Critical Thinking among Environmental Health Undergraduates and Implications for the Profession

By Jin, Guang; Bierma, Thomas J. et al. | Journal of Environmental Health, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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Critical Thinking among Environmental Health Undergraduates and Implications for the Profession

Jin, Guang, Bierma, Thomas J., Broadbear, James T., Journal of Environmental Health


Critical thinking is a valuable, but often overlooked, skill for environmental health professionals. Do environmental health undergraduates have the critical-thinking skills needed by their future employers? Are academic environmental health programs able to measure and improve critical thinking in their students? If critical thinking is poorly developed, what are the implications for the profession?

To begin to answer these questions, the study reported here measured critical-thinking dispositions (the attitudes and emotions brought to the task of critical thinking) among undergraduate environmental health majors at Illinois State University over a three-year period. The authors used the results, as well as what is currently known about critical thinking, to explore implications for academic programs and the profession.

Critical Thinking in the Environmental Health Profession

Critical thinking is disciplined thinking--although there is no universally accepted definition. Perhaps the best way to understand critical thinking is to consider how it is used in the environmental health profession to understand and resolve "ill-structured" problems (King & Kitchener, 1998). Some scenarios involving such problems might be as follows:

* A developer approaches a local health department with plans to build a subdivision on soil not suited to traditional septic systems, but proposes to chlorinate the discharge.

* A citizen calls a local health department to complain about "spoiled food" at a restaurant.

* An environmental health and safety manager at a hospital finds that worker-compensation claims from back injuries among nurses have increased by at least 10 percent per year for the past five years, even though five patient-lifting devices were purchased three years ago.

There is probably no one best approach to investigating and solving these problems. Yet some approaches are clearly better than others. Critical thinking helps us find these "better" approaches. A critical thinker is able to "assess the credibility of a source of information" (Facione, 1998). In Scenario 1, for example, a critical thinker would evaluate the credibility of the developer's claim about the proposed septic systems. Is the claim based on the opinion of the developer, the opinion of a septic system expert, laboratory test data, or actual field experience with the unit? In Scenario 2, a critical thinker will recognize uncertainty in witness memory and will seek corroborating information such as the testimony of other patrons, food samples, or environmental conditions (such as salad bar temperatures).

A critical thinker also is able to "recognize a problem and describe it without bias" (Facione, 1998). For example, with poorly developed critical thinking, a manager in Scenario 3 might describe the problem as one of stubborn and lazy employees who resist change even when it is to their advantage, rather than recognizing that there must be one or more underlying problems that have not been addressed by the purchase of lifting devices.

Critical thinkers take both a broader and a deeper view of any problem or condition. This leads to an ability to anticipate "the implications of a position someone is advocating" (Facione, 1998). In Scenario 1, for example, chlorination units may require routine maintenance by the resident. A critical thinker recognizes that, in the absence of systems to ensure that the maintenance is performed, many units will stop functioning properly when maintenance is neglected.

Most importantly, critical thinkers are aware of their own thinking and seek to improve it; they "apply their powers of critical thinking to themselves" (Facione, 1998). Everyone has biases and limitations. Critical thinkers understand their biases and limitations and constantly monitor their thinking to minimize errors.

Critical-Thinking Dispositions

To put a skill to use, one must have both the skill and the inclination to use (Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993).

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