11/16/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Critical Thinking Skills: Higher Education Must Lead Business to Maximize Full Value of Employees

Substantial long-term research (e.g. Arum & Roksa) and comments from employers suggest that a large portion of college and university graduates lack critical thinking skills. They are often referred to as problem-solving skills by the business community. Students also tend to overstate or exaggerate these skills or abilities when self-reporting them. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal argued that higher education is "... not producing graduates who can solve problems and connect the dots on complex issues, but (their) bosses stumble when pressed to describe what skills make critical thinkers."

Responses of WSJ's readers included (in quotes) suggest that there is a list of observable generic critical thinking skills, which include:
Applying: "Challenging assumptions and asking provocative questions" about the status quo. Key abilities: choose between alternatives, identify similarities and admit differences, explain relevant context and background, and to easily paraphrase issues, etc.
Analyzing: "Gathering all the details, reviewing them carefully and objectively while applying your own experience." Key abilities: compare, contrast and test alternatives based on ambiguous, incomplete or partial information, to criticize in a balanced and civil manner, etc.
Evaluating: "Frame the right questions" Key abilities: appraise a new challenge, support another division, defend a minority position, being fair-minded etc.
* Creating: "Connecting the dots in new ways to better interpret signals around you." Key abilities: develop new models from experience, create or design new processes to meet changing market needs, develop new unique programs, etc.

These skills have been identified and used by academic accrediting bodies, such as the AACSB, to certify its business school membership. They are called meta-cognitive levels of learning, i.e., extending beyond rote memorization and identification.

A Puzzle:

If accrediting organizations are reviewing curricula for inclusion of employment level critical thinking skills, why is it that substantial portions of graduates are not able to demonstrate their use on the job? The employment sector actively seeks these skills but it can't even reach a consensus on how to define them, although many can be measured behaviorally.

My suggestions as to why the puzzle exists and what can be done about it are as follows:

• Because critical thinking skills are difficult to measure, academics have not developed a meaningful and ongoing dialog with employers about how to define problem-solving skills in their job descriptions, or what critical thinking means in particular career contexts. Those above represent just one core generic group or related network of skills.
• Critical thinking accreditation requirements are often satisfied by requiring a course(s) in logic, moral philosophy, or research methods and tools, etc. as a program requirement. But there is no assurance that such courses suffice, or that they actually "prepare" them to apply these skills with sufficient rigor, breath and depth at their entry-level positions.

What Needs To Be Done

• Critical thinking must be integrated throughout the entire curriculum. This appears to be a minimum requirement to achieve the necessary educational outcomes for the 21st century.
• Critical thinking must be practiced over an entire four-year undergraduate academic program, if it is to have lasting impact. It takes time, discipline, and hard work and this must be recognized. It also must be closely tied to effective writing and oral communication.
• Faculty must be attentive to their pedagogy, and they must be motivated to model critical thinking skills in their classes. Many faculty already apply these skills in classes, but the comments of employers suggest an insufficient number. For the remaining faculty, adding generic critical thinking approaches will be a substantial cultural change. To obtain the required results, administrators, department chairs and others will have to slowly, but firmly, galvanize this group. Collaborative, team-taught, interdisciplinary seminars could be an answer.
• For its return on investment, the public (including employers) is demanding breadth and depth in content mastery from higher education. In Rochester Institute of Technology's new strategic plan, the university will respond with education in fields with employer demand integrated with critical and innovative thinking. Students and faculty will be involved in interdisciplinary learning projects, which will naturally sharpen problem-solving skills.

Richard Arum & Josipa Roksa, (2014) "Aspiring Adults - Tentative Transitions of College Graduates," The University of Chicago Press.
Melisa Korn (2014) "Bosses seek Critical Thinking, But What Is it? The Wall Street Journal, October 22nd, p. B6. Elana Zak (2014) "Always Ask ' Why?' Readers on Using Critical Thinking at Work," The Wall Street Journal, October 23rd.
For example, see:
To show that business are now increasingly using nontraditional behavioral types of performance benchmarks see: Emily Chasan, (2012) "New Benchmarks Crop Up in Companies' Financial Reports," The Wall Street Journal, November 13th.