While pondering a problem in a plant biology course at Ohio
University one semester, John Withers suddenly realized something
unusual was going on: This class was actually requiring him to
Thinking is presumed to be the bread and butter of higher
education. Beyond simply getting a diploma to land a job that pays
well, the promise of sharpening thinking skills still looms as a key
reason millions apply to college.
Yet some say there is a remarkable paucity of critical thinking
taught at the undergraduate level - even though the need for such
skills seems more urgent than ever.
Americans can now expect to change jobs as many as a half-dozen
times in their lives - a feat requiring considerable mental agility.
The ability to sift, analyze, and reflect upon large amounts of data
is crucial in today's information age.
Yet a major national report released last year entitled "Greater
Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College"
raises serious questions as to whether undergraduates are absorbing
these essential skills.
"Outsiders who find college graduates unprepared for solving
problems in the workplace question whether the colleges are
successfully educating their student to think," the report notes.
Critical thought certainly receives considerable lip service on
many campuses. College websites beckon students to "learn to think
critically." Classes with "critical thinking" in the title are
But Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American
Colleges and Universities in Washington isn't convinced.
"Critical thinking, social responsibility, reflective judgment,
and evidence-based reasoning ... are the most enduring goals of a
first-rate liberal education," says Ms. Schneider. Yet research
shows "many college graduates are falling short in reaching these
That's why some college faculty are leading the charge to move
the teaching of thinking skills out of isolated courses and into all
classes. Much as writing is now often taught as part of every
discipline, they argue, learning to think ought to be the goal of
In the case of Mr. Withers's biology class, that's exactly what
his professor, Sarah Wyatt, was aiming at.
Inspired by an initiative at Ohio University in Athens - where
she was teaching - to focus harder on teaching students critical
thinking skills, she directed her class to turn away temporarily
from the usual round of textbooks, lectures, notes, and tests.
She asked them instead to break into teams and work to develop
original hypotheses of a plant's development.
As Withers and his group began designing an experiment to test
their hypothesis, they were forced to reconsider methods and
What flaws and limits might be embedded in their approach? What
could they know with certainty? What could they not know?
It was a challenging mental exercise, and as a result, Withers
found he began thinking about biology outside class with more
clarity, precision, and reflection than ever before.
At the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Esther Kingston-
Mann is interested in training her students to think like historians
rather than biologists.
But her goal of encouraging her students to do their own thinking
is similar to that of Professor Wyatt's.
Like Wyatt, she has her students occasionally close their
textbooks. In her course on the cold war, she asks them to read
newspaper accounts instead.
They scan articles dating from the "red scare" in the 1920s on
through World War II and then read further new accounts of relations
between the US and the Soviet Union in later decades.
Later they collaborate in small groups, trying to identify in the
newspaper clippings the voices being used to tell the story at a
particular moment - and to note which perspectives and voices are