University students are often faced with endless streams of assignments, midterms and tests. We are frequently worried about whether we are: taking the right classes to maximize our GPA, getting into that major that will look “competitive” on our CV, and making sure that we are checking off the requirements for graduation. All of this worry and anxiety is shouldered so that we can, hopefully, improve our postgraduate prospects, be they professional or otherwise.
But is all of this stress turning students into robots who are chasing after nothing but certain numbers and a piece of paper? In recent years, a popular claim in the discourse of higher education has been that university students are graduating without acquiring the requisite capabilities to think critically. A study published in 2011 in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses concluded that, “many students showed no meaningful gains on key measures of learning during their college years.”
But the findings of this study then pose some questions – what does it mean to think critically? Is it a “skill” that students can really develop and learn, like literacy and numeracy? And is the university the only place where students can learn how to think critically?
For me, critical thinking means that we are able to be flexible and to understand the different perspectives that we are encountering. One of the things that I frequently think of when critical thinking is mentioned is my degree in history. When I tell people that I majored in history, I am frequently greeted with the response of “Oh, so all you have to do is memorise dates of wars – right?” Yes, that is part of the course of study, but one of the things that we are also encouraged to do is to understand the root causes of these wars (and their relative importance), their impacts, and the many contesting opinions that arise from them. These analyses are often coupled with the idea that our interpretations of the past are often evolving. (The topic of what you get out of our degree is also something that Flint and I reflected on in the first episode of our podcast this summer.)
Examining things on a bigger scale, critical thinking means taking a step back from whatever ideas, events or opinions we are looking at and asking ourselves: “Hang on, but why?” This forces us to reflect on the experiences that have formed our frame of reference, and also to question those belonging to others. It allows us to be empathetic and to better relate to one another. These traits are important when we have to solve problems that involve people with a diverse array of personalities, from a diverse range of backgrounds. Additionally, critical thinking is crucial in its ability to train us to be creative, which is an important soft skill to acquire on top of the many hard skills we already have in an ever changing, fast-paced world.
In the latest episode of our podcast, in[Tuition], we explored the meaning of critical thinking with Dr. Neil Armitage (Dept. of Sociology) and Dr. Jenny Peterson (Dept. of Political Science). We discussed if the ability to be creative and experimental is a risk that many students can afford while they go through the race of university, and concluded that there are some practical steps that students can take to embark on a more adventurous journey in their academic careers.