College Students and the Disposition Toward Using Critical Thinking

Higher Ed student sitting at desk focused on his tudying

Has the critical thinking mindset of higher ed students improved?

What do we know about college students’ critical thinking mindset? A search of publications using California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory (CCTDI) data shows that evidence for the improvement of the attributes associated with a positive disposition toward critical thinking is plentiful (in specific cross-sectional and matched-pairs samples, collected under controlled conditions).  Over several decades, many baccalaureate institutions working on SACS regional accreditation have focused on improving student’s thinking mindset and used the CCTDI to assess progress. 

Following our previous plan of comparing data from two random but comparable samples, we collected data from SACS institutions gathered before 2012 and compared these data with data collected in 2017-2019.  We looked to see if there were significant gains for any of the seven thinking mindset attributes.  (Truthseeking, Open-Mindedness, Analyticity, Systematicity, Confidence In Reasoning, Inquisitiveness, and Maturity of Judgment)

Mean scores for three of the seven mindset attributes (Truth-seeking, Open-mindedness and Maturity of Judgment) were significantly higher in the data collected in 2019. 

Scores above 40 on the CCTDI scales indicate a consistent affirmation and positive endorsement of the specific mindset attribute. Scores under 30 show consistent disinclination and rejection of the attribute. Scores in the 30’s indicate ambivalence about the attribute.  The following table shows the difference in scores for three of the seven mindset attributes, showing evidence of improvement over time.

Growth in three thinking mindset attributes over time

Table showing growth in three thinking mindset attributes over time as measured by the CCTDI

Tempered optimism when examining data

Scores for Analyticity (Foresight), Inquisitiveness, and Confidence in Reasoning did not improve significantly over time in these randomly selected samples; but all three averaged above 40 (Positive scores) at both time periods.  Keep in mind that a person may express strong confidence in reasoning and, yet, not demonstrate the skill to warrant that confidence.  This scale is most meaningful when examined at the individual level in the context of a reasoning skills score. A change in scores for Confidence in Reasoning after a training session in reasoning skills represents a more accurate self-assessment of reasoning skill. Scores for Maturity of Judgment and Systematicity were least strong at pretest and did not gain significantly at posttest, making these mindset attributes areas for curriculum improvement.

Much the same picture emerges when we carry out this same analysis using randomized samples from associate and graduate level programs.  Graduate level samples, however, tend generally to have stronger mindset attribute scores than do undergraduate level samples.  Again, this is to be expected because of selectivity and the added educational experience of the graduate sample.

We can conclude that there is evidence that college students, on average, are improving over time in critical thinking skills and mindset. However, it is too early to celebrate. Datasets continually reveal that some college students demonstrate very weak reasoning skills and display a mindset that rejects critical thinking.

What the critical thinking data tell usThis post was excerpted and edited from the 2020 white paper by Peter A. Facione, Ph.D., Noreen C. Facione Ph.D., and Carol Ann Gittens, Ph.D., “What Critical Thinking Data Tells Us,”  Read the white paper PDF  to discover the data and insights our senior researchers share about critical thinking skills and mindset in higher education, K-12 and in the workplace. 

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