Are you preparing students with the critical thinking skills essential for success?
Emsi Burning Glass, a labor market analytics firm, recently released data that confirms what several other recent studies have shown: Critical thinking is a top skill employers are seeking in their employees.
In analyzing 80 million job postings, Emsi Burning Glass found employers seek transferable skills such as critical thinking four times more frequently than the top-five technical skills. In the firm’s 2022 Talent Playbook, they define critical thinking as “the skill of analysis, taking information and breaking it down into its essential parts. It enables employees to effectively manage themselves and others by producing a full-orbed understanding of the what and why of something. Whether you’re looking for people to help patients in a hospital or run finances in a skyscraper, critical thinking will fuel intelligent problem-solving and decision-making.”
How many more studies on the importance of these skills do we need before people ask more pertinent questions, such as “How do educators know if students have these skills?” and “How do job seekers demonstrate their proficiency in the skills employers deem as most important?”
Content knowledge is important but no longer is it sufficient. Skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective written communication are just as essential for academic and career success. To help students improve, educators must first identify and understand students’ current abilities to help them develop and strengthen these skills.
At the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), our sample of approximately 70,000 students shows that 60% of them are not proficient in these essential skills when entering higher education. Disappointingly, 44% of students exiting higher education are still not proficient in these essential career skills – yet, our data also show that these skills are predictive of positive post-college outcomes.
We believe that student success in higher education can be improved through increased focus on critical thinking. By assessing these skills early in students’ academic journeys and providing targeted developmental support based on assessment results, educators can improve students’ academic and career outcomes. Identifying and supporting students who may be at risk due to their inability to think critically, problem-solve and write effectively should be a focus of student success initiatives.
To gain the best insights, higher education institutions should employ an authentic, valid and reliable measure of college and career readiness skills, such as the assessment offered by CAE. Our performance-based Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) situates students in real-world scenarios that require purposefully written responses. Students are asked to address important issues, propose solutions to problems and recommend courses of action to resolve conflicts. They are instructed to support their responses by utilizing information provided within the assessment, such as technical reports, data tables, articles, blogs and emails. As in the real world, there is no single correct answer and scores reflect a range of plausible and effective strategies—a process that, by design, mimics real-world, decision environments.
CAE’s assessments focus on subskills such as data literacy, critical reading and evaluation, and the ability to critique arguments by identifying logical flaws and questionable assumptions— skills that are increasingly relevant in a diverse world where the ability to clearly perceive, integrate and critique opposing viewpoints is essential. Students are challenged to:
- Analyze and understand data
- Evaluate the credibility of various documents
- Identify questionable or critical assumptions
- Construct an organized and logically cohesive argument by providing elaboration on facts or ideas
Our detailed reports provide norm and criterion-referenced data for institutional and student results, ensuring our solutions meet the needs of both students and educators. Mastery levels and subskill analysis provide insights to help guide developmental support. Students who are proficient, accomplished or advanced in these essential skills, can be awarded evidence-based micro-credentials to share with prospective employers or graduate programs. CAE has developed supplemental instruction, using a performance task model, to help educators develop these skills in their students.
Critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective written communications will continue to be the skills that help employees succeed – and therefore, will continue to be the skills that employers seek. Identification of students’ proficiency and targeted actions will go far in developing the adept critical thinkers, problem solvers and communicators employers are looking for now and into the future.
Bob Yayac is the CEO and president, Council for Aid to Education (CAE), a nonprofit developer of performance-based and custom assessments that authentically measure students’ essential college and career readiness skills. Bob sets the strategic direction for CAE and works closely with clients, partners, and the CAE team to ensure CAE delivers on its mission to improve student outcomes. For more information, visit www.cae.org.
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