Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education

By Manfred Werner – Tsui (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployment, student loan debt, and protest are colliding with rising education costs, endowment building, branding wars, and labor outsourcing. At this tumultuous moment in higher education, this course asks students to reflect on the fate of liberal arts education through a focused analysis of its past and present. Specifically, how do economic pressures and technological innovations impact the sustainability of liberal arts values such as social justice, serving the public good, and cultivating a “life of the mind”?  Students will debate and synthesize arguments about the value and sustainability of liberal arts education by viewing higher education from the perspective of private corporations, governments, college administrators, faculty, parents, and students. In so doing, students will learn to situate their personal experiences within broader institutional, historical, economic and political contexts. Through reflective essays that incorporate both primary and secondary sources, students will develop critical thinking skills, authorial voice, and a sense of ownership over their own education.

Critical Thinking

According a dictionary definition of critical thinking, critical thinking is a disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. A person who can make decisions on their feet based on logical reason and acquired knowledge is said to be the best kind of person for a highly competitive work environment. It is because of these high demands within the economy that undergraduates and even high school students are forced to look at literature with a creative mind and go beyond that of the words on a page, but what the words imply. In short, getting young minds to think outside of the box.

I do believe that critical thinking can be measured, but in measuring the amount of critical thinking one can do, is there a specified amount of critical thinking one must meet before continuing on in pursuit of higher education? The difficulty in determining the quality and quantity at which a single individual should be able to think critically is controversial. Factors including social groups, cultural background, type of schooling, and family life are a few of the external variables that influence the way, not only students, but individuals learn to problem solve and think in a critical manner. Measuring an individual’s ability to critically think is nearly impossible, let alone socially acceptable, when so many indirect factors are necessary to help someone view the world in a critical manner.

The book, Academically Adrift: Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, explains how colleges and universities that have made recent changes to the organization of classes and curriculum have put aside the acquisition of ’critical, analytical, and logical thinking’ (Bok 2) for pure academic knowledge. As a liberal arts student, I have to apply my knowledge of my surroundings with academia. I didn’t realize that some universities, as Arum and Roksa have explained, have put a greater emphasis on the knowledge of individual subject of education and learning rather than the student’s capacity to analyze and formulate solutions to problems. Arum and Roksa later clarify how the use of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the ACT (American College Test), both nationally used college entrance exam tests, as “general education” tests have helped to socialize the lowering of standard requirements for students to entering college to that of the memorization of an individual subject versus the collaboration of minds to work together to problem solve; to evaluate the world in which we live. Whereas the CLA or the Collegiate Learning Assessment, is a test that assesses “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing” of an individual therefore determining their capability to reason and think for themselves (Arum and Roksa 21, 2011). Why don’t universities use both the SAT, the ACT, and the CLA together to determine the quality of students they wish to attend their school? All three test in tandem would help institutions uphold their high standard for academia while adding elements such as critical thinking to ensure the students attending and graduating from these prestigious universities are in fact well-rounded individuals. Therefore building a stronger foundation of intellectual competition as well as collaboration between students to reconstruct an institution that will produce graduates that are ready to work in our present economy.

Critical Thinking

I think critical thinking is a combination of skills that allow one to evaluate, understand, and analyze information in a sophisticated manner. Critical thinkers are people who have a more in-depth understanding of what they are learning. For example, someone who sees only one solution to a problem would not be considered a critical thinker because their point of view is one-dimensional. Critical thinking is multi-dimensional thinking. It’s the ability to see a problem, a question, a situation from many different angles through many different means.

I think critical thinking can be measured as part of a bigger entity. I’m sure there are tests where one can test their critical thinking skills but I think it’s most obvious if someone possesses critical thinking skills when they work on a project such as the one we’re doing in this class. Our experimental college design, for example, combines different academic skill sets and areas. It’s not simply writing a rhetorical essay, a research paper, or a math worksheet. It’s one cumulative project that forces us to engage with different materials, different parts of our brains, and different ways of thinking. The way we might think about the pitch for our college is separate from the way we think about the visual component to our project. That in itself is critical thinking. I think if you measured the quality of a project where the members employed their critical thinking skills and a project where the members lacked critical thinking skills, you would see a significant difference. Critical thinking is active, open, and non-simplistic and it certainly shows through one’s work.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking is an interesting term used to describe a certain ability to use aspects of cognition such as analysis, synthesis, interpretation in relation to a certain stimulus or given material. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the importance of the ability to critically think is stressed right off the bat. On page 2 the importance of the ability to critically think in the labor market is stressed. Having critically thinking skills has now become one of the basic requirements for many jobs today. Now that critical thinking has become so vital to modern economic survival the issue is if the students who come to college to learn and develop such skills are actually doing so. There is concern that the culture of college interferes with the cultivating of such skills. I think it is difficult to truly measure one’s critical thinking skills because I think that such an ability is always evolving and the term itself is highly subjective so figuring out a way to test whether or not someone has critical thinking skills is not so clear.

Critical Thinking

The term critical thinking is a widely used term when it comes to describing a better and more in depth way of learning. Critical thinking is the process of using your mind more intuitively, and thinking deeper about concepts and ideas. Instead of just listening to and writing down information and knowledge to later regurgitate back on a test, critical thinking is truly understanding this information and knowledge, while building upon them. This can be done through further analyzing concepts through discussion with piers and professors, essay writing, and reading multiple and differing texts. This makes a person able to form their own developed opinions and ideas based off analyzing the concept in depth through many different lenses. Creating your own ideas and opinions on a subject through deep analysis is truly what critical thinking is. I think critical thinking can be measured, but only to a certain extent. Effort is a large portion of what goes into successful critical thought. Putting forth a good amount of effort into a topic is the most successful way of critically thinking. You can see the development of someone’s thoughts through their writing and through what they say when discussing, which is a way the success of thinking critically can be measured. However I don’t believe a right or wrong answer is a type of way it can be measured. No ones answers when it comes to analyzing ones thoughts can be either correct or incorrect because we will all have differing, equally important ideas that come from personal places. Judging peoples ideas will only lead to people shying away from expressing what they truly think, which is detrimental to successful critical thinking. So to some extent yes critical thought can be measured by looking at someone’s effort and seeing the development of their ideas, but it cannot be measured in terms of right or wrong conclusions.

Critical Thinking

In my understanding, critical thinking is the ability to analyze a situation or idea and find deeper meaning. I believe to achieve critical thinking, a person must be able to seek a conclusion that is not obvious or given away by other means. I think critical thinking is something that almost comes standard in the average human being; however, how people use it varies. In the novel Academically Adrift, the authors write about how students will seek to take easy classes to improve their academic standings. This argument is used to express that students are not learning to think critically because they choose to avoid taking classes that would help develop such thinking. I would argue that students are using their critical thinking abilities to figure out the best way to gain an academic advantage. It is just a biological function. When we are young our brain actually prunes some of its neural pathways, and strengthens the ones it uses more. The brain does this to help give us an advantage in surviving in our environment. Therefore, we can consider our critical thinking as an extension of our biological drives. We use it to help us navigate a modern environment, one where our senses and instincts are not enough. Our abilities to resolve conflict extend beyond ourselves, which is why at schools such as Oxy, we aim to help better life for others who are less fortunate than us. Still, this is merely us using our brains to help the survival and prosperity of our species. I think that changing the ways schools function so that grades are not the focus of academics is a good way to allow students to critically think without having worry about taking classes that they can easily pass.

Can critical thinking be measured? By my definition, no. I think that critical thinking is not a trait that is gained, merely focused. If we do not need to use it to solve complex issues, we will still use it to try to figure out what will potentially give us an edge. To measure critical thinking, would be attempting to measure a function of the mind rather than the brain, which is not easily done.

Reflection: Critical Thinking

Many institutions believe that critical thinking can be measured, especially the SAT. However, many institutions believe that their teaching can be qualified, but not quantified. Many institutions boast of instilling critical thinking in its students. However, the reality is quite the opposite of the college’s claims. In fact, “there is emerging empirical evidence that suggests that college students’ academic has dramatically declined in recent decades( Arum and Roksa, 3). Many teachers tend to instill knowledge into their student with intent on scholarship and research instead of teaching. Is the amount of information a student knows indicative of critical thinking? Personally, I believe that critical thinking is the ability to solve problems in real world using the different fields of knowledge I have acquired. Arum and Roksa explain an exam that highlights this belief. A College Learning Assessment is a test that “consists of…a performance task and two analytical writing tasks…the CLA was designed to assess…critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing” (Arum and Roksa, 21). Unlike the SAT, one cannot simply prepare for the exam through preparation. It is test that tests “how well the student assesses the quality and relevance of evience, analyzes and synthesizes data and information, draws conclusions from his or her analysis, and considers alternative perspectives…”(Arum and Roksa, 22). Through this exam, there finally is a form of measurement that tests not how much one knows, but how one solves issues from what he knows. This is a great test because it will force institutions to focus more on improving not what to teach, but how to teach. This test ultimately shows that critical thinking is a skill that does not depend on what field and how much one studies. There is no use in learning of one can not apply it to the real life.

Critical Thought

Occidental prides itself on giving students a well-rounded, liberal arts education that fosters critical thinking and deep analysis in the classroom. In the novel, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the authors begin to inform the audience of the fear that colleges are not actually provoking deep critical thought. It is noted, “These diverse concerns about the state of undergraduate education have served to draw attention to measuring whether students are actually developing the capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning at college” (9). The reason why this attitude for critical thinking has become so prevalent is because students see education as a way to get good grades while doing the least amount of work as possible rather than really thinking about certain material and spending time understanding it. I believe that this student attitude was rooted in the rapidly growing competitive nature of classes, grades, and education. It is imperative in today’s society that one gets beyond acceptable grades in order to be accepted into a top-notch college, and then be able to get the grades to work at a high paying job. This makes students feel as if all they have to live for is getting great grades, which takes the critical thought out of education. At this point, students completely want to disregard the understanding and learning aspect and just focus on what they need to do to get a great grade with as little work as possible. The value of higher education thus diminishes because the student ends up taking less and less away from each class, and all they have to show for it is a high letter grade. Critical thought in the classroom is indeed dying, which is why it is up to the liberal arts colleges to revive it. Liberal arts colleges, like Oxy, give students the tools necessary to learn how to critically think, analysis, and express themselves. Critical thinking is the ability to think as an individual and gather insightful comments, questions, and ideas from a particular source. Not only do liberal arts colleges support critical thinking, but they also encourage students to share their own individualistic ideas with one another in order to learn from diverse perspectives. Clearly, critical thought and the ability to think critically is vital for a growing society and it is up to liberal arts colleges to reestablish this powerful educational asset in today’s classroom.

Critical Thinking and Higher Education

According to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, “faculty members agree almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education”(9). There are many reasons that improving students’ ability to think critically has become a goal of many colleges. For one, “the labor market values ‘the highly analytical individual who can think abstractly’” (11). As the needs of the labor market keep changing, there is an overwhelming need for individuals who know how to think and question information. These individuals need to know how to think abstractly, analytically, and have complex reasoning. Knowing how to memorize information and being able to spit it back out is not beneficial to a firm or to society.

With critical thought being so necessary both in daily life and in a career, many colleges are trying to find ways to enhance this critical thought in students. In fact, Academically Adrift explains, “if students are able to receive high marks and make steady progress towards their college degrees with such limited academic effort, must not faculty bare some responsibility for the low standards that exist in these settings?” (22) This reading explained that if faculty does not require critical thought, students would, as data suggests, take the easy way out of education and do minimal amounts of studying just to get the grade. In order to avoid these situations, the students must have some kind of connection with the professor and with the knowledge. In fact Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa explain, “Our findings provide clear empirical evidence that academically rigorous instruction is associated with improved performance on tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication”(140). There is a need to change school and education from being seen as just work that needs to be done to something that students are connected and interested in.

While colleges are trying to improve their students’ critical thought, there is no real way to measure improvements critical thinking. While people have tried to measure critical thinking through things like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, these types of assessments are very broadly graded and do not accurately portray improvements in critical thought. While critical thought cannot be accurately measured, there are ways that critical thinking can be improved and these attempts at improving critical thought have become an increasingly present part of colleges.

Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking” is a concept discussed in the missions of many higher education institutions. It may seem like just another overused empty word that colleges use, because it comes across as vague and to some, meaningless, but it does have merit. It is the ability for students to be able to provide their own objective analyses and evaluations using evidence, and is a developmental skill that colleges seek to instill in students. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses Richard Arum and Josipa Roska write about the academic quality of college and its ability to instill in students this still of critical thought. Unfortunately they find that students now demonstrate no significant improvement in critical thought because student bodies are distracted by their social lives. On page 4, they write that some college students “Hate classes with a lot of reading that is tested on.” A student stated that “Any class where a teacher is just gonna give us notes and a worksheet or something like that is better.” This demonstrates the lack of critical thinking among college students, which is a big problem. Without critical thinking, learning environments are automated without any originality or pressure on students to be creative and intelligent thinkers and not just repeat what their professors tell them. Unfortunately, this quote reflects the robotic state of some higher education environments- These are the environments that do no promote liberating education, but oppressive education.

The Evaluation of Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking” has become little more than a buzzword in the world of higher education; it can be guaranteed that almost every college mission statement will contain a glowing account of how the school fosters critical thinking in its students, regardless of whether there is any evidence to corroborate such a claim. This situation should not come as a surprise, however, as vast numbers of employers now demand “critical thinking skills” as a necessary prerequisite for their new hires. Unfortunately, critical thinking has always been—and may ultimately always be—an ill-defined term that lacks rigor and specificity. This is not to say that it’s meaningless; to the contrary, there is definitely a common notion that people imagine when they hear “critical thinking”. The problem is that it is very difficult to turn this vague yet palatable concept into a well-defined metric for cognitive evaluation.

Nevertheless, attempts have been made.  One such example is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA); a test that measures the degree to which participants are able to synthesize arguments from information provided. This is a promising approach, as most people would agree that critical thinking is not based on specific knowledge or content, but rather on the general process by which one forms a position. However, a look at the grading rubric reveals a stubborn issue: the scoring criteria are very vague. While I support the overall spirit of the CLA, I think more objective standards are required. Critical thinking, first and foremost, should be about fidelity to reality. This is achieved most effectively through deference to data and reliable sources of information (e.g. studies published in scientific journals). Another important factor is to avoid cherry-picking; this is best accomplished by checking the information presented by opposing sides of an issue to build general familiarity with the data surrounding a given topic. In areas without concrete data (e.g. philosophy), it is still pertinent to analyze as many different arguments as possible in order to become familiar with their underlying principles. Test based on these ideals would offer more discrete metrics for grading while clearly defining the skills encompassed under the category of “critical thinking.”