Critical Thinking among University Students: Does the Family Background Matter?

Article excerpt

The influence of social class on students' critical thinking, learning, and motivation is plausible. Thus, social class may be an important factor in explaining differences in educational achievement and attainment. However, there is a lack of research evidence concerning this influence. The present study examines this influence with data from 577 Hong Kong university students. Results show that the students of bourgeois or upper class families or fathers excelled in critical thinking as compared with students of lower classes. Moreover, the former students demonstrated a higher critical thinking predisposition that included critical and elaborative learning than did the latter students. The former students also showed lower extrinsic motivation. Resources associated with social class may be partly responsible for these differences. This explanation is consistent with the finding that students who had fewer resources, engaged more often in part-time work, and spent less time on study displayed less critical thinking and learning effort. However, educational characteristics including the field, level, and years of study had no significant effect on critical thinking habit. The findings indicate that the link between social class and critical thinking habit, learning, and motivation is worth educators' concern.


Social class theoretically summarizes characteristics of people's productive relation including ownership of capital or of the means of production, control of managerial functions, and possession of expertise (Wright, 1997). An individual's class hinges on the individual's occupation, and income is not a criterion to define classes (Wright, 1994).

Ample research evidence shows pervasive consequences of the individual's class position. Most notable is the process of class reproduction involving intergenerational stability of class position and association with people of the same class (Cheng & Dai, 1995; Kelley, 1992). One instance of class reproduction in education is the tendency for students to enter schools and universities that match their classes (Hearn, 1991; Persell et al., 1992a, 1992b). Moreover, the education system appears to facilitate class reproduction through rewards, authority, and tasks that help promulgate values favorable to class reproduction (Gintis & Bowles, 1980; Bills, 1983).

The second important result attributable to class is the individual's subjective well-being, including life satisfaction, sense of control, and extent of depression or alienation (Dressier, 1991; Engel & Hurpelmann, 1994; Link et al., 1993; Mirowsky & Ross, 1990a, 1990b; Stansfeld & Marmot, 1992; Turner & Marino, 1994). The impact of class appears to pass through mediating processes involving self-direction, social support, and stressful life event's (Kohn et al., 1990; Murrell & Norris, 1991).

Influence on educational achievement and attainment is the third major impact stemming from social class. Ample data are available to show class differences in educational attainment (Bogenschneider & Steinberg, 1994; Bynner & Ashford, 1994; Felner et al., 1995; Owens, 1992; Persell et al., 1992; Sanchirico, 1991). These differences may result in part from differences in persistence, which have been observed to vary by social class (Bank et al., 1990), and which may be the result of the transmission of parents' values to their children (Sanchirico, 1991). Possible factors found to mediate the class influence also include the availability of resources and cognitive stimulation (Dodge et al., 1994; Walker et al., 1994). The influence of class appears to be so strong that it overshadows effects of race and school (Entwisle & Alexander, 1992). Also related to the educational setting is class influence on the student's study effort and organizational activity (Camp, 1990; Kohn, 1981).

The fourth consequence of social class worthy to note is its impact on concepts related to critical beliefs about social stratification and social forces (Kluegel & Smith, 1986; Marsh, 1996; Marshall et al. …


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