Critical thinking: More important than grades – IAU told

Universities should develop critical thinkers who are able to identify and solve real problems rather than steering and controlling students just to get good grades, higher education leaders attending the 2022 International Association of Universities (IAU) General Conference in Dublin, Ireland, were told.

Speaking at a plenary session on teaching and learning for tomorrow’s world, Hanne Leth Andersen, rector of Roskilde University in Denmark, urged university leaders to “practise what we preach about student-centred learning” and build skills and competencies for the future.

She was addressing participants at the IAU conference hosted by University College Dublin between 25 and 28 October 2022, for which University World News was the media partner.

While artificial intelligence can programme robots, we mustn’t think about our intelligence in the same way, Andersen said, warning that while students were focused on building their CVs, it was necessary for universities to help young people’s personal development.

Education for sustainable development

“That includes education for sustainable development and the need to develop critical thinkers.

“Otherwise grading becomes the objective and the most important discussion in the classroom is ‘how can I get a better grade?’

“If getting high grades has the highest priority, that can lead to what I would call a surface approach by some students.”

That might not hinder the really strong students, but it won’t be much help to the rest of the students, said Andersen, who called for university teaching and learning to be “curiosity driven” and to guide students to deal with uncertainty.

Her university is doing this through problem-orientated project learning, which involves students learning to collaborate and identify a significant problem every semester and working in groups to solve it.

“This encourages them to learn in an interdisciplinary way,” said Andersen, who told the conference the students get feedback from an internal and external examiner mid-term which gives the exercise “real impact”.

Some critics might complain this is a ‘soft’ approach compared to a grading system built around written exams, but Andersen argued that higher education leaders need to show this is a serious option and the way to build critical thinkers who can work in an interdisciplinary way and deal with real-life problems that they will be asked to tackle after they graduate.

“We need to reconnect and motivate our students, and develop skills, just like craftsmen are focused more on the work than on themselves,” she told her audience.

Lessons from the pandemic

Earlier in the session, Dr Fernando León García, president of CETYS University in Mexico and president of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), discussed the results from the IAUP’s virtual conference, held last year.

García said as higher education was moving towards post-pandemic transformation, it was important to understand how internationalisation has changed and to take note of what worked in order to broaden perceptions.

Higher education had become nimble, he said, and had “pivoted with pedagogical, technology and health related measures to provide continuity to educational programmes” during the pandemic. It had also become “more open to broader perspectives on internationalisation through things like e-mobility”.

Leaders are envisioning a future in which face-to-face education would increasingly incorporate technology and be accompanied by hybrid and online modes of delivery, he said.

Now, higher education needs “bifocal leadership” that considers the short-term and the long-term horizon, which includes being able to offer flexible learning and being open to new opportunities to build on the increased “empathy and solidarity” it showed during the pandemic.

Also important is recognising student mental health as well as student success and seeing diversity and inclusion as a strength together with greater connection to the community.

Changing mindsets

Referring to more recent events, such as the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference held in Barcelona in May of this year, García said the six transitions suggested by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) offered a way forward, moving from exclusion to the right to higher education and development, and from a disciplinary to a transdisciplinary approach.

“Where there were silos, we need a holistic approach and where higher education was terminal, we need lifelong learning. Where it was hierarchical, we need flexibility and diversity and where it offered content, higher education should develop competencies,” he said.

Even Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have a changed mindset of the new normal, observed García, who urged higher education leaders to “think less about where we are and more about where we need to move to”.

His parting message was: “We’re moving from being about a university to becoming a ‘glocal multiversity’ with multiple learners and multiple modes of delivery,” adding: “Be international, but don’t forget your region.”

The session also heard from Jouhaina Gherib, rector of Manouba University, Tunisia, who said it was often easier to get students than professors to be multidisciplinary, but that was the way higher education needs to go if it is to help save humanity and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at