How do Colleges Develop Critical Thinkers?

Excelsior College Develops Critical Thinkers by Focusing on Active and Reflective Learning

Studies show course discussions and increased student engagement can impact a student’s learning experience, regardless of a traditional classroom or online setting. This is why institutions like Excelsior College place increased focus on developing students into critical thinkers and incorporating both active and reflective learning to boost student success and retention.

With increasing number of companies today seeking employees equipped with both problem-solving and critical thinking skill sets, it is more important now than ever that colleges develop graduates to meet this demand.

But how are colleges developing graduates with critical thinking skills? And while we know that knowledge is lost when critical thinking skills aren’t applied, what exactly is critical thinking?

The dictionary defines critical thinking as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” At its core, an individual who questions statements and facts, to disclose or expose what we often take for granted, as erroneous or false; a superb questioner.

“In life, critical thinking should never cease,” said David Seelow, PhD, director of writing programs and online writing lab at Excelsior. “It is an ongoing thought process that promotes questioning, investigation, and analysis.”

With that in mind, it is not surprising the law is a common career path for the critical thinker. A trial lawyer questions every statement and every piece of evidence put before them.

But what about other career pathways? Excelsior Life recently sat down with Dr. Seelow to learn why critical thinking is important for college students and their future employers. Seelow has developed Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, a critical thinking webinar series for Excelsior College that concludes on March 26. The webinar is being led by Dr. Daniel Rothbart of George Mason University.

Excelsior Life: Why should college students be concerned about becoming critical thinkers?

Seelow: In college, students should be concerned about critical thinking because it is how they become informed citizens. If things are just accepted as they are, change will never occur. Democracy depends on critical thinkers. Productive civic engagement requires it too. In Excelsior’s School of Liberal Arts, critical thinking is an outcome required of our capstone courses because we feel every student should graduate as a critical thinker.

Excelsior Life: What tools should colleges use for increasing critical thinking skills?

Seelow: To increase critical thinking skills, colleges use assessment tools. Professor Peter Faccione has identified six tools for critical thinkers: analysis, inference, explanation, interpretation, evaluation, and self-regulation. Educators recommend at least some of these skills should be stressed in all college courses.

For example, reading a poem closely requires analysis, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. In a science course, students should read and understand arguments based upon evidence. Students should be able to evaluate data including statistical studies, and understand the inferences developed from this data. Reasoning skills help students construct arguments based upon empirical evidence.

Explanation comes with interpretation. Evaluation is an assessment of research. Self-regulation comes from monitoring your own thinking.

Excelsior Life: What about case studies? Should they be incorporated into the curriculum?

Seelow: To enhance critical thinking, it is recommended for colleges to incorporate case studies into curriculum. The case study provides a multidimensional approach to understanding. Harvard Business School has based its curriculum on the case study method since its founding.

Excelsior Life: How do traditional and online class discussions, impact grades and critical thinking?

Seelow: Class discussion impacts critical thinking regardless of the setting. In a traditional classroom, discussions show student comprehension of presented material.

Online courses have an advantage with critical thinking. In an online class discussion, students have more time to reflect on responses and practice critical thinking, even though it may lack the spontaneity of the traditional classroom. Another benefit is in the online class every student participates, not just the eager few of a traditional class. Finally, the online student has plenty of time to ponder his or her classmates responses to a question.

Excelsior Life: Why is critical thinking so important to employers?

Seelow: Two of the most essential skills necessary for success in a business are decision making and problem solving. Critical thinking is the fountain head of informed decisions and the ability to systematically solve problems. When business leaders are asked skills most desired among new graduates, the answers are most commonly good communication skills (written and oral) and critical thinking.