How Colleges Can Measure Up in Teaching 'Critical Thinking'

By the Monitor's Board | The Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

How Colleges Can Measure Up in Teaching 'Critical Thinking'


the Monitor's Board, The Christian Science Monitor


After he became president of Purdue University in 2013, Mitch Daniels asked the faculty to prove that their students have actually achieved one of higher education's most important goals: critical thinking skills. Two years before, a nationwide study of college graduates had shown that more than a third had made no significant gains in such mental abilities during their four years in school.

Mr. Daniels, a former governor of Indiana, needed to justify the high cost of attending Purdue to its students and their families. After all, the percentage of Americans who say a college degree is "very important" has fallen from 75 percent in 2010 to 44 percent today.

Purdue now has a pilot test to assess the critical thinking skills of students as they progress. Yet like many college teachers around the United States, the Purdue faculty remain doubtful that their work as educators can be measured by a "learning outcome" such as a graduate's ability to investigate, reason, and put facts in context. Many still prefer the traditional system of course grades in specific fields or overall grade averages, despite serious concerns by employers about "grade inflation."

The professors need not worry so much. This week, the results of a nationwide experiment were released showing for the first time that professors can use standardized metrics to assess the actual coursework of students - across many schools and disciplines - and measure how well they do in three key areas: critical thinking, written communication, and quantitative literacy.

The project involved more than 125 professors judging 7,000 samples of students' class work from 59 institutions in nine states. It was initiated by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

The idea partly derives from the frustration among colleges over the many attempts by "outsiders" - from U.S. News & World Report to the Obama administration's new "College Scorecard" - to rank or rate schools for consumers of higher education. …

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