Is Critical Thinking Overrated or Under-Utilized in Higher Education?

Critical thinking is listed as a desired skill or preferred outcome within many higher education courses. It is something that students are expected to demonstrate through their involvement in the class and learning activities. It may be listed in a rubric and/or stated in the course syllabus, depending upon the requirements of the program or the school itself. There may be varying degrees as to how it is demonstrated and then evaluated, ranging from occasionally to always within a rubric description. It is a common practice to provide students with the course rubrics at the start of class; however, the question becomes: Do students usually know what critical thinking means? Do instructors or schools provide a standard definition?

Additional questions that arise include: Do instructors understand the meaning of critical thinking and are they provided with an explanation by the school? These are questions that I sought to answer and I spent over two years talking to instructors and students about this topic. There is information that is readily available, such as websites devoted to critical thinking and a few books about this topic, and there are classes that spend an entire term examining it; however, what does the average student and instructor know about this topic? How is it utilized in classes if it is stated in a rubric? What I wanted to learn is whether or not critical thinking is overrated (which means it is not actively utilized in classes and is only a catchphrase) or is it underutilized (which means it holds greater potential than is recognized now) in higher education classes.

Instructor Perspective

My perspective is primarily based on my work in the field of distance-learning as an online educator and faculty development specialist, which has included the role of online faculty peer reviewer. I have reviewed hundreds of online classes and discussed critical thinking with hundreds of online faculty. What I’ve learned is that the average instructor may have a general knowledge about critical thinking and what it means; however, faculty generally do not provide an explanation for students beyond what is stated in the course rubric. I did not observe it as an active discussion or explained through additional instructional posts or supplemental information, and I also didn’t observe detailed notes about it within the feedback provided.

What do instructors generally know about critical thinking? For those who have conducted some research they will find definitions that are related to logic and reasoning. However, the usual go-to definition or explanation is Bloom’s taxonomy and this provides levels of cognition that can help instructors recognize when a state of critical thinking has been attained. What is unclear is whether or not a one-time occurrence indicates that students know how to use the skill on a regular basis. What are instructors taught by the schools? They are usually told to use questioning techniques and specifically Socratic questioning by a few schools. What I’ve observed is that even when questions are used that doesn’t necessarily mean a follow-up reply by students will demonstrate use of this skill.

Student Perspective

When students were asked to define what critical thinking means, the following is a list of the most common answers:

  • Thinking outside of the box
  • Thinking harder about the topic
  • Problem-solving
  • An ability to think independently
  • Weighing options, the pros and cons
  • Being rational and avoiding emotions
  • Making decisions, such as going to the grocery store and deciding on meal options
  • Becoming curious, creative, and open-minded
  • Learning through trial and error
  • Knowing what to do in life threatening situations
  • Making intelligent decisions
  • Collaborating with others to reach a consensus

This is only a partial list of the responses from students, and these were undergraduate and graduate students. After reviewing this list becomes clear that without a standard definition of critical thinking, students may not fully understand what is expected when they see it listed in a course rubric. It can also explain why it is difficult to evaluate this as a skill for an instructor and why students may come up short in their evaluation. What I’ve found is that students rarely conducted their own research about this subject and if they did they still weren’t sure if their definition was matched to their instructor’s definition, how it applies to their class and learning activities, or how to meet the requirement as listed in the rubric.

Logical Perspective

I’ve reviewed many of the available online resources to ascertain what instructors and students might read about critical thinking and it was often related to the use of logic and reasoning. The same is true for an online class I’ve taught that was six weeks in length and combined critical thinking with creative thinking. The logical perspective explained in the course materials involved looking for facts instead of opinions, evaluating arguments, examining premises, developing a logical or rational conclusion, and learning about potential fallacies. What this did was to take a subject that students were already unclear about and make it even more complex and challenging to apply directly to their classwork. Students generally struggled throughout the entire course and by the time it concluded there was little improvement in their ability to demonstrate the use of this skill.

Cognitive Perspective

Bloom’s taxonomy is referenced frequently by faculty and this taxonomy provides a range of cognitive or mental functions that begin with lower order thinking and progress to higher order thinking. On the lower end is the ability to recall information, which is usually held in short term memory and quickly discarded. As higher cognitive functions are engaged a student may be able to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. There are action verbs that are generally associated with each level and this is helpful for the development of course objectives. The challenge for instructors is making a determination of how to explain cognitive functions to students so that they understand what it means to demonstrate critical thinking. For example, how does a student know when to analyze or synthesize information in a discussion post or written assignment? Do they know when they have achieved development of this skill? Does answering an instructor’s question ensure they have reached a higher cognitive state? How many times do they need to demonstrate use of this skill to believe they have mastered its use? This is the challenge for educators; the uncertainty of the use of this skill and how to accurately assess it.

A New Perspective

What I propose is the use of a simpler model that explains how the mind functions or operates, which can provide a uniform description for instructors and students. As a starting point, the mind is always active and thinking is a natural process. A helpful way to understand how the mind performs is to separate thinking into three specific types, which will explain why critical thinking requires practice to learn before it can be actively used as a skill. The most basic type is simply called thinking or the automatic thought processes. This occurs naturally and includes thoughts about the current environment, along with thoughts that are based upon physical needs, emotions, or external stimuli. It also consists of self-talk, internalized dialogue, superficial thoughts, established thought patterns, habits of thinking, and existing mental structures. Automatic thinking also occurs as data is acquired through the five senses, when the mind relies upon perceptual filters to interpret the information received.

The next type is active thinking and this occurs when a person become consciously aware of their thought processes or while the mind is intentionally processing information. As an example, consider advertising messages. If an advertisement is noticed the mind would transition from automatic thinking to active or conscious thinking and awareness. Active thinking also includes reading, writing, speaking, stating opinions, and problem solving through the use of informal logic. For example, if a financial analysis is needed it would require taking numbers and putting them into a format or equation to be calculated, categorized, manipulated, or any other form of computation. Active thinking is often what students believe critical thinking consists of when they state it is a matter of “thinking hard” about a topic or subject. They are consciously aware of the topic and recalling the knowledge they currently possess about it.

The third type of thinking is critical thinking, which is not automatic and must be activated. It can be activated for a specific purpose and learned to be utilized as a skill. Students can trigger it when they need to work with more than their existing knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. It can also be activated through something unexpected, unknown, or unique. More importantly, critical thinking is done with a purpose. For example, when a student needs to research a topic and the subject is presently unknown to them. Instead of filling their paper with direct quotes they can question the information received in an attempt to find answers. It can also enhance problem-solving when a student needs an answer they cannot arrive at on their own. When students write papers they can provide more of their analysis and less from their sources because they have examined evidence and re-examined their beliefs or assumptions.

Transformative Perspective

Critical thinking has the potential to transform every aspects of a student’s performance, from discussion question responses to written assignments. Students first learn to work with their accumulated knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. That is how they develop an initial response and for many students that also becomes their final answer. But educators want students to move beyond this active form of thinking and demonstrate that learning has occurred. It is easy to ask students to demonstrate critical thinking but even more challenging to develop a mental model for them to follow and that means it must be prompted so that students watch it in action and can then emulate the process. Thinking becomes critical when students provide more than a superficial or cursory response, and in place of opinions they develop well-documented and well-research position statements and analyses.

Critical thinking is not a natural process although there are times when it is possible for adults to have a period of reflection when they are prompted by unplanned or unexpected changes. Thinking also becomes critical when students no longer rely upon perceptual filters to determine what is accepted as true and correct, with a willingness to evaluate beliefs and change when they find compelling evidence. Critical thinking can be most effectively taught through the use of a detailed explanation, time to practice what is being learned, and direct application of the skill to issues and problems, which means that any time this skill is listed as a requirement for a course, students need a standard definition and an opportunity to practice it. I do not believe that critical thinking is overrated as it is transformative in nature; however, what I’ve observed in the field of distance learning is that it is under-utilized because of a lack of a uniform method of explaining it and this results in a missed opportunity for learning in higher education classes.

Logical Flaw With Mandatory Attendance in Higher Education

JNU student’s struggle against mandatory attendance is not a fight for special treatment to JNU but this is fight against a system which is not only logically flawed but also dangerous to innovations in academic excellence. Let’s start from the very beginning of the system of the attendance. Need of attendance comes only when you want to force a person to attend an event in which she is not interested. And if you want her to attend that event you have two remedies. Either force her through punitive means or make the event interesting. Both remedies are good according to circumstances. An individual makes choices on the basis of her preferences. A wage worker would prefer (or indifferent) $500 against 5 hrs of leisure. Hence if you want her to attend an event of 5 hrs or less you can enforce a fine of $500 for not attending the event and you will see her presence in the event.

But this punitive remedy doesn’t work with students who are mature. Here choices are changed. A student has three choices; leisure, class attendance or self study. Amount of leisure is exogenously determined by aspirations of the student. A student would like to spend her 10,12 or 15 hrs/day in study according to her aspirations. In a top varsity where students are selected on the basis of merit there is no questions of low aspirations. A student divides her available study hrs after leisure in two parts; attending classes and self study. Share of study time dedicated to attending classes is determined by only one parameter, productivity of class w.r.t. self study and is positively related. This relative productivity is function of quality of education disbursed in the class and absolute productivity of student’s self study. Relative productivity of class can be increased either by improving absolute productivity of class or by decreasing absolute productivity of student. Second option is certainly not a feasible solution. Hence we are left with only one solution and that is to improve absolute productivity of the class.

A rational student won’t like to attend a class which relative productivity is less than 1 i.e. productivity of class is less than that of self study. How can a person who claims to be a nationalist and well wisher of students and the university can force a student to decrease her net productivity, which is ultimate end of education. Productivity of all classes can’t be same and a student voluntary attend all those classes which relative productivity is more than 1. There is no need of any mandatory attendance unless relative productivity of a class is less than 1.

On the basis of above discussion we have two opinions. First make attendance compulsory at the cost of fall in student’s net productivity. And second is, make attendance voluntary and take measures to increase productivity of those classes which relative productivity is less than 1 to increase the number of students in the class. Voluntary attendance system is self improving i.e. even if no measures are taken to improve productivity of the class, in this system a fall in students’ presence in the class forces teacher to improve her teaching to attract more students. Voluntary attendance system is analogous to competitive markets in which teachers compete with each other to attract more students, which is only source of prestige for a teacher. Contrary to this, mandatory attendance is analogous to monopolistic market in which there won’t have any incentive to improve teaching.

This model is based on the assumption that students are mature, rational and have high aspirations, which is not a tautology. Thus before applying this model to any group of students we should check whether above assumptions are fulfilled by the group or not. School students certainly don’t fulfill first assumption. Undergraduate and postgraduate students of lower ranking universities in which lower merit students study doesn’t fulfill third assumption. But universities of higher ranking and research students of all universities generally fulfill all assumptions. Hence voluntary attendance is the best policy for all research scholars and universities of higher ranking. Exact number of universities which can be treated as high ranking universities differs from country to country. But universities representing top 5-10 (in my opinion)% of students of any discipline can be treated as high ranking universities.

Demand for voluntary attendance by JNU students should not be treated as special treatment to this varsity. But mandatory attendance in other varsities of high ranking should also be replaced by voluntary attendance system. This will not only improve quality of education in these universities but will also help them to compete top universities of the world.

Exemplary Non-Profit and Higher Education Leadership – Blenda Wilson, PhD

Retired President, Nellie Mae Educational Foundation

This article is part of groundbreaking leadership research has received extensive endorsements and enthusiastic reviews from well-known prominent business, political, and academic leaders who either participated in the study or reviewed the research findings. A total of sixteen leaders were interviewed on the subject of “Leadership and Overcoming Adversity.”

Dr. Wilson overcame multiple adversities. These included significant race, gender, and age discrimination. Blenda’s first experience with major discrimination was during her high school years in New Jersey. Though Blenda was in the National Honor Society, Wilson’s high school guidance counselor totally refused to discuss or help Blenda get into a college. Blenda’s comment was “Actually, she told me to ‘take a typing class’… then said, ‘You’re nice looking, and you might be able to become a secretary. ‘”

Wilson just ignored the “mean” counselor and she directly contacted several colleges for admission and scholarship information. Wilson was accepted to all of the colleges she applied to, including major prestigious universities, such as the “Seven Sisters.” However, major colleges only offered one-year scholarships with a series of renewals. Blenda wanted to get a full four-year scholarship to ensure that she could complete her college education. Cedar Crest College guaranteed Blenda four years of tuition scholarship money, a travel budget and a job. So, Blenda went to Cedar Crest College and got her degree.

She did not allow anything to stop her from receiving her education. After Blenda graduated from Cedar Crest College she earned a Master’s degree in Education from Seton Hall then completed a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Boston College.

Before she earned her Ph.D. and launched her higher educational leadership career, Blenda experienced gender and age discrimination from African American males, both from within her organization and the local community. Though Wilson was clearly more qualified and had more education than her male competition many people were vocal in their opposition to her being appointed as the Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation and the Head Start Program. Blenda Wilson pointed out, “The African American men in the community were upset that a woman would get this key position… One of the criteria was that they wanted someone with a Master’s degree. I had one. None of the African American men did.” Blenda experienced age, and gender discrimination and prejudice from from black men and white people.

Blenda Wilson shared that taking a leave from her local high school teaching position to become the Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation, “actually changed my life. I started doing the Head Start program… This was all in the 1960s, with the “War on Poverty,” the Office of Economic Opportunity. I [Wilson] was going to change the world.”

In 1969, after earning her Ph.D., Dr. Wilson began her career in higher education administration at Rutgers University. Then, from 1972 to 1982 Blenda “was youngest Senior Associate Dean in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard,” where, once again, she encountered age discrimination.

Dr. Blenda Wilson was the First Vice President for Effective Sector Management at Independent Sector (1982 to 1984). Independent Sector is a nonpartisan coalition of approximately 600 organizations that lead, strengthen, and mobilize charitable communities.

While serving in the governor’s cabinet as Executive Director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, she created a plan (that became law in 1985) advocating for more efficiently organizing higher education within the state.

Dr Wilson was the first woman to head a four-year higher education institution in the state of Michigan becoming Chancellor of the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus from 1988 to 1992. Wilson was widely recognized for her outreach to Dearborn’s Arab-American community and Detroit’s African-American community.

During Dr. Wilson’s tenure as president of California State University, Northridge, from 1992 to 1999, Dr. Wilson enacted a number of strategic plans to better serve the populations of the San Fernando Valley. Wilson also led the University in the enormous task of rebuilding of the California State University after the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Dr. Blenda Wilson was a former Chair of the prestigious American Association of Higher Education. Wilson was the first woman to Chair the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and was Deputy Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where she served on the Board of Directors from 2003 to 2006. Dr. Wilson has served on the Board of Directors of numerous non-profit corporations such as the Getty Museum, The College Board, and has recently served as the interim President of her undergraduate Alma Mater, Cedar Crest College.

Dr. Wilson served as the first President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation from 1999 to 2006. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, established in 1998, is New England’s largest public charity dedicated to improving academic achievement for underserved communities. During her seven-year tenure Dr. Blenda Wilson was a very successful CEO at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Under Dr. Wilson’s leadership, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) distributed more than $80 million in grants to various educational institutions and to non-profit organizations to improve the access to college for deserving students. The NMEF was established to promote accessibility, quality, and effectiveness in education from preschool through postsecondary levels, especially for under-served populations. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has net assets of approximately $400 million, making it one of the largest foundations in New England, and the largest focused exclusively on improving higher education.

Dr. Wilson has received honorary doctorate degrees from more than 25 colleges and universities, including Cedar Crest College, Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts, Brandeis University and Boston College. Wilson has served on the boards of trustees of Boston College and Union Theological Seminary, the board of directors of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the board of directors of Higher Education Resource Services, and the boards of Boston’s “After School and Beyond,” Boston College, and Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses. Wilson currently serves on the Board of Directors of Medco Health Solutions.

Dr. Blenda Wilson has an impressive lifetime track record of effectively dealing with complicated issues of education policy. Dr. Blenda Wilson still takes time out of her busy schedule to mentor and coach select prospective female leaders.

The Dr. Blenda Wilson story shares a lifetime struggle against adversity, especially age, race, and gender discrimination, and is an excellent example of a prominent successful leader who overcame adversity!

How Student Loans Are Workable for Higher Education

Studying in a global university is an uphill task. With increasing admissions and other expenses, parents cannot guarantee the finance for their child’s higher education. Securing admission under this scenario requires money and time management too. The range of expenses include admission costs, hostel rent books and the tuition fee. Parents dream of a successful career, and therefore, nothing should come in way of pursuing the studies. Parents help to a great extent money wise, but even they have their limits. In this situation, students are offered an opportunity to take care of their expenses in the form of short term student loans. Availing the loan is fairly simple. A loan benefits by providing the funds to take care of their cost of education.

Advantage of the Student Loan

The loan is important to anyone looking forward to secure finance for their higher education. The acquired funds have capability of helping the students for further education. There are a few advantages to these loans listed here that will help the borrower make a sensible decision:

Minimal Interest Rates

Before applying for any type of loan, people are cautious about the interest rates. Nobody wants to burden themselves with whopping interest rates that would result in non-repayment of the loan amount. Student loans are suggested by many brokers on competitive APRs and manageable terms of repayment. The borrowers have an option to consider all the available offers through a comprehensive online research and compare the prices. Only after proper research, the customer should approach the regulated broker.

Flexible terms of repayment

Before countersigning the documents, applicant must clearly understand the terms and conditions that are being laid down. The intermediary will explain them to the borrower, if he is unable to understand. The repayment provisions are kept trouble-free. The payment amount is decided keeping in view the financial condition of the applicant. Sufficient time is provided to repay the borrowed money. Paying off the loan is reflected on the credit report, finally improving the credit score and establishing the credibility.

No requirement of guarantor

When the individual applies for the loans online, there is no need to provide the guarantor. Adviser makes sure, the lender disburse the funds without putting forth the condition of arranging the guarantor. This saves a lot of time, as you do not need to search for the person, to act as your guarantor and support your application.

Student loans not only serve the purpose of providing quick funds for the education. These types of loans also assist in creating a positive credit history. The funds are not provided out for free. The short term student loans must be repaid when the borrower completes his or her education. Adequate time is provided for the payback.

Is the Carrot and Stick Method Useful in Higher Education?

Consider how the process of learning begins for students. As a general perceptual rule, when students begin their degree programs they hope to obtain good grades, useful skills, and relevant knowledge. The tuition paid assures placement in a class and there are implied results that students expect as a product of their involvement in that class. In contrast, instructors expect that students will obey the academic rules, perform to the best of their abilities, and comply with specific class requirements that include deadlines for completion of learning activities.

For students, grades serve as an indicator of their progress in class, a symbol of their accomplishments and failures, and a record of their standing in a degree program. I have heard many students state that their primary goal for the class was to earn what they refer to as “good grades” – even though they may not be fully aware of what constitutes a good grade for them. When students aren’t achieving good grades, or the minimum expected by instructors and/or the school, instructors may try to nudge them on – either through positive motivational methods such as coaching and mentoring, or negative motivational methods that include threats and a demeaning disposition.

I found that many educators dangle a carrot in front of their students through indirect methods, such as the potential to earn a better grade, as an “A” in an indicator of the ultimate achievement in school. There may be incentives given to prompt better performance, including additional time or a resubmission allowance for a written assignment, as a means of encouraging students to perform better.

My question is whether the focus of teaching in higher education should be on the carrot we dangle in front of students to perform better or should there be more of a focus on what motivates each individual student to perform to the best of their abilities? In other words, do we need to be dangling something in front of students to serve as a source of motivation?

What is the Carrot and Stick Method?

I believe that most people understand the meaning of dangling a carrot in front of students to motivate them. The phrase is actually based upon a tale about a method of motivating a donkey and while the carrot is dangling in front of it, the stick is used to prod the animal along. The carrot serves as a reward and the stick is used as a form of reinforcement and punishment for non-compliance.

This approach is still used in the workplace, even subconsciously by managers, as a method of motivating employees. The carrot or incentives may include a promotion, pay increase, different assignments, and the list continues. The stick that is used, or the punishment for not reaching specific goals or performance levels, may include demotion or a job loss. A threat of that nature can serve as a powerful motivator, even if the essence of this approach is negative and stressful.

The Carrot and Stick Approach in Higher Education

If you are uncertain about the use of this approach in higher education, consider the following example. You are providing feedback for a written assignment and it is now the halfway point in the class. For one particular student, you believe they have not met the criteria for the assignment and more importantly, they have either not put in enough effort, they did not perform to your expectations, or they did not live up to their full potential.

It is worth mentioning that your beliefs about students are shaped by how you view them and their potential. In other words, I try to see my students as individuals who have varying levels of performance and that means some will be further along than others. In contrast, instructors who believe they do not have enough time to get to know their students as individuals may view the class as a whole and set an expectation regarding the overall performance level that all students should be at for this particular point in the class.

Returning to the example provided, my question to you is this: Do you reward the attempt made by the student or do you penalize that student for what you perceive to be a lack of effort? As a faculty trainer, I have interacted with many faculty who believe that all students should be high performers and earning top grades, regardless of their background and prior classes. When students fail to meet that expectation, there is a perception that students either do not care, they are not trying, or they are not reading and applying the feedback provided. The instructor’s response then is to dangle a carrot (incentive) and use the stick to try to change the necessary student behaviors.

Relevance for Adult Learning

There is a perception held by many educators, especially those who teach in traditional college classes, that the instructors are in control and students must comply. This reinforces a belief within students that they do not have control over their outcomes and that is why many believe grades are beyond their control. I have seen many students stop trying by the time they were enrolled in a class I was teaching simply because they could not make a connection between the effort they have made to the outcomes or grades received. In other words, while they believed they were doing everything “right” – they were still getting poor grades.

At the heart of the adult learning process is motivation. There are as many degrees of motivation as there are types of students and it is not realistic to expect that all students will be performing at the same level. I’ve learned through time and practice that adult student behaviors do not or will not permanently change as a result of forced compliance. However, behaviors will change in time when an instructor has built a connection with their students and established a sense of rapport with them. I encourage instructors to think beyond dangling a carrot and try to influence behavior, and not always through the use of rewards.

From a Carrot to a Connection

It is important for instructors to create a climate and classroom conditions that are conducive to engaging students, while becoming aware of (and recognizing) that all students have a capacity to learn and some gradually reach their potential while others develop much more quickly. My instructional approach has shifted early on from a rewards or carrot focus to a student focus. I want to build connections with students and nurture productive relationships with them, even when I am teaching an online class and have the distance factor to consider. I encourage students to make an effort and I welcome creative risks. I teach students to embrace what they call their failures as valuable learning lessons. I encourage their involvement in the learning process, prompt their original thinking during class discussions, and I teach them that their efforts do influence the outcomes received.

I recognize that this type of approach is not always easy to implement when classroom management is time consuming, and this is especially true for adjunct instructors. However, at a very minimum it can become an attitude and part of an engaging instructional practice. I encourage instructors to include it as part of their underlying teaching philosophy so they recognize and work to implement it. Every educator should have a well-thought out teaching philosophy as it guides how they act and react to students and classroom conditions. A student focus, rather than a carrot and stick focus, creates a shift in perspective from looking first at the deficits of students and seeing their strengths – along with their potential. It is an attitude of looking away from lack and looking towards meaning in the learning process, and a shift from seeing an entire class to viewing students individually. My hope is that this inspires you to re-evaluate and re-examine how teach your students and consider new methods of prompting their best performance.