05/12/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Attention, Class of 2018: Select Challenging Courses That Will Maximize Critical Thinking Skills

Nearly all college letters for freshman acceptance have been dispatched. The Class of 2018 is preparing to make its transitions to the collegiate environment with a variety of interpersonal and academic challenges such as traveling hundreds or thousands miles away from home to attend school and perhaps a new and confusing academic environment.

Soon you will be asked to make some important academic decisions regarding your initial course selections. Many factors enter into making these choices -- interest in the subject's content, curriculum requirements, time scheduled (8 a.m. class, anyone?) and other criteria. I urge you to look carefully at the course description -- make judgments based not only on what is covered but also how it is covered. The how can range widely. Make certain that you look for courses that can help you develop critical thinking skills, necessary for career success and meeting life challenges.

Students will often have a choice between two sections of the same course -- one that will be taught descriptively and the other using critical thinking approaches. You are well aware of descriptive teaching that only requires rote memorization or simple understanding. Critical thinking requires students to use higher levels of learning -- applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.

There is extensive empirical documentation to prove that colleges and universities, even the elite ones, are not doing a good job in equipping graduates with these skills, according to Clarence B Sheffield, Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at RIT: * "A steady stream of research shows that it (critical thinking) is one of the aptitudes, skills, or abilities most highly sought by employers, (gradate programs) and that it is seriously deficient in most college graduates."

A focus on critical thinking is not a first-semester process but one that must continue to be practiced over an entire college career in professional and liberal arts settings as well as any courses taken just to explore area.

Following are some guidelines for judging courses before enrollment. Review course outlines and buttonhole students who are already familiar with the classroom formats to help make the right decisions.

• How is the Socratic method utilized in class? Are students directed to think about issues and assigned commensurate papers or projects rather than asked to provide memorized listings or material copied from the Internet? Does the evaluation process test for higher learning levels (see previous link) rather than memorization? And are students permitted to use open notes, textbooks and other appropriate media to develop examination responses?

• Are students encouraged to challenge the conventional wisdom endemic to the course?

• Are students provided with assignments for which several outcomes are possible, and then asked to develop thought or data based outcomes? Are they challenged with issues that will help them to become more comfortable with the inevitable ambiguities of life and career?

• Are students provided with supportive and corrective comments on out-of-class assignments and class projects to improve interpersonal communications with professors? Is the professor available personally and/or electronically to respond to students' challenges, questions or concerns?

Best of luck, Class of 2018! Bypass the "gut" courses and challenge yourself with robust learning opportunities that are supported by critical thinking. It will be more difficult but well worth the extra efforts!

*"The Assessment of Critical Thinking Challenges, Opportunities, Risks and Rewards," Assessment Network of New York, Combined Proceedings, April 2014, Rochester Institute of Technology.