Employers are increasingly saying that a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.
That’s just one reason why Florida State University is developing “Think FSU: Improving Critical Thinking in the Disciplines,” a comprehensive, long-term plan aimed at enhancing the critical thinking skills of juniors and seniors.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) requires a Quality Enhancement Plan, a five-year action plan for enhancing an aspect of student learning, as part of the comprehensive review process for the university’s reaccreditation. The QEP proposal will be presented to the SACSCOC reaccreditation committee during its visit to campus in March. The plan will be formally launched upon the committee’s approval.
“We think that this is something that will be transformative for Florida State University and that’s what the reaccreditation committee expects of us — that we would create something that will make a real difference in the lives and education of our students,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Garnett S. Stokes.
“We want to develop the kind of thinker who is flexible and nimble, and thus able to adapt to the challenges of living and working in the 21st century,” said Helen Burke, a professor of English who chairs the QEP Committee.
“We are already doing critical thinking, of course,” Burke said, “but we can do it better. We want to move from implicit to explicit teaching of critical thinking skills. It’s very often embedded in the coursework, but we need to bring it to the surface. We want to encourage faculty to develop new critical teaching and assessment strategies in their own areas and strengthen the emphasis on critical thinking in program curricula.”
To do that, the proposed QEP will implement the following:
- The Faculty Fellows Program, an initiative designed to improve the critical-thinking skills of upper division students by encouraging faculty to improve the teaching and assessment of critical thinking in core courses in the discipline. The program calls for competitive grants given annually to faculty to participate in a summer training program.
- Disciplinary Critical Thinking Projects, a grant-awarding initiative designed to encourage programs to strengthen critical thinking in their upper-division curricular offerings and develop and implement their own specific best practices. Individual faculty members or teams of faculty will be eligible for these grants.
The proposal also calls for a director and staff to support the implementation of every aspect of the QEP, Stokes said.
The goal, Burke said, is that students’ enhanced critical thinking skills will allow them to be better able to:
- Explainan issue or problem clearly and comprehensively.
- Gather evidenceand select and use evidence/information effectively in conducting a comprehensive analysis of the issue/problem.
- Analyzecontexts, assumptions and perspectives when presenting a position on the issue/problem.
- Develop a thesis/hypothesis that takes into account the complexity of the issue/problem and the variety of perspectives on this issue.
- Draw logical conclusionsand implications from the analysis.
These skills are especially important in an era of increased emphasis on standardized tests, which tend to be administered in a multiple-choice format.
“There is not an industry in the world that requires good multiple-choice test taking skills — they’re useless outside the testing environment,” said Professor Richard Morris in the School of Communication Science and Disorders. “Critical thinking skills are needed everywhere. Everybody sees problems, and everybody has to know how to think through problems.”
Florida State began to lay the groundwork for its QEP with a 2013 summer pilot program in which faculty members developed and implemented innovative strategies for teaching and assessing critical thinking in their classes. The QEP committee will sponsor a second, expanded faculty-training program this summer and will begin soliciting proposals for the first two Disciplinary Critical Thinking grants.
“Florida State University is saying we really want all of our undergraduate students to have these skills, and that is a major statement about the quality of the university,” said Morris, who was among 12 faculty members who were awarded grants to participate in the 2013 pilot program. “It goes along with pre-eminence, and it feeds into our goal to be a Top 25 public university.”
Kevin Dixon, an assistant in the Department of Biological Science who also participated in the pilot program, agreed.
“That should be the goal of the university education — not so much to give students facts but to teach them how to think,” Dixon said. “And if they can think, if they’ve been trained to think in an effective way, then they can learn what they need to know.”
In his experimental biology course, Dixon for the first time gave his students an exam that tested not just the material covered in class but presented unfamiliar situations and asked students to draw graphs depicting relationships and critique scientific arguments.
Professor Lauren Weingarden, likewise, took ideas from a pilot program workshop and implemented them in her art history classes. Instead of testing undergraduate students on key dates and information about artists and various periods in art history — information students no longer need to memorize now that it can easily found on the Internet — she’s asking students to compare art history movements and relate them to today’s real world.
For Weingarden, the focus on critical thinking puts students back in the center of the teaching process.
“I think it brings back a kind of humanism into the teaching process,” she said. “It’s an attempt to really connect with the students in a new way, not just in terms of nurturing them but also putting them into a professional frame of mind. We’re refocusing on ‘What does the student need?’ and I find that really refreshing after teaching for 30 years.”
In scientific and educational settings, it is reasonable to say that the ability to comprehensively analyze problems, present positions with cognition of their context, formulate theses and hypotheses while accounting for the intricacy of the problems they address and draw logical solutions and conclusions from the analysis of problems are essential to success and academic growth.
However, these traits had only been silently worked toward in the scientific community at Florida State University until Emily DuVal, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, joined the vocal pursuit of these initiatives established by FSU’s Critical Thinking Initiative or “Think FSU.”
Established in 2014, Think FSU is funded by the Florida State University Office of the Provost. The funding provides grants for FSU Faculty Fellows — faculty dedicated to actively incorporating the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) rubrics and critical thinking practices in their courses.
FSU Faculty Fellows receive grants of $5,000 annually under the condition that they incorporate these VALUE rubrics and give the Critical Thinking Assessment Test to their students at the end of each semester.
DuVal’s primary research interest is behavioral ecology, and she uses her grant to enhance her animal behavior course. In this course, she uses critical thinking challenges such as the “dear enemy hypothesis” in which students are expected to employ logical reasoning in explaining variables related to territorial interaction in animals.
DuVal believes critical thinking is instrumental in the enhancement of the sciences because it surrounding the process of developing hypotheses and using experiments to test them.
In fieldwork, DuVal actively incorporates data collection and makes sure that the data is analyzed as a part of the process of answering student questions. She said this active integration is integral as it increases students’ ownership of the research process and encourages them to engage with the questions and related data more deeply.
“I am trying to actively change my teaching to better instill these skills in students … framing critical thinking questions and employing them more effectively in highly applied situations,” DuVal said. “The hard thing about writing these critical thinking questions is getting to the heart of the content of the class in a creative way without confusing the students.”
Obviously, the pursuit of instilling critical thinking skills in college students is not a revolutionary goal. The purpose of this program, however, is to make it a central part of the curriculum. The Faculty Fellows who participate in this critical thinking initiative are ultimately looking for a return on this investment of class time. This is why they implement the VALUE rubrics and test students by semester with the CAT test.
“I am trying to change 20 to 30 percent of questions on my tests to focus more on using critical thinking skills,” DuVal said.
She also wants to utilize her testing protocols to track student progress related to critical thinking development to supplement the final CAT results. One outcome of her participation with the CAT is a change in her grading process.
“I am trying to grade in the exact way as the CAT,” she said.
DuVal explained that the revised rubric includes criteria for assessing critical thinking related knowledge as well as the assessment of formatting of the critiques. Since this standardization has infiltrated her test grading, DuVal uses scenarios on her tests that are graded in a more standardized manner.
The FSU Critical Thinking Initiative is ultimately striving to send graduates away from the program more equipped to handle problems in their professional environments that require critical thinking and to incorporate the use of critical thinking into every aspect of their thought processes and situational reactions.
DuVal facilitates this goal by asking students to take new information and “combine it with the understanding of other facts from the course to draw inferences; assess whether the facts support particular conclusions; and then lay out what else the student would need to better assess the situation.”
This not-so-revolutionary revolution of actively intertwining critical thinking strategies with the college experience is a mission, which might prove to be a turning point in the tide of education.
DuVal emphasized the importance of the Critical Thinking Initiative project for student learning and for the transformation of the faculty’s teaching experience.
“The critical thinking initiative is both for students and the faculty,” she said. “It changes the way we think about teaching.”
And, hopefully, it will change the way students learn.