Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Huge study: Do universities really teach critical thinking? Apparently not.

Do universities really teach critical thinking? This huge CLA longitudinal study on 2,322 students for four years from 2005 to 2009 across broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, suggests not. Richard Arum of New York University found that they were woeful at critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. 36% showed no significant gains in "higher order" thinking skill. 45% made no significant improvement in critical thinking.

Best subjects

Students with most gains studied:


Social sciences

Natural scie



Students with least gains studied:



Social work


Some surprises

Extra data threw up some other surprises:

Students who studied alone did better than those who studied in groups

Only a fifth of their time spent on academic pursuits

Over 50% of time spent socialising

Students avoi

ded courses that involved a lot of reading and writing

Timely report

This is a timely report and there has already been much soul searching, as many start to question the real value for money that HE delivers in the US. "No one concerned with education can be pleased with the findings of this study," said Howard Gardner.

It questions the fundamental purpose of higher education, as it has been assumed that these skills were precisely what was being taught. What needs to happen is a re-evaluation of ‘teaching’ in Higher education. Fiscal pressure, along with rising student costs and expectations, will make this happen. My own view is that the lazy ‘lecture’ is the dark secret at the heart of academic teaching. Since Benjamin Bloom first showed the pedagogic weaknesses of lectures in the 50s, we’ve had decades of confirmatory research showing their deficiencies. It comes as quite a shock to lecturers when you subject their teaching method to the same levels of academic scrutiny as their own research. Bligh, Gibbs and Mazur all describe their double standards on this issue.

There is no evidence that the dominant 'lecture' approach to teaching promotes critical thinking. Even Bligh, who promotes lectures makes it clear that it does not and couldn't find a single study that claimed it did. All 21 studies showed that other methods were better. Gibbs confirms this view. Mazur's work in the teaching of physics is also clear on the subject. Significant gains in understanding come from avoiding traditional lectures. This is an important debate, because if I, along with Bligh and others are right, there's a serious pedagogic hole in higher education.

This topic is covered in more detail in my own talk ‘Don’t lecture me!’ and in a follow up webinar from ALT. Richard Arum’s new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) discusses the report in detail and is published later this month.


jay said...

Donald, what do you make of the finding "Students who studied alone did better than those who studied in groups"?

Were the groups really drug parties instead of study groups? Date night?

This finding is so counterintuitive, it makes me question the study overall.

BTW, I'm off to Egypt for a few weeks next month.

Mark Frank said...

I don't doubt the conclusions of the report - but I can't get worked up about how much time is spent on academic work. The diagram makes it clear that this is 16% of a 7 day 24 hour week. That's nearly 30 hours a week. I wish I had spent that much time working at uni. If the teaching were more interesting them presumably that number would rise even higher.

Donald Clark said...

The importance of the report is its size and the four year spread on the data. But it's the conclusion that matters, not the premises. Contact time is higher in US educational institutions. The conclusion is a huge concern as it throws doubt on the casual claim by so many in HE that 'critical thinking' is its strength and key goal. This has always seemed a contradiction to me, when the 'lecture' is the dominant pedagogic technique. The evidence on 'lectures' is clear - they do not promote critical thought.This study undermines much of what is assumed to be good about HE.

Seb Schmoller said...

The materials from the webinar are here (Donald - no need to approve the comment if you would prefer to stick a link into you original post): http://repository.alt.ac.uk/view/divisions/lecture/2011.html .

James said...

Ok, this does not pertain to this particular post but the one you wrote on the i-pad device.

Even though you thrashed the device, it turned out to be a huge success. It would be interesting to know you view on why this happened...this would give a nice insight into human behavior.

Donald Clark said...

James. I bought an iPAD and stand by my critique. It is not an input device as the touchscreen keyboard is too awkward. I'm typing this in from a netbook which was half the price and rarely see the iPAD used as a working computer. It's an output, not input device. Just as importantly, it's a 'status' device.

James said...

Donald, I get what you say. It would be nice to know your opinion on whether the i-pad can really help school students 'learn'.

Optimistic cognitive scientists said...

I actually find it rather encouraging that 64% of students showed significant gains in higher order thinking. Given that there is a huge range of abilities coming in to university, I would expect that a third might either 1) already be high on those skills (I maxed out the Analytical Reasoning part of the GRE when I was 18) or 2) didn't really engage or have the requisite ability to build such skills in abstraction and reasoning. Why should we panic about a 64% postive rate? Particularly when you look at the difficulty of measuring such outcomes reliably and accurately.

Donald Clark said...

Surprising in the sense that it counters oft-made claims by Universities that such gains are their primary purpose. In a way I agree with you but given the huge costs of tertiary education, these claims need to be challenged.

malcolm said...


Why did you find the result that students do better studying alone to be counterintuitive? If you study alone you're forced to figured out things on your own, which is how you really learn them. Having some else tell you is far less effective.

malcolm said...

I'm surprised the sleeping portion was so low. That's less than 6 hours per day.

riiya819 said...

It would be nice to know your opinion on whether the i-pad can really help school students 'learn'.

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