The Critical Thinking Skills of Minority Engineering Students: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

This study examines correlates of critical thinking skills in a sample of Black and Latino engineering students (N = 79) at three American universities through a program designed to retain those who had early experienced academic difficulty. Results show that despite the program's successful efforts to strengthen students' critical thinking skills, the correlates were almost 50% negative after controlling for social class and aptitude. Most surprisingly, 61% of the correlates reflecting college experience were negative. Institutional variations were also evident: students' college experience was largely positive at the predominantly Black college participating in the program (23.1% negative), but far more negative at the two predominantly White participating institutions (50% and 89%, respectively). Implications for the study of critical thinking and engineering education for minority students are discussed.

INTRODUCTION AND REVIEW OF LITERATURE

Critical thinking skills have become a major issue in contemporary education because they appear to hold so much promise for the individual and society of the future. Efforts to develop these skills proceed on the assumption that they are, at the very least, a prerequisite for personal mastery. Indeed, possession of critical cognitive abilities has been associated with a range of positive outcomes such as better recall, problem solving, information processing, and cognitive consistency (Mayer, 1988; Weinstein, Zimmerman, & Palmer, 1988). Critical thinking skills also play an important role in the development of scientific talent and therefore in improving American competitiveness in the global economy (Lincoln, 1979; Reich, 1988). Resnick (1987), however, describes the daunting process of critical thought in solving problems with no right or wrong answers as nonalgorithmic, complex, based on uncertainty, and yielding multiple solutions; as involving interpretation, organization, and self-regulation; and necessitating the application of multiple criteria and considerable mental effort-a virtual journey into unknown territory. Notwithstanding, Kurfiss (1988) maintains that critical thinking is the enemy of human irrationality, subjectivity, and prejudice because it requires the integration of all information in the form of an argument to answer questions that cannot be answered definitively (see also Perry, 1981).

The identification and development of cognitive competencies has been furthered by academic research on Piagetian operations (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Lawson, 1983); scientific thinking skills (Kuhn, Amsel, & O'Loughlin, 1989); and metacognition, or executive thinking skills (Baron & Sternberg, 1987; Forrest-Pressley, McKinnon, & Waller, 1985; Larkin, 1979; Moshman, 1979; Perkins, 1985; Sternberg, 1984, 1985; Vygotsky, 1962). It has also been advanced by researchers whose work examines the generality versus the specificity of cognitive competence (Glaser, 1984); cognitive styles (Gardner, 1985); problem solving (Lochhead & Clement, 1979; Whimbey & Lochhead, 1986); and the impact of college on critical thinking skills (Winter, McClelland, & Stewart, 1981). However, research energies in the area of critical thinking skills have been overwhelmingly devoted to the definition and identification of these competencies rather than to developing measures that assess their presence, manifestations, or absence. The major problem in this regard is that these skills appear resistant to precise forms of measurement.

This measurement problem has been raised with respect to measures of the cognitive processes themselves as well as to dependent measures that are sensitive to changes in cognitive abilities (Weinstein, Goetz, & Alexander, 1988). It is compounded by the fact that the study of critical thinking skills proceeds from developmental theories that only vaguely specify the nature of cognitive competencies as a whole. …