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In 2010, the Noel-Levitz Employer Satisfaction Survey of over 900 employers identified “critical thinking [as] the academic skill with the second largest negative gap between performance satisfaction and expectation.” Four years later, a follow-up study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found little progress, concluding that “employers…give students very low grades on nearly all of the 17 learning outcomes explored in the study”—including critical thinking—and that students “judge themselves to be far better prepared for post-college success than do employers.” As recently as May of 2016, professional services firms Pay Scale and Future Workplace reported that 60 percent of employers believe new college graduates lack critical thinking skills, based on their survey of over 76,000 managers and executives.
An evaluation of a student-research project conducted by biologists at Stanford University found that the experience helped shift undergraduates’ conceptions of what it means to “think like a scientist,” from novice to more expert-like.
Photocredit: Getty For decades—for centuries, in fact—students have been listening to lectures, reading books and taking exams.
of a p53 student-research project conducted by biologists at Stanford University found that the experience helped shift undergraduates’ conceptions of what it means to “think like a scientist,” from novice to more expert-like.
Using a set of open-ended written prompts, the authors found that by the end of the course, students identified experimental repetition, data analysis and collaboration as important elements of thinking like a scientist.
“But because this course taught us to question our results and look for possible sources of errors, I developed a more critical eye when interpreting experimental results.” Remarked another student: “I am happy that errors occurred in the process, because troubleshooting them really helped me develop greater critical thinking skills, instead of just following the protocol.” conducted at Florida Atlantic University, where undergraduates were challenged to discover new antibiotics produced by soil bacteria that the students isolated from local habitats.
Researchers at the university gave participating students a critical-thinking test before and after they worked on identifying novel antibiotics (an undertaking that, not incidentally, addresses a worldwide health threat: the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics).Second, the experimentation in which they engage involves “iteration”: repeating a process a number of times, altering a single variable to find out what happens.Third, participants experience a significant degree of collaboration, with their peers and with the expert scientists who are their instructors.But that’s exactly what Generally understood, CUREs have five defining characteristics.First, they contain an element of discovery: the student scientists are bringing brand-new data to light.The test required students to analyze and interpret information; to draw accurate and warranted inferences; and to evaluate inferences and explain why they represent strong reasoning or weak reasoning.Although other types of interventions have generated little or no improvement in student scores on this test, the Florida Atlantic researchers found that taking part in the antibiotic-finding CURE did significantly increase students’ critical-thinking scores—while the scores of students who were enrolled in a traditional cookbook-style lab stayed the same or actually declined.Their study of more than 2,300 undergraduates at colleges and universities across the country found that many of those students improved little, if at all, in key areas—especially critical thinking.Since then, some scholars have disputed the book’s findings—notably, Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, in a 2013 article entitled “Three Principle Questions about Critical Thinking Tests.” But the fact remains that the end users, the organizations that eventually hire college graduates, continue to be unimpressed with their thinking ability.Meanwhile, students’ performance on course exams demonstrated gains in their ability to analyze and interpret data.Comments collected from undergraduate participants confirm the researchers’ conclusions: “Before, I would have been more prone to quickly accept the results from science experiments as being always correct,” said one student.