Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Did American Undergrads Write This Study?

Oh American college students, I can't quit you:

[R]esearch of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.
Were all of these 2,300 undergraduates studying business at Oklahoma State? If so, those numbers sound surprisingly positive. Sadly, this is not likely.

The reasons seem clear enough:
Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.
Wow. College students should be reading and writing more than that, no matter what they're studying. Business majors should be able to find the "win-win" in this -- for them, at a rate of 40 pages of reading per week and 20 pages of writing per semester, they'll finish everything worth reading and write every paper worth writing in the discipline of business in under one academic year. Huzzah!

At the risk of minimizing an instance of the USA's ongoing intellectual immolation, it's not obvious to me that increases in "critical thinking" and "complex reasoning" are rationally expected outcomes of undergraduate education. It would be nice to think so, but from what I have seen, undergraduate degree programs are designed to introduce students to a particular area of study -- its range of topics, analytical methods, schisms and controversies, significant theories, historical development, and so on. 

Of course, teaching can improve critical thinking and complex reasoning, but as with the teaching of any subject matter, it will succeed to the extent that it is made the focus of the effort. To expect it to magically attach to undergraduate coursework in, say, music theory, chemistry, Spanish, economics, or art history -- and moreover to attach equally to these and all undergraduate disciplines -- is, well, it's analytically sketchy.


Lauren Kress said...

I'm a university student in Australia, just finished my undergrad and currently undertaking an honours year in neuroscience research. I sympathise with your concern, however I don't think that reading and writing necessarily make anyone better at critical thinking. The least amount of reading I did was in my science classes - Chemistry, Physiology and even Psychology, and yet I found this is where I learnt much of my skepticism. On the first day we learnt to value peer-review research above and beyond "anecdotal evidence" based on good reasons offered to us by the Academics we were surrounded by. Of course, philosophy was also very useful and moved me from confusion after I had discontinued my childhood church-going to becoming an atheist and cynic of religion and religious ideas.
Reading and writing is important, but it is also the people, the lectures and the ideas that you are exposed to.
Of course, we are talking about a science degree where critical thinking is essential! - I think the academic staff aimed at equipping us with this faculty for reason.

Dale said...

Lauren, I don't think we disagree. Critical thinking *can* emerge from typical undergraduate coursework (whatever that is) -- and I am all for teaching that aims purposely at that -- but it's not inevitable. Disciplines / majors can be expected to favor different modes of thinking, not all of which will equate to clear, rigorous thinking.

Studying business, for example, both demonstrates and furthers a student's mental shortcomings. Studying dance favors creativity and a grasp of the kinesthetic, I gather.

If I am any indication, studying English in college tends to increase the student's churlishness, pettiness, and pretentiousness.

And so on.

If we want college students to emerge from college with stronger analytical skills, it seems to me we have to aim directly at that mark, not simply expect it to leach into the minds of students as a result of being on campus.

Thanks for the comment.