Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically?

Last week the OECD published a report titled “Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically?” It’s a thought-provoking title, suggesting two reactions:

  • Of course
  • But wait, would the OECD investigate this if the answer really is ‘of course’?

Van Damme and Zahner edited this report and state in the description that the answer probably is not that straightforward:

There is a discernible and growing gap between the qualifications that a university degree certifies and the actual generic, 21st-century skills with which students graduate from higher education. By generic skills, it is meant literacy and critical thinking skills encompassing problem solving, analytic reasoning and communications competency. As automation takes over non- and lower-cognitive tasks in today’s workplace, these generic skills are especially valued but a tertiary degree is a poor indicator of skills level. In the United States, the Council for Aid for Education developed an assessment of generic skills called the CLA+ and carried out testing in six countries between 2016 and 2021.

The countries are the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Mexico, Finland, and Chile. Do note: the study used data from 120 000 students who were included in the aggregated database across institutions and systems. Of these, close to 100 000 were students in the United States.

These students, almost equally split between those entering and exiting a first-degree programme, were assessed with equivalent versions of the CLA+ instrument over the period between 2015 and 2020. With the exception of Italy, all systems carried out multiple administrations of the assessment.

The general conclusion of the report is rather nuanced:

These general results across the six systems can be interpreted in different ways. Overall, it is encouraging to see that during their time in a higher education programme, students improved their critical thinking skills. However, given the importance that most higher education programmes attach to promoting critical thinking skills, the learning gain is smaller than could be expected. If universities really want to foster 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, they need to upscale their efforts. While universities produce graduates who can be considered, on average, as proficient in critical thinking, the distribution of achievement is quite wide, with one-fifth of students performing at the lowest level. With half of exiting students performing at the two lowest levels, it is difficult to claim that a university qualification reliably signals a level of critical thinking skills expected by the global market place.

The analysis cannot positively confirm that the learning gain is caused by the teaching and learning experience within university programmes. It is possible that, for example, selection effects (selective drop-out), general maturing of the student population or effects of learning outside university contribute to the average learning gain. However, the fact that the distribution in achievement remains more or less the same from entering to exiting students shows that the entire student population moves upwards, suggesting that the learning gain is caused by a common, shared learning experience

Dirk Van Damme also shared his presentation here.

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