Evidence on the Relationship between Economics and Critical Thinking Skills

By Borg, Mary O.; Stranahan, Harriet A. | Contemporary Economic Policy, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Evidence on the Relationship between Economics and Critical Thinking Skills


Borg, Mary O., Stranahan, Harriet A., Contemporary Economic Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

In today's knowledge-based economy in which workers are expected to change jobs and even careers several times before they retire, acquiring excellent critical thinking skills from one's college education becomes paramount. Because of this imperative, colleges and universities are striving to infuse their curricula with courses and teaching methodologies that develop critical thinking skills. Furthermore, the emphasis that legislators, university trustees, and accrediting bodies have placed on accountability in higher education demands that these institutions be able to document that students leave college with significantly greater critical thinking abilities than when they arrived.

This study investigates the relationship between learning economics content, defined as the knowledge measured on the Test of Understanding College Economics (TUCE), and critical thinking ability. Other researchers have shown that certain teaching pedagogies used within the context of economics courses increase critical thinking skills. Most notably, Greenlaw and Deloach (2003) and DeLoach and Greenlaw (2005) have shown that engaging students in electronic discussions about economics has the potential to increase critical thinking skills. However, ours is the first study to empirically test whether simply learning the content of a basic Principles of Economics course can improve students' critical thinking abilities as measured by a nationally normed assessment of critical thinking skills.

II. PREVIOUS LITERATURE

Of course, many college professors may believe that their courses improve the critical thinking skills of their students. Unfortunately, their attempts to prove this point have been sporadic and have produced inconsistent results. One of the first and still best attempts to document how particular courses and course methodologies affect the critical thinking skills of college students is found in Dressel and Mayhew's (1954) book, General Education: Explorations in Evaluation. As the name of the book implies, their assessment of critical thinking skills was just one of the outcome measures they used to evaluate the effectiveness of general education programs in seven different case studies. Their test results are considered to be highly reliable because they used a well-designed test of critical thinking that was developed by a team of experts, a large sample, good research designs, and pre- and posttests (McMillan, 1987). They concluded that college students did increase their critical thinking skills over the course of their college years, but they found no evidence that particular courses or teaching methodologies contributed significantly to those gains. They did find that certain instructors within the same courses were more effective at increasing the critical thinking skills of their students than other instructors. They also found that the most significant increases in critical thinking scores occurred for the students who initially had the lowest critical thinking skills.

Since the publication of Dressel and Mayhew's book, scores of other studies have attempted to document the relationship between college experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom, and developing critical thinking abilities. We begin our brief survey of the literature by reviewing the studies that examine how college experiences and courses of all kinds affect a student's critical thinking skills and we end by focusing specifically on the research about economics and critical thinking skills.

McMillan's (1987) survey of 27 articles did an excellent job of summarizing the literature on critical thinking that existed at that time. Like Dressel and Mayhew more than 30 yr before him, he found overwhelming evidence that the college experience as a whole increased critical thinking skills; however, none of the studies that he reviewed could unequivocally say if the college experience itself was the source of the increase in critical thinking skills or whether it was due to the maturation of the students. …

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