Critical Thinking Is Absent Long Before Students Reach College

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of op-ed articles, feature stories, conference panels and other forums discussing and, in many cases, decrying the deficient level of critical thinking that has supposedly evaded far too many among college students and graduates.

Last year, academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roska in their co-authored book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, penned a sobering indictment of what they believe to be a serious dearth of analytical thought by students taking place on many college campuses. Both authors made a number of appearances on radio programs, and their articles graced the op-ed pages of a number of the nations’ most prestigious newspapers and internet blogs.

As a result of their efforts, (along with a few other individuals), critical thinking became the buzzword and topic du jour at a number of academic conferences and institutions of higher learning.

As a professor whose teaching pedagogy is largely Socratic and hands-on, I certainly was not surprised that some students would initially be resistant to such a method. However, I make it clear to them that, in my classes, we will talk about, discuss, debate, analyze and, in some cases, visualize the course material.

Moreover, I quickly inform my students that I am there to guide them, keep them on track, place them back on track if they get derailed and clarify anything they are unclear about.

After more than 16 years of teaching, many of my student evaluations often mention that my class was one of the few where they (students) were required to avidly and extensively participate in their own learning. Yes, indeed. In my course(s), informative class participation is a significant percentage of their grade. I also require students to do an extensive amount of expository writing in my courses.

For those students who have never written such paper(s) before (yes believe it or not, I have had a few who have managed to arrive on a college campus without ever having to write a basic standard essay), such a task can be an arduous and even terrifying challenge.

To provide you with such an example, I just completed teaching a five-week, accelerated introductory level course where students were expected to write two five-page minimum papers as part of their grade. The reaction from a few students ranged from bewilderment to outright fear.

At the end of the first class period, three students came up to me and expressed their concerns. Two of the students made it clear that they had not written a paper “that long” before and were uncertain that they could successfully complete such a task. The other stated that he had never written a paper his entire time in high school. The student in question came from a very rural high school in Appalachia that had limited resources. Quite frankly, his response did not surprise me.

The fact is that a number of students from relatively and very affluent public school K-12 districts have made it clear to me that writing papers was not an activity they were required to do all that often. In fact, last week, as I was grading a few of the papers from my aforementioned course at one the local coffeehouses in town (those of you who have read some of my previous columns know that I am a regular patron of such environments) I engaged in a conversation with two parents and their son who is about to enter his senior year in high school soon. Both the parents and the student informed me that, during his entire tenure in high school, their child has never had to engage in any level of extensive writing. As earlier stated, I would like to say I was surprised but I could not feign such intellectual dishonesty.

More alarming is that recent findings published last week by the Center For American Progress, a Washington think tank, reported that 39 percent of K-12 students (almost 4 in 10 students) say they rarely write about what they read in class. The report also provided other disappointing news, but this statistic, in particular, very troubling for me to read.

There were number of reasons provided for such results: excessive standardized testing, lazy and incompetent teachers, and lowering of standards to list a few. Whatever the reasons behind such sobering data, the fact is that students who are not being encouraged or even required to write and think critically are going to be at a significant disadvantage when they enter college regardless of whether they major in the humanities and social sciences, hard sciences, fine arts, pre law, medicine, education or any other academic field of inquiry.

The ability to be able to write, communicate effectively and think critically is going to be crucial. Look at virtually any job advertisement and what do you see “good writing, analytical and communication skills are essential.” Something tells me this standard is not going to change anytime soon. At least let’s hope not.