A recent front page story in the Wall Street Journal presented findings from a study that followed 2,322 students at 24 U.S. colleges and universities from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009. After the first two years of college, 45 percent of these students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills. After four years, 36 percent still could not demonstrate that they could think critically. They showed no improvement in separating fact from opinion, taking an objective point of view, communicating effectively, asking the right questions, and using other complex reasoning and writing skills.”
These findings, reported in a book by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Rolosa, have been hailed by reviewers as provocative, groundbreaking, important, shocking, and serious scholarship. Bill Gates said, “Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job” (see Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses).
As part of the study, students answered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a 90-minute essay-type test that measures real-world, problem-solving tasks to measure critical thinking skills. Below is a demonstration CLA sample problem.
Collegiate Learning Assessment SAMPLE PROBLEM
INSTRUCTIONS. This is an example of a CLA+ Performance Task. Students are asked to prepare a written response to a hypothetical but realistic situation. The Performance Task is made up of an introductory scenario, a question, and seven documents/information sources. The student will use information from the documents to carry out the task. Students are told that while their personal values and experiences are important, they should base their response solely on the evidence provided in the documents.
You are the chief marketing officer of SportsCo, an athletic equipment company. The most profitable sector of the company is its new line of inline skates called HotSkates. Given the success of the current HotSkates advertising campaign, the company has planned to continue with it for the next three months. However, after a recent skating accident in which a teenager was seriously injured, SportsCo is now the subject of negative press relating to possible safety hazards associated with its products. Critics are saying that the HotSkates advertisements do not adequately convey the advanced skill level necessary to safely perform tricks on the skates. If SportsCo continues with the current campaign, it risks facing lawsuits as well as increasing negative public opinion of the company’s ethical standards. However, instituting a new advertising campaign will require a great deal of time and money, and the new campaign may not be as successful as the present one. It is your job to decide whether to continue with the present ad campaign.
Although this problem was designed for college students, BrainWise instructors will recognize that their middle school and high school students can analyze it using the 10 Wise Ways. In fact, the BrainWise CPR problem solving worksheet and BrainWise checklists contain all the thinking skills necessary for students to access resources and present a fact-based proposal that supports or negates whether SportsCo should invest in a HotSkates ad campaign. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how young graduates of BrainWise compare with college students assessing the same problems? Additional CLA practice tests are available at cae.org/images/uploads/pdf/CLA_Plus_Practice_PT.pdf .
As instructors already know, BrainWise graduates of all ages learn to use critical thinking to solve problems. Here are a few examples they have shared:
- The kindergartner who recognized that the fox “used his Wizard Brain to trick the Gingerbread Boy to ride on his back across the river and then used his Lizard Brain to eat him;”
- The teen who said she thought about the consequences later and the consequences affecting others when she sought help for suicidal ideation; and
- The parent who had the family use “I” messages at the dinner table to set a respectful tone, and used “popcorn” as a mantra to defuse tense situations.
The BrainWise program’s 10 Wise Ways teach concepts that underlie both “executive functions” and “critical thinking.” Program graduates understand the difference between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Graduates also grasp how practice and application of the program’s ten concepts build brain connections (neuroplasticity). Those who have mastered the skills are able to simultaneously use and apply the Wise Ways to any problem involving themselves, others, or both. They realize that people may rely on their Lizard Brains because they were never taught the thinking process and why it is important to take other people’s points of view and show empathy.