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Students need to develop critical thinking skills: study

A new Canadian study in post-secondary education finds that rather than learning the theory behind critical thinking, students come out being better thinkers and reasoners once they’ve taken courses that focus on developing their practical skills as critical thinkers.

As we head towards the start of another school year, the perennial question gets posed about Canadian post-secondary education: what do we want out of our colleges and universities?

Employers consistently report that along with the specialized, so-called hard skills developed in science and engineering programs, the demanding, ever-shifting terrain of today’s labour market requires that students come out of university or college with a well-developed set of transferable “soft skills” in things like communication, teamwork and, most importantly, critical thinking, that skill set commonly defined as the ability to both interpret and analyze information and to apply that knowledge in one’s thoughts, ideas and actions.

But opinions diverge over how best to implant critical thinking skills. Do students need to take philosophy courses in informal logic and reasoning in order to become good thinkers or do they best develop the skill indirectly through any number of study programs? Can this type of thinking even be taught at all in a lecture hall setting or is it really the end result of a lifelong development curve?

It turns out that, yes, students do need to take courses directly aimed at developing them but, no, those courses don’t have to be the theory-based, informal logic variety.

That’s the conclusion of a study from researchers at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), an agency of the provincial government, which found that students in programs where critical thinking skills are explicitly taught fare better on a ratings system than both students in programs where such skills are only implicitly delivered and students who take philosophy courses in the subject.

The researchers tested 650 students studying at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario, and enrolled in one of three types of courses: philosophy courses in the theory of critical thinking, reading and writing courses that explicitly taught critical thinking skills and vocational courses that have critical thinking as merely one of many implicit learning objectives.

Using a skills-assessment score card developed at Humber College, the researchers had 46 faculty members evaluate the students on their abilities as critical thinkers, with the results showing that the students who studied the theory of critical thinking fared worse than students in both other groups and that the students who took the reading and writing courses which explicitly developed critical thinking skills scored better than those in the vocational program.

“Critical thinking and written communication skills, like any other skill, need to be developed and practised over time,” say the study’s authors. “We found that the students in the reading and writing courses had comparatively higher levels of achievement.”

The study also found that the gains in critical thinking take a while to accrue, as students in the later years of their programs fared better on the assessment test than those in the early years.

“These skills cannot be mastered by all in a two‐semester period, as demonstrated by the initial empirical evidence.” say the authors, “Consequently, we would recommend that explicit critical thinking and communication skills‐building courses be positioned in each year of a student’s program of study to allow for sufficient time for these skills to develop and mature.”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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