The higher education sector can relax knowing that employers still greatly value the merit a degree grants job applicants. Despite their respect, market leaders found a lack of proficiency in these candidates’ critical thinking skills.
Students’ ineptness in critical thinking—along with oral communication, problem-solving and analytic reasoning—is not a short-term trend. A “growing gap” has emerged between university qualifications and proof of proficiency in general 21st-century skills, according to an international report from 2016 to 2021 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Colleges racing to evolve their academic programs may be overlooking critical thinking, an essential skill students need to survive an ever-shifting marketplace driven by employer expectations and evolving tech trends.
“It’s really important to have your knowledge of your field of study. But that’s insufficient,” says Doris Zahner, adjunct associate professor at New York University, Columbia University and Barnard College. “We’re seeing this with employers saying students are graduating with higher GPAs, but when they enter the workforce, they’re not able to think critically, solve problems and communicate effectively.”
Why critical thinking and general skills are essential for today’s marketplace
Whether higher education would like to adhere to employers’ needs or not, emerging technology is making it necessary for students to strengthen their critical thinking skills. Over 85% of organizations surveyed found that frontier technological trends would transform their operations, according to a report from The World Economic Forum.
With transformation comes disruption; employers and workers alike will have to endure changes in their daily routines. To adapt, organizational leaders in the WEF report identified analytical and creative thinking as two of their most highly sought-after skills.
Critical thinking is a necessary skill to possess when confronted with a novel situation, says Zahner. Over her 20 years of teaching statistics throughout New York’s institutions, she believes it’s a trait that’s atrophied among students.
“They’re running SPSS to run analysis and there’s an error message,” she says. “They don’t know what to do and they freeze up.”
AI is among one of the most critical technologies today disrupting the marketplace that colleges haven’t quite grasped yet, and students are fearful that it can eliminate job prospects. About a fifth of all U.S. jobs are expected to be impacted by it, according to the PEW Research Center.
How higher education can cultivate critical thinking among students
Over the last three years, Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School has emphasized adding critical thinking within its curriculum. Early tests bore impressive results: Seniors who received critical thinking instruction performed significantly higher than those who hadn’t received it in a performance assessment conducted during the 2021-22 academic year.
Shannon Deer, associate dean for the college, was motivated to instill critical thinking in her students after being told by employers that while those students were proficient in rote knowledge and technical business skills, they lacked critical thinking, according to a column.
This fall, Texas A&M University’s introductory business course has employed a curriculum framework that includes lessons and practice in critical thinking. About 1,300 students entering A&M’s Mays Business School will have to take to take the course.
Texas A&M has partnered with the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), a nonprofit dedicated to improving students’ academic and career outcomes, to develop the instruction. CAE designed performance tasks allowing students to practice applying critical thinking skills, and its assessment measures students’ proficiency.
However, regardless of the intention or creative partnerships institutions initiate, teaching students high-level critical thinking requires faculty buy-in, says Zahner, who is also the chief academic officer at CAE. “I think that’s the piece that’s missing and has been missing,” she says. “Faculty members assume that these skills are already being learned.”
Similarly, Deer recognizes that a framework prioritizing critical thinking is a “more daunting way to teach than simply lecturing about content.”
Ways to help faculty teach critical thinking
AI may be the perfect tool to help faculty focus on critical thinking, despite their caution with it. Business leader and entrepreneur Daniel Burrus believes that AI can take care of tedious tasks and grant professors enough bandwidth to focus on higher-order learning.
“With AI, we can automate the lower end of the cognitive domain, and I say, ‘Thank GOD,’” he said. “We’re going to free teachers to teach the stuff they wanted to get to in the first place—the higher levels of the cognitive domain. There’s room for us all. This is the time for a revolution.”
In addition, Alex Lawrence, am associate professor at Weber State University, found students’ level of discussion last semester developed significantly when they used AI.
Additionally, institutions can wean the responsibility off of faculty. Institutions that encourage students to get involved with the broader campus community can help them break out of their comfort zones and develop foundational soft skills, said Lynn Pierson, director of Bucknell University’s (Penn.) Office of Civic Engagement.
“Working in the nonprofit world helps them reframe their lens of perception,” said Pierson. “When they’re in the community, they’re often working with a very diverse workforce or population they may not get in corporate America.”