Critical Thinking Lacks Definition and Uniform Evaluation Criteria

Article excerpt

A professor of journalism recently advised via Internet that we should match the goals of our courses to mission statements of our colleges and universities. This suggestion comes as journalism and mass communication faculty across the country are reviewing their curricula, increasingly caught between assessment requirements (Caudill, Ashdown & Caudill, 1990) and declining undergraduate enrollments (Kosicki & Becker, 1994).

The faculty who teach journalism and mass communication at Wright State University agree with the professor's advice. A major goal in the mission statement of the College of Liberal Arts at the university is to improve students' critical thinking. Most schools propose to do that. And we have listed critical thinking as a major objective in our curricula and in our assessment plans. In developing those plans we are required to consider the practices and standards of our discipline. But what are they?

Various educators have claimed critical thinking should be central to journalism education (Mullins, 1987; Grow, 1991; AEJMC, 1989; Blanchard, 1988; Blanchard & Christ, 1988; Dennis, 1984). Blanchard and Christ (1993) have described the overlapping objectives of liberal arts education and ideal professional education, noting a heavy emphasis on critical thinking and broad contextual knowledge (pp. 14-21). But Steiner (1993) believes most journalism professors assume students learn to think critically without explicit instruction in how to do so (p. 98). Shoemaker (1993) says critical thinking in journalism and mass communication is rarely "dealt with systematically or given priority among various associations for professional education in communications" (p. 99). However, neither Steiner nor Shoemaker provides evidence to support these claims.

As part of our effort to develop an assessment plan that includes critical thinking we wanted to find out how important it is to AEJMC members, how they define it, what they do to teach it, and how they measure it. We also wanted to compare AEJMC members' definitions and practices with the views of experts and with research on effectiveness of teaching critical thinking. We surveyed a sample of AEJMC members in order to get information on those topics. A description of that survey and its results follow the brief review of literature, presented below.

Thousands of articles and hundreds of books comprise a vast literature on critical thinking. Writers from philosophy, education, psychology, speech-communication, sociology, engineering, mathematics, the physical sciences, and medical education have contributed to that literature. Most of it is "how to teach" suggestions. Some writers, mainly philosophers, offer conceptual definitions. Some of these conceptual definitions have been made operational in tests of critical thinking and in at least one inventory of critical thinking predispositions (Facione, 1991). Writers in philosophy have offered reasons why critical thinking should be an educational ideal (Siegel, 1988).

Cognitive and learning psychologists have identified some techniques that promote critical thinking (Halpern, 1993). Although there is some disagreement about definitions, there is considerable agreement among experts that critical thinking includes skills in applying, analyzing, and evaluating information.

In 1990, the American Philosophical Association published "Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction." The statement characterized critical thinking as purposeful, self-regulated judgment. The California Critical Thinking Skills Test (1993) makes operational the conceptual definition established in the "Expert Consensus." The test measures interpretation, analysis inference, evaluation, and explanation, and it assumes metacognition (or thinking in order to manage one's own thinking) is part of critical thinking. (Grow, 1991, also notes that metacognition is required for self-directed learning. …