Looking at 15 Years of College Data

5 smiling college students sitting on a staircase at school

Evidence of gains in overall critical thinking skills

Our cross-sectional data from the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST), although uncontrolled by the many changes that have occurred in higher education over the past decade and a half, provide evidence of gains in the overall critical thinking skills in the college student population (undergraduate and graduate) over the past 15 years.

This evidence is very modest. And yet, it is encouraging when we consider the still uncontrolled influences on this analysis.

Table 1. Comparison of CCTST overall mean scores by student population over time

Scores for original 34-point scale and in parentheses for (100-point scale) introduced in 2010.

Currently, educational institutions enroll a higher percentage of high school graduates, and they offer a wider variety of programs to an ever more diverse student population as compared to 2005 (e.g. working vs. not; fulltime vs. part-time; caring for children vs. not; FTC vs. re-entry, etc.). 

Since 2012, student enrollment at for-profit institutions has also disproportionately increased. This variable’s influence is still undetermined at the time of this writing. Online programs are increasingly prevalent now.

So, although the news is positive about potential gains in critical thinking skills in the college student population, we need a deeper look into whether students are improving over time.

The Impact of Teaching Critical Thinking

There is one other important difference: educators have focused considerable attention on the development of critical thinking.  Does teaching for thinking make a difference at the macro level?

Today, publications on ways to teach for critical thinking in different disciplines abound, as compared to twenty or thirty years ago.  Meta-analyses, like those conducted by Abrami and colleagues1 (2008, and 2015), provide a wealth of support for the claim that students gain strength in critical thinking after an effective training program.

Our discussions with researchers, dissertation students, and employee development professionals lead us to conclude that initiatives to improve critical thinking are occurring all over the world and in at least 50 countries.  And, as publication of peer reviewed papers studying the effectiveness of case-based learning, using human simulators, reflective journaling, concept mapping, and various other learning approaches indicates, studies conducted in many countries document critical thinking gains in various national populations.2

Is all this attention to critical thinking having a measurable overall impact?

Table 2. Comparison of CCTST overall score distribution in college undergraduates.

Table 2 compares the groups, and the accompanying graphic verifies that the samples were normally distributed.  The change in CCTST Overall score demonstrates an average gain of 1.4 points. This gain is statistically significant (t = 9.10, p<001).  More important, it is educationally significant, demonstrating that those in the 2019 sample were better able to reason to an accurate response and not fall prey to the common human reasoning errors. This supports the assertion that the educational emphasis on training reasoning skills is paying off.

This figure (below) illustrates the positive shift of scores over this time frame.

These findings provide some basis for confidence that improvements are occurring in the critical thinking skills of baccalaureate students.  Going deeper than the CCTST Overall score, we found statistically significant growth in all the cognitive skill metrics the original versions of the CCTST assessed:  Analysis (t = 7.84, p<.001), Inference (t = 7.96, p<.001), Evaluation (t = 5.66, p<.001), Induction (t = 11.78, p<.001), and Deduction (t = 5.55, p<.001).

Recent forms of the CCTST have expanded the score package to include Interpretation, Explanation, and Numeracy. Differences are commonly observed in relation to particular skill areas. 

Stronger scores are more typically seen for Analysis (to analyze problem situations and identify the significance of the critical data ), Inference (to base conclusions on evidence and reasoning), Explanation (to provide a reason or justification for an action or belief), and Induction (to confirm or disprove hypothesizes using evidence and reasoning).

Weaker scores are more common for Interpretation (identifying the critical details of the problem), Evaluation (determining the quality of an analysis, inference, judgment, etc.), Deduction (reasoning in logically precise contexts), and Numeracy (reasoning in contexts that involve numbers, proportions, probability, flow rates and other quantitative conditions).

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills Produces Educationally Significant Results

The next step for scholars will be to examine college curricula to see how these skills are approached in different disciplines. Are all the skills comprehensively addressed? Are they all demanded as a component of course performance? What the critical thinking data tell us This 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.” Click on the title to download the full PDF. Footnotes: 1Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. A. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage one meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78, 1102–1134. Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, C. A., & Persson, T. (2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85, 275–314. 2Allaire, J. L. (2015). Assessing critical thinking outcomes of dental hygiene students utilizing virtual patient simulation: A mixed methods study. Journal of Dental Education, 79, 1082-1092. Kaddoura, M. (2011). Critical thinking skills of nursing students in lecture-based teaching and case-based learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 5(2), article 20. Available at: https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2011.050220. Michaels, N. (2017). The efficacy of a skill-building workshop for reflective critical thinking with graduate students: Effect-size differences based on race. Journal of Interdisciplinary Education, 15(1), 198-215. Quitadamo, I. J., & Kurtz, M. (2007). Learning to improve: Using writing to increase critical thinking performance in general education biology. CBE Life Science Education, 6(2), 140–154. Doi: 10.1187/cbe.06-11-0203. Wood, R. et al. (2012). Measuring critical thinking dispositions of novice nursing students using human patient simulators. Journal of Nursing Education, 51, 349-352.

To read more about critical thinking

Critical Thinking What It Is and Why It Counts

Insight Assessment Critical Thinking Resources

What Do We Know About College Students’ Critical Thinking Mindset

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