Critical-Thinking Grudge Match: Biology vs. Chemistry-Examining Factors That Affect Thinking Skill in Nonmajors Science

By Quitadamo, Ian J.; Kurtz, Martha J. et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Critical-Thinking Grudge Match: Biology vs. Chemistry-Examining Factors That Affect Thinking Skill in Nonmajors Science


Quitadamo, Ian J., Kurtz, Martha J., Cornell, Caitlyn Nicole, Griffith, Lindsay, Hancock, Julie, Egbert, Brandi, Journal of College Science Teaching


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Most higher-education faculty believe that critical thinking is an essential learning outcome of a quality higher education (Association of American Colleges and Universities [AAC&U] 2005). Critical thinking is necessary for success in nearly every aspect of life and is one of the key factors in becoming an informed and engaged global citizen (Project Kaleidoscope 2006). As a set of behaviors and skills (Ennis 1985), critical thinking involves the ability to (1) identify central issues and assumptions in an argument, (2) recognize important relationships, (3) evaluate evidence, (4) make inferences based on data, (5) draw conclusions supported by evidence, and (6) interpret the significance of conclusions (Facione and American Philosophical Association 1990; Terenzini et al. 1995). According to the Delphi Report on critical thinking, the ideal critical thinker is naturally curious, well informed, open minded, and focused on inquiry (Facione and American Philosophical Association 1990). Analysis, inference, and evaluation skills collectively help individuals achieve academic and professional success and are necessary for making informed daily decisions (Facione 2007; Facione and American Philosophical Association 1990). American employers desire college graduates who have learned and can demonstrate these behaviors and skills (Business-Higher Education Forum 2003).

Currently, U.S. college graduates are largely unable to demonstrate critical-thinking skills. According to a AAC&U (2005) report, only 6% of graduates were able to demonstrate critical-thinking proficiency, even though 87% of these students believed college experiences prepared them to do so. These results clearly illustrate a gap between student perception and critical-thinking ability. Many students graduate from college with sufficient content knowledge from course work as indicated by their GPA, but largely without the ability to analyze, infer, and evaluate. In a globalized society, American graduates who lack critical-thinking skills may be at a comparative disadvantage for well-paying jobs and future success. Thus, it is imperative that college faculty help all students--particularly nonmajors, who largely outnumber science majors and will disproportionately make up the American workforce--to improve their critical-thinking skills and enable good decision making.

The lack of critical thinking is compounded by a large disconnect between what K-12 teachers and college faculty perceive as college readiness. A nationwide study of 746 K-12 teachers and 1,098 college professors published in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that large gaps in perception exist across all content areas (Sanoff 2006). Specifically in science, 38% of K-12 teachers but only 5% of college faculty felt their students were "very well prepared" for college. Conversely, 8% of K-12 teachers and 20% of college faculty felt their students were not well prepared. K-12 teachers rated science content as the fundamental goal of their courses, as opposed to postsecondary instructors, who deemed science process and inquiry knowledge and skills as the fundamental goal (ACT 2007). The questions asked by many college faculty are (1) when in the K-16 education process are students failing to learn how to critically think, (2) what must be done to improve instructor ability to elicit critical-thinking skills in students, and (3) what specific factors influence development of critical-thinking skills, both before and during college.

Prior studies indicate that particular academic and personal experiences affect student success in science and critical thinking. A recent nationwide study of nearly 18,000 students and their professors and 4,000 K-12 teachers showed that, of the many factors that influence college science success, surprisingly few had a large impact (Tai, Sadler, and Mintzes 2006). Influential factors included advanced mathematics, fewer topics but greater depth of content, and teacher encouragement. …

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