Teaching Critical Thinking in an Introductory Leadership Course Utilizing Active Learning Strategies: A Confirmatory Study

By Burbach, Mark E.; Matkin, Gina S. et al. | College Student Journal, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching Critical Thinking in an Introductory Leadership Course Utilizing Active Learning Strategies: A Confirmatory Study


Burbach, Mark E., Matkin, Gina S., Fritz, Susan M., College Student Journal


Critical thinking is often seen as a universal goal of higher education but is seldom confirmed as an outcome. This study was conducted to determine whether an introductory level college leadership course that encouraged active learning increased critical thinking skills. A pre- and post-assessment of critical thinking skills was conducted using the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. Significant increases were found in the Deduction and Interpretation subtests, and total Critical Thinking. Student engagement in active learning techniques within the context of studying interpersonal skills for leadership appeared to increase critical thinking.

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The origins of critical thinking may date back 2500 years to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle whose basic teaching premises were often to encourage their students to realize that things very often are not what they seem on the surface. A more modern adaptation to education can be found in the work of Dewey (1909, 1997) who proposed that critical thinking involved the suspension of judgment and healthy skepticism. Another modern adaptation by Ennis (1962) suggested that students should be assisted in the engagement of thinking that is reflective, reasonable, and directed on what to believe or do.

A number of researchers (e.g. Boostrum, 1994; Brookfield, 1987; Ennis, 1985; Facione, 1984; Halpern, 1996; Kurfiss, 1988; McPeck, 1981; Paul, 1982; Siegel, 1991; Watson & Glaser, 1980a) have put forth definitions and theories regarding critical thinking. Throughout the earlier research, there was enough variation to serve as a catalyst for the American Philosophical Association to recruit Peter Facione in 1987 to head a systematic inquiry into the current research on critical thinking and how to assess it. Facione and a panel of experts representing several academic disciplines formed the "Delphi Project." One outcome of this panel was a definition of critical thinking. Earlier theorists' work played an important role in the formulation of this definition that states, in part, "We understand critical thinking to be a purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation and inference as well as explanation of the evidential conceptual methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment was based (Facione, 1990)." While definitions and conceptualizations may differ, "there is enough agreement among authors in the field of critical thinking to allow educators to teach courses in which it is the main goal and content matter ..." (Halpern, 2003, p. 357).

In 1983, A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) called for the higher education community to take a serious look at the faltering achievements of American students. Norris (1985) noted that competence in critical thinking was lower than it should be at every stage of schooling. In a study involving 874 sociology students, Logan (1976) concluded that those at every college level (from freshmen to graduate students) scored "very low" in ability to recognize uncritical or unsound thinking. Keeley, Browne, and Kreutzer (1982) found that while college seniors outperformed freshmen, they still exhibited "major deficiencies in applying critical evaluation skills." Kuhn (1991) concluded that the majority of the population could not reliably produce genuine evidence for their opinions, enter counter arguments, or rebut counter arguments. In 1989, President Bush and a commission of governors formulated Goals 2000. The document called for colleges and universities to take critical thinking objectives more seriously by improving the abilities of college students to be more effective thinkers, communicators, and problems solvers. In some instances, state universities have been mandated to include critical thinking as part of their general education requirements (Halpern, 2003). Sternberg (1985) identified a new readiness among college faculty to experiment with more effective methods and described several promising programs for improving thinking skills. …

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