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.”

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