal Arts in-depth are definitely not surprised (and a bit self satisfied too) by this last finding.

  • Students majoring in the traditional liberal arts — social sciences, humanities, natural science and mathematics — showed significant progress in higher order skills, like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in higher order skills.

According to Arum a number of students in the study had a difficult time separating fact from opinion, being able to objectively review a report or develop a clearly written and well reasoned argument in writing. There are a number of contributing factors to what’s going on. One of them is that colleges and universities aren’t demanding higher standards. The study revealed that college students are spending less and less time studying and more and more time socializing. And obviously students have more free time because less is being demanded of them in class.

It’s ironic that colleges and universities have been cutting back on liberal arts courses during these tough economic times. The very courses that have shown to consistently improve higher order skills in students. Outside of a specialty skill, critical thinking has got to be high on a potential employers list.

The study brings up two other points for me. If we have up to forty-five (45%) of students, after two years of college, showing no significant improvement in critical thinking skills we might ought to wonder whether we have some big problems at the primary and secondary schooling level. I realize we have other factors to consider at the primary and secondary level, but if entering college freshmen already had a strong foundation in critical thinking then expanding it shouldn’t be that challenging. If college freshmen entered college with those “habits of mind” already engrained then the journey forward shouldn’t be as difficult.

Secondly, if almost 4 in 10 college graduates aren’t showing any significant improvement in “higher order” thinking skills we can only imagine what the percentage is amongst high school graduates who never attend college. I suspect it’s pretty high. All of this can’t make us surprised by the increasing degree of social and economic challenges an every growing segment of our population faces in a technologically advanced, globalized economy.

2 thoughts on “Large numbers of college students aren’t learning to think critically

  1. Jeff, your article above brings to mind both Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind,” published way back in the late 80s, as well as the even older “Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers (actually a speech delivered at Oxford not long after WWII). Of course, Sayers was primarily addressing primary and secondary schooling, in which she suggests that we (or, well, it could very well apply here, in our own day and time) fail to teach our children how to really, truly learn. Of course, you’re likely familiar with Bloom, but he generally addresses the same problem in higher education. I wonder if we are not finally reaching a crisis point in education, born out in the findings you share above? And may we, possibly, return some investment in liberal arts and critical thinking skills?

    • I read Bloom’s book years ago. I’ll have to revisit it now that you mention it. I’ve read Sayers essay (speech) a few times. Good read. She was on to the importance of classical education and how it promotes the high order skills. I think we have reached a crisis in primary and secondary education. And that is spilling over into the performance of these students when they enter college. The U.S. has fallen way behind educationally on the world stage. Our problem is complicated because it’s intertwined with politics, ideology, economics and educational philosophy.

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