Overloaded with information, students need critical thinking skills

Students today have unprecedented access to information. According to educator Karl Fisch, in one week of reading The New York Times, an individual will encounter more information than people in the 18th century would have had access to during the entire course of their lives.

Forbes magazine has estimated the total number of pages indexed on Google to be more than one trillion.

While this deluge of often-conflicting information should make students less certain of what they believe, it appears to be having the opposite effect.

It is not surprising that in this atmosphere, students appear to be growing increasingly dogmatic and are less able to engage in civil discourse with others with whom they disagree. Perhaps this is because they cannot accurately explain what people who oppose them actually believe. In truth, they often lack consistency in their own beliefs as well.

It is not an overstatement to say that higher education is in a time of dramatic flux. Driven by changing expectations of stakeholders, demands from employers and perceptions of learners themselves, many are seeking ways to adapt to a changing environment in which these new demands frequently conflict.

Stakeholders want faster degree completion and higher completion rates (especially among those who haven’t historically been represented in higher education). And as if that wasn’t difficult enough, they want students to graduate with the critical thinking skills necessary to complete in a global economy.

For the student’s part, they want higher education to be practical and (whenever possible) customisable. They are likely to see their degree in largely consumerist terms, as a series of courses to complete in order to achieve their purchase of a credential that may open them up to the kinds of employment opportunities they wish to pursue.

This is understandable when we consider how significantly the financial burden has been shifted to students, making higher education less of a public good and more of a consumer good.

We must accept that we can no longer afford the luxury of believing that higher education exists in a ‘content delivery’ model. As Keeling articulated in Learning Reconsidered: A campus-wide focus on the student experience: “…knowledge is no longer a scarce – or stable – commodity. [It] is changing so rapidly that specific information may become obsolete before a student graduates and has the opportunity to apply it.”

Additionally, through websites such as YouTube and TED.com, anyone can access lectures by some of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on topics too numerous to mention.

Colleges and universities can no longer treat access to this information as the ‘product’ that we sell. We must find ways to demonstrate to students that they are the product that they are paying to produce.

Each year at my university, Stephen F Austin, we host a ‘Week of Reflection’. It is billed as “a week to consider what you have learned this year and how it is changing you”. We invite students to think about the members of our university community who have impacted on them the most, as a way of thinking about what that impact was.

Each day, students are invited to participate in guided reflective activities that prompt the student to envision their growth along our learning outcomes. Students who participate tell us that it causes them to look at learning in a new way and makes them want to learn more from their experiences inside and outside the classroom.

This programme is but one model for challenging the consumerist notions that often pervade students' thinking about their own education, but it is a model with promise.

As we continue to look at ways to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills, we must strive to create educational environments suffused with opportunities for active and collaborative learning.

Based on the work of George Kuh and others, many institutions are placing an emphasis on ‘high-impact practices’. According to the report, College Learning for the New Global Century, these are “…teaching and learning practices that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds”.

The practices encourage students to think about how what they are learning works beyond the classroom and to hear about the perspectives and backgrounds of others, and allow them the freedom to solve problems in context. There is tremendous promise in this approach, but there is also an inherent challenge.

There appears to be a strong connection between participation in learning experiences that meet the conditions for high-impact learning and a number of desirable outcomes such as increases in higher-order thinking skills (including critical thinking), persistence to graduation and academic success in college.

Even more exciting is that this effect appears to be greatest among students who come to college most at-risk (historically underrepresented students, low socio-economic status, to name a few).

The challenge lies in the fact that these numbers may be somewhat skewed due to the low number of such students who receive access to these kinds of programmes. In order to fully capitalise on the potential of high-impact experiences, we’ll need to see the impact once students have equal access to these experiences.

In summary, despite the tremendous educational potential of the information age, students seem to be less prepared to critically evaluate information or determine and defend what they believe. Colleges and universities need to find ways to leverage this resource to create the kind of learning demanded by our changing times.

* Adam Peck serves as dean of student affairs at Stephen F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He is also the president and CEO of Apex Educational Programs, LLC, a consulting firm specialising in creating and measuring student learning.