Social Innovation

Employers rate it, universities teach it, but what is critical thinking?

A stockbroker looks at stock index numbers on his computer screen at a brokerage firm in Mumbai August 6, 2007. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

Martin Davies explores the concept of critical thinking, and whether universities are doing enough to teach it. Image: REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

Martin Davies
Principal Fellow/Associate Professor in Higher Education, University of Melbourne
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There has been a spate of articles and reports recently about the increasing importance of critical thinking skills for future employment.

A 2015 report by the Foundation for Young Australians claims demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen 158% in three years. This data was drawn from an analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6,000 different sources in the period 2012-2015.

The report found employers can pay a premium for many enterprise skills. For example, evidence of problem solving and critical thinking skills resulted in a higher mean salary of A$7,745. This was a little more than for those with skills in financial literacy ($5,224) and creativity ($3,129). However, presentation ($8,853) and digital literacy ($8,648) skills appeared to be the most desired – or rewarded.

Being a good critical thinker is a desirable trait for getting a job in today’s economy. Why wouldn’t it be? What business or enterprise does not want a good critical thinker?

An old refrain

Actually, none of this is really new – although the pace might have quickened of late. Employers have long been insisting on the importance of critical thinking skills.

In 2006, a major report by a consortium of more than 400 US employers ranked “critical thinking” as the most desirable skill in new employees.

It was ranked higher than skills in “innovation” and “application of information technology”. Surprisingly, 92.1% regarded critical thinking as important, but 69.6% of employers regarded higher school entrants to university “deficient” in this essential skill.

Employers increasingly recognise what is needed in graduates is not so much technical knowledge, but applied skills, especially skills in critical thinking.

These skills are also said to be important within companies themselves as drivers of employee comprehension and decision making.

What is critical thinking, anyway?

But what is critical thinking? If we do not have a clear idea of what it is, we can’t teach it.

It is hard to define things like critical thinking: the concept is far too abstract.

Some have claimed that critical thinking is not a skill as much as an attitude, a “critical spirit” — whatever that might mean (of course it could be both).

Others have suggested that it comprises skills in argumentation, logic, and an awareness of psychology (cognitive biases).

But this does not help get a crisp and clear understanding.

Over the years theorists have tried to nail down a definition of critical thinking. These include:

“…reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”

“…the ability to analyse facts, generate and organise ideas, defend opinions, make comparisons, draw inferences, evaluate arguments and solve problems.”

“…an awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions, plus the ability and willingness to ask and answer them at appropriate times.”

“…thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking to make your thinking better.”

Whatever definition one plumps for, the next question that arises is what are universities doing about teaching it?

A ‘graduate attribute’

Universities claim that they impart critical thinking to students as a “graduate attribute”.

Look at any carefully-prepared institutional list of hoped-for graduate attributes. “Critical thinking” — or its synonyms “analytical thinking”, “critical inquiry” etc — will be there. (Some examples: here, here and here.)

Universities like to think that students exit their institutions thinking much more critically compared to when they went in.

However, what is the evidence for this assumption? Has any university pre-tested for critical thinking skills at admission, and post-tested upon completion of degree to assess gains? Not that I know of.

There are well-validated tests of critical thinking that could be used for such a purpose, the California Critical Thinking Assessment Test being the most used. Others include the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests.

Why hasn’t this been done? I suspect because universities would be justifiably worried about what the results might indicate.

In the margin — and tangentially — some (pessimistic) academics have countered that universities promote precisely the opposite of critical thinking; a culture of uncritical left-wing orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that takes the form of cultural attitude or milieu within the sector and which largely goes unchallenged.

To counter these trends, a group of politically diverse scholars have set up a Heterodox Academy. They agitate for the importance of teaching students how – not what – to think.

How do you teach it?

There is some justification in the claim that universities do not teach critical thinking, despite their oft-cited claims that they do.

In the US media recently, there was a heightened concern about the teaching of critical thinking in universities.

This was sparked by a recent large-scale study – and later a book – using Collegiate Learning Assessment data in the US.

The book provoked widespread interest and media attention in the US, especially on the topic of universities’ failure to teach critical thinking.

It placed serious doubt on the assumption that critical thinking was being adequately taught on American college campuses. It created a storm of discussion in the popular media.

And there is no shortage of studies demonstrating that “very few college courses actually improve these skills”.

Definition unimportant?

How, then, to define critical thinking? It is certainly not an easy question to answer. But perhaps a definition of it is, in the end, unimportant. The important thing is that it does need to be taught, and we need to ensure graduates emerge from university being good at it.

One thing is certain: beyond vague pronouncements and including “critical thinking” among nebulous lists of unmet or hoped-for graduate attributes, universities should be paying more attention to critical thinking and doing a lot more to cultivate it.

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