College Prospects: Do Parents Complete a Viable Due Diligence?

My grandson is about to chose which college he will enter in the fall. Recently I attended a gathering of his college bound friends and their parents. I listened while everyone talked excitedly about their visits to various campuses.
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My grandson is about to chose which college he will enter in the fall. Recently I attended a gathering of his college bound friends and their parents. I listened while everyone talked excitedly about their visits to various campuses.

Most of the students, children of well-educated parents, had done their due diligence on various universities and colleges, including campus visits. But I sensed, as an academic with 51 teaching years, that none had asked this question, "To what extent will my son or daughter be well equipped with critical thinking (CT) skills if graduated from this institution?"

There is extensive empirical documentation to prove that colleges and universities, even the elite ones, are not doing a good job in equipping graduates with these skills. *
According to Clarence B Sheffield, Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at RIT: **

A steady stream of research shows that it (critical thinking) is one of the aptitudes, skills, or abilities most highly sought by employers, and that it is seriously deficient in most college graduates. ... Critical thinking has also been identified as the top priority in the Quality Enhancement Plans of numerous academic institutions. ... Critical thinking remains notoriously difficult to define, however, and its assessment is equally challenging. There is no consensus regarding the appropriate means of assessment, as well as which specific learning outcomes to target. Derek Bok has recently argued ". . . methods of assessment that are even minimally adequate for comparative purposes currently exist for only a few forms of learning, mostly skills such as writing and critical thinking." (Higher Education in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 212)

Parents, College Visits and Critical Thinking

College visits are not the place for college bound prospective students to try to review CT teaching venues at a school. Both prior to and during the visit, I recommend that parents conduct due diligence on the extent to which critical thinking is utilized as a teaching tool. A college course or two in logic, critical thinking or moral philosophy during the undergraduate years will not provide the skills needed for 21st century.

The Process

• Before or at the visit, ask for samples of course outlines and examination questions for course topics you know well. If your applicant is planning to study a similar field, you are fortunate. If not, ask about courses with which you are familiar, do a CT analysis of the information. Then use the findings as surrogates to estimate the level of CT emphasis at the school.

• In these documents, look for evidence of the types of analytical rigor and/or creativity challenging the students. Obviously don't be impressed by the volume of descriptive work being required. For example, a two page well documented assignment requires more CT than a 20 page descriptive paper abstracting the content located on the Internet. Critical thinking can even be useful with traditional multiple-choice examinations, if the student is required to briefly substantiate why her/h choice is correct. Teamwork is widely used today but the process should only be CT qualified if all team members have clearly demonstrate the CT contributions they have made. Case studies, also widely used, need to be carefully documented. In the arts, seek samples of student work or creative efforts and talk with them about how their mentors promote creativity.

• Ask faculty with whom you interact about their use of CT in their courses. Ask the same of current students and graduates. Make certain that advanced courses encourage developing critical thinking skills. Sometimes CT teaching approaches are limited to the liberal arts curriculum. An advanced course, say statistics, that only allows students to plug data into a system or formula does not qualify.

• Bottom Line: If the due diligence sampling during and/or before the visit does not show robust use of CT, gently suggest a visit to another institution. Don't let her/h join the multitudes that graduate college without sufficient CT skills.

*For example, see: Richard Arum & Josipa Roksa, "Academically Adrift --Limited learning on college campuses," The University of Chicago Press, 2011. I understand this will become a longitudinal study with a book following the students in the 2011 study after they have graduated . To be published Fall 2014.
** "The Assessment of Critical Thinking Challenges, Opportunities, Risks and Rewards," Assessment Network of New York, Combined Proceedings, April 2014, Rochester Institute of Technology.