How Well Do Virginia Colleges Teach Critical Thinking?

Source: Council for Aid to Education

The most important skill U.S. colleges and universities purport to teach is critical thinking. The higher-ed industry doesn’t have any tests analogous to Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams (SOLs) by which to measure the proficiency of students in this core aptitude, but it does have the voluntary Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Dozens of universities around the country administer the test to freshmen and seniors to determine how far they have progressed in their abilities to manipulate information and reason analytically.

While the CLAs show that most college students do progress over their four years of study, they also demonstrate that results vary widely by institution. At a handful of institutions, students actually lose ground. The CLAs also show that a significant number of college seniors — 14% in the 2015-16 year — fell short of a “basic” mastery of critical thinking. Only half achieved a level higher than basic.

More students than ever are attending college in the U.S. and paying more than ever for the privilege, but it is less than clear how much they are learning. In an era of rampant grade inflation, grades are not a reliable indicator. Corporations carp that many graduates are unable to think analytically, communicate well or solve complex problems.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor and co-author of “Academically Adrift,” told the Wall Street Journal. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

College students rely heavily upon an institution’s reputation when selecting where to attend. Reputations are heavily dependent upon the prestige and fame of faculty members, the size of research budgets, athletic prowess, the size of endowments and other factors entirely unrelated to educational value added. Likewise, boards of visitors have no objective criteria by which to judge how effectively colleges are executing their core mission of teaching.

Only two of Virginia’s public four-year colleges participated in the 2015-16 test: Radford University and Christopher Newport University (CNU). (Three private colleges did: Bridgewater, Lynchburg and Randolph-Macon.) Maybe other Virginia institutions should do so as well.

Here’s the rationale articulated by the Radford Faculty Senate Executive Council:

Students today can no longer rely solely on mastery of discipline-based information. They need to be able to analyze and evaluate information, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Beyond just accumulating facts, they must be able to access, structure, and use information. …

Radford University currently does not have a valid, reliable, widely accepted measure of critical learning outcomes that can be used to track our success in helping students improve on those outcomes over time or compare our students’ learning success with that of students at similar universities. Adopting the CLA+ would enable us to accomplish both those goals. Using such a measure should allow us to better demonstrate the value we add to students while they are at RU, more effectively test alternative core curriculum pedagogy and models, provide external constituencies a measure of student performance they view as valid and reliable, and reduce the amount of time faculty spend on assessment. It would also be invaluable in meeting the accreditation requirements for SACS and other accrediting bodies.

Radford has the right idea. Faculty members want to know if the institution is doing a good job or not. They want data to guide them as they shape the curriculum.

CNU learned from administering the test that it was doing something right. According to the May 2015 board minutes, CNU seniors scored in the 85th percentile. (It is not clear from the minutes whether that reflects the number who scored proficient or the improvement in the test scores between freshmen and juniors.)

Other institutions may be scared to know the results. Perhaps they don’t want board members asking too many questions — an understandable if regrettable attitude.

Or perhaps they think their students are so friggin’ smart that they don’t need to be tested. But how would they know unless they administer the test? (I remember some University of Virginia frat boys who had probably regressed during their four years in college. Excessive alcohol and cannabis consumption can do that.)

The cost is nominal — some $6,600 for 100 students plus $25 per additional student. If Virginia’s public institutions don’t voluntarily participate, then perhaps the Virginia legislature can find a way to encourage them.

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2 responses to “How Well Do Virginia Colleges Teach Critical Thinking?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    well I don’t think it is about the institution as much as it is about the student – and their parents – and not just for College but what did they did in high school with regard to taking courses that required critical thinking.. which they could do with some kinds of AP – but typically they are avoided like the plague because of the risk that they could ding the academic credentials of the college-bound.

    The colleges will teach whatever there is demand for.. but most kids and their parents fear and avoid the more rigorous courses that comprise the competencies that make up critical thinking.

    In high school, they are often the dreaded “word problems” which the problem is described in words and the challenge is to employ math and science to find the answer.

    That’s what is now required in many 21st century jobs.. but we still have a 20th century mindset..the kids want jobs that they can “occupy”.. employers want much more.. they want employees that see the problems and work to solutions. Any job that can be written down as a series of steps – even a flowchart – can be automated – and will be…

    Don’t blame the colleges.. they deliver what the customers want.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    There are other tests that may be just as useful – the LSAT, GRE, the medical school admission tests, etc. Most of those tests are as much about reasoning as they are about memory. We get data on SAT by high school and on the classes admitted into a particular college, but I’ve always wanted to see how the schools stack up on those grad school admission tests.

    The idea of turning to some kind of universal test at the college level to mirror the SOL tests which have overwhelmed public K-12 is abhorrent. Every college education in every single degree program should be about critical thinking. Which is why a college education would be of value for every student prepared for the work, whether or not the degree has any direct relevance to future employment, and your career goes in a different track (says the liberal arts major….).

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