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Can college teach critical thinking?

February 9, 2011

Two sociologists wrote a book from a four year study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities and tried to see what they actually learned. What they found was, in general, college students did not improve on critical thinking and writing skills. They blame a lack of "rigor" in university schoolwork and a system of student evaluations that pressures professors to assign less and less work. Students in liberal arts disciplines did slightly better than students in business or communications.
 
I first read about this over at Historiann's with a longer article on the study here and was reminded about this when one of the authors did an interview on NPR this morning. There's also an article on discussion on this topic over at Higher Education.
 
Personally I feel so much of it is a kids these days kind of attitude. It's in the ruling elite's best interest to prove that today's college students just didn't learn as much or as well as they did back in the day. But what with cutting funding over the last 30 years to public education institutions it's no surprise to me something would suffer as a result. But how about critical thinking or writing? Never once I have seen that directly asked in a job application or been able to deduce that an interviewer was actually looking for it. Especially in engineering there is a tendency to ask what products the person worked with, what kind of designs they can generate, their hardware and software skills. Back in my humanities days I wrote a lot. We had an excellent writing program in my high school which was topped off with a very specific writing program in college. Almost all my humanities classes required papers, easily hitting the 20 pages they discuss in that article. In engineering there was writing, but it wasn't as consistent. There was writing in early introduction and design courses, then again at the end in the senior level classes. But inbetween it's mostly problem solving. The occasional use of a CAD program or a few classes covering software programming whether in C or matlab were the only real take home assignments.
 
And why not? I write better than many of the young engineers I work with. But my writing skills have never come into play with my employers. I have a whole degree that covered writing, analyzing, critical thinking and other "soft" skills. Instead they ask what CAD program I've used, and for how many years, and did I use this other analysis programs? They ask what kind of hardware I've designed or tested looking for application specific knowledge. I think there's an assumption amongst employers that "soft" skills like writing can come in time whereas technical skills they really want new employees to have right away. I think this might be flawed, but it represents the system as it is. A good [designer] can learn to write whereas a good writer can never learn to [design], substitute in whatever the desired technical skill is.
 
But employers like to complain that college grads are not qualified period. That even in this economy they can't get qualified people to hire. Often this is attributed to a back in my day we used to kind of attitude with an assumption that whatever skills that manager learned in school 20 years ago are superior to whatever skills the student is learning now. I'm not saying the bar hasn't lowered for higher education. But a student graduating now is expected to have all the technical knowledge of an engineering degree, with the hands on knowledge of a shop, as well as software skills with programming, CAD, matlab, ANSYS, etc. They're also supposed to be pretty competent with MS Word, Excel and Project. Oh and they want specific application experience. I mean how can they expect to have this memorization and working knowledge combination and come out with a student who can think independently or apply the facts they've spent the last 20 years learning? I think new college grads will never be good enough for employers or for sociologists alike.
 
So much of what makes you who you are and what makes you good at what you do you learn on the job. This holds true for technical skills, application specific knowledge, and tribal knowledge. So why can't it hold true for critical thinking? If we aknowledge technical skills can be learned on the job, why not soft skills? We may not value it as highly but it seems like our employees could improve in many ways and we should stop expecting so much for an education system we've stopped adequately funding.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 9:01 pm

    Being towards the end of my engineering career (35 years in the profession), I find that many young engineers expect to be classified as "senior engineers" within 5 years or less and paid accordingly.When I graduated back in the '70s, you started out as a "junior" or "staff" engineer for about 5 years, then "engineer" for another 5 years or so, and finally "senior engineers". That way, you learned everything that you didn't learn how to do in college which is a lot. It allowed you the opportunity to work with more experienced people and make your mistakes without grave consequences. If you were lucky, you could bounce ideas off of your senior guys and they would tell you stories of what works and don't work in the real world.When I switched to the semiconductor equipment industry, I was probably 10 to 15 years more experieced than my colleagues. At lunch, we would talk about business and when I told them that a "senior engineer" at the company would have been a "junior engineer" at my old company, they were surprised. I explained the process and how old school engineers were slowly brought up to speed. A fresh young engineer just out of college asked me what he would be considered. Being politically correct, I said an "ameba". He said he didn't understand the term. I looked him straight in his eyes and said the layman term was "pond scrumb". The lowest form of life on the earth. We all had a good laugh.

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