Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Freshmen Fail, Part Three: Poor Critical Thinking Skills

In the first post of this series, I mentioned that I'd received some surprisingly thoughtful answers from students who were failing courses at mid-term. The most perceptive, I think, came from a student who was failing her Introduction to Sociology course. She said she'd failed a test for which she had studied because, even though she knew the facts, she wasn't prepared to have to apply those facts to test cases and essay questions.

Her answer highlights a phenomenon that college and university instructors have been observing for a few years now: students who arrive at university apparently lacking the higher-order thinking skills needed to do college-level work. Before I go any further, I need to define what educators mean by "higher-order thinking skills," and to do this, I need to introduce you to Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Bloom's Taxonomy has three different learning domains: cognitive, affective and psychomotor, each of which is divided into a hierarchy of increasingly complex skills that the student must master. In the cognitive domain, to which I will limit myself in this post, the six skills are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The first two (and sometimes the third) are considered "lower-order thinking skills" because the student merely needs to acquire facts and is not expected to produce anything from them. The "higher order" skills require the student to take the facts s/he has acquired and apply them to a problem, use them to evaluate an argument, or fuse them into a new idea or theory, among other possibilities. The examples in the link above--especially the "Bloom's Rose/Wheel" diagram--aren't bad.

College courses assume that students have acquired a basic set of facts. College math courses assume that students have mastered arithmetic (facts) and the basic principles of algebra and geometry (application of arithmetical facts) and are prepared to apply those skills to solving a variety of real-world and field-specific problems. College literature and humanities courses assume that students have mastered the skill of reading a text and understanding the author's theme or argument and are ready to move on to critical analysis and evaluation of said argument as well as to putting texts in dialogue with each other to gain new perspectives on broad ideas (synthesis).

Most incoming freshmen are, indeed, repositories of vast quantities of data. As I pointed out in a much earlier post (in March or April), my students know physics facts that I never learned in college. Many of them have had foreign language instruction since elementary or middle school and arrive at college already or almost fluent. Their capacity for memorization is simply amazing, and they do well on assessments that measure only knowledge and comprehension. Yet, when they find out that my course is a seminar (interactive discussion with the direction of individual sessions determined partly by questions and comments raised by the class) rather than a lecture, they panic. When assessments and assignments stray from the factual level to the critical thinking level, performance plummets--and not for lack of in-class practice. I've actually had more than a few students ask me "is [answer] what you're looking for on this comparison question?" For all the talk in primary and secondary educational circles about incorporating critical thinking skills into the classroom, too many students arrive at university underprepared in this area.

I could go on at length about the root causes of this problem (NCLBA-era standardized testing, to name one). But this post has already grown far beyond the length I originally expected, so I'll conclude with some possible solutions to the problem:

1. Beef up high school mathematics requirements. This includes raising standards and "equivalencies" (I'm still not entirely certain that statistics and data analysis courses are truly "algebra II equivalent") as well as increasing the number of mathematics courses required to graduate. Students need to be encouraged to take a math course their senior year, if at all possible, even if they don't need another math course to graduate, because the whole point of mathematics instruction is the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills.

2. Deemphasize standardized testing. Standardized testing has a place, but it's difficult to assess higher-order thinking skills in a scantron format. Also, the additional testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act has produced a generation of students (and, sadly, some teachers and administrators) who have come to see education as the acquisition of facts, and assessment as the regurgitation of those facts.

3. Require students to take a course in logic and/or rhetoric in high school or in a pre-college summer session, or at least introduce students to formal logic and logical fallacies in another required course early in their academic careers. The proofs in high school geometry courses are a good start, but I don't think it's enough. The philosophy teaching fellow I am partnered with for one of my sections is planning on doing a short unit on logical fallacies early in the spring semester, and I am eager to see the outcome.

4. Pare high school course offerings back to the basics. I'm amazed at the number of my (presumably "college-bound") advisees who took "parenting skills" or "baking" or some other elective their senior year instead of taking on a fourth math, science or social studies unit. While I appreciate the efforts of school districts to offer more practical/life-skills instruction, and while I understand that students who struggle in these content areas might be tempted (or pressured by their parents) to avoid taking a course that could pull down their GPA, doing so only causes them to fall further behind academically, as most liberal arts colleges require all students to take one or more courses in every content area. In contrast, most of my college-bound classmates took a math course, a science course, and a social studies course every year of high school because our district was so cash-strapped that no other options were available. Looking back, I think we actually benefited from having to stick to the core curriculum.

5. Teachers in all disciplines need to ask tough questions--and even some unanswerable questions--in class discussions, and not allow students to get away with pat answers to these questions. We need to keep asking, "What other possible answers/solutions are there?" Similarly, we need to encourage students to use their imaginations when working through the historical background to a text: "What might have happened to cause the author to focus on these particular issues?" "What might account for the discrepancies between these two accounts?" "What agenda might this author be trying to promote?" This will help students apply the reasoning skills they should be learning in math and science courses to other disciplines.

Next time: time management skills

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