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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 laying the groundwork for a proposed comprehensive, long-term plan aimed at enhancing the teaching of critical thinking in high-impact undergraduate courses and clusters of courses. The Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, also aims to infuse a culture of critical thinking and learning campuswide through the sponsorship of awards, colloquia and other activities.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) requires a QEP, which is 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 SACS re-accreditation committee during its visit to campus this spring. The plan will be formally launched upon the committee's approval.

"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," she 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."

To do that, the proposed QEP calls for three initiatives:

  1. The Faculty Fellows Program, a professional development initiative designed to encourage faculty to improve the teaching and assessment of critical thinking in high-impact courses. The program calls for competitive grants given annually to faculty to participate in a summer training program.
  2. Disciplinary Critical Thinking Projects, a grant-awarding initiative designed to encourage programs to develop and implement discipline-specific critical thinking teaching and learning programs. Individual faculty members or teams of faculty will be eligible for grants.
  3. Strengthening Campus Culture, an initiative designed to expand awareness of critical thinking campuswide. This initiative includes marketing and other activities that promote teaching and learning critical thinking practices.

The Faculty Fellows Program will be based on a 2013 summer pilot program in which faculty members developed and implemented innovative strategies for teaching and assessing critical thinking in their classes.

Professor Richard Morris in the School of Communication Science and Disorders was among 12 faculty members who were awarded grants to participate in the pilot program.

"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," Morris said. "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 her, 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 and 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," she said. "We're refocusing on 'What does the student need?' and I find that really refreshing after teaching for 30 years."

The goal, Burke said, is that students' enhanced critical thinking skills will allow them to be better able to:

  • Explain an issue or problem clearly and comprehensively.
  • Select and use evidence/information that will enable them to perform a comprehensive analysis of the issue/problem.
  • Analyze contexts, assumptions and perspectives when presenting a position on the issue/problem.
  • Formulate a thesis/hypothesis that takes into account the complexity of the issue/problem and the variety of perspectives on this issue.
  • Draw logical conclusions and 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," Morris said. "Critical thinking skills are needed everywhere. Everybody sees problems, and everybody has to know how to think through problems."

By Jill Elish
15 November 2013

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