Goldilocks and the three bears of critical thinking (Part 1)

Young woman studying at coffee shop

This is part one of a three-part series “Goldilocks and the Three Bears of Critical Thinking.”

Meet Goldilocks, she’s a college freshman. She doesn’t realize it, but she’s one of the few students who will avoid being eaten by bears lurking in the critical thinking forest of college. Most stakeholders agree that critical thinking is a key competency that higher education should shape in students.

However, data from studies commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) and assessments like the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus exam suggest that many students aren’t meeting critical thinking expectations. It’s no wonder that confidence in higher education is slipping.

How did we get here? I’d argue education is simply at a new crossroads borne out our society’s entrance into the Information Age. We’re in this mess because our education system was designed for a bygone era. Allow me to explain…

Compulsorily serving students since 1647

In biology, a favorite tenet is that “structure is related to function.” In applying this lens to compulsory public education at the K-12 level, we find that its function was to train students to read just well enough to navigate the Bible and follow directions. Compulsory education also reinforced punctuality and obedience.

Basically, it was designed to inculcate students not shape them into critical thinkers.  So, it’s not surprising that most college students enter college unable to avoid bears in the collegiate critical thinking forest.

For a long time, information was hard to get. In fact, most collegiate faculty remember a time when they physically had to go to a library to get information. In today’s Information Age, information is cheap and easy to come by.

Google processes about 40,000 searches every second—that’s a lot more questions than we’ll ever be able to cover in class. People turn to the internet before they’ll go to a doctor and some even trust the internet more than their doctor.

There’s no doubt that the rapid evolution of how we access information necessitates a revolution in how we teach and assess students. Just knowing information isn’t enough; students must be able to think critically.

Goldilocks meets the three bears of critical thinking

It turns out that the forest of critical thinking is full of bears. As an author of a textbook with Pearson, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a lot of faculty all over the country. These conversations help inform text and classroom tool development to best help students and faculty overcome real pedagogical challenges.

In my conversations, it’s easy to pick up some recurring themes. In fact, the top three barriers (or bears, as I like to think of them) to helping students become adept at critical thinking are the following:

  • Bear-ier #1: Many students are underprepared.
  • Bear-ier #2: Students lack a map through the critical thinking forest.
  • Bear-ier #3: Students are scared of critical thinking exercises; they don’t like porridge.

Introducing bear-ier #1: Under preparedness

Our first bear-ier is under preparedness. We’ve all encountered underprepared students. That’s not surprising if we consider the Nation’s Report Card.gov reveals that high school seniors are grossly underprepared for college.

Reading wise, about 37% of high school seniors are ready for college, 27% are ready to take on college level writing courses, 25% are math ready, 22% are science ready, and a measly 12% are ready for History 101.

Big deal you say—not everyone is going to college; maybe just those who are college ready end up going to college. Well, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, about 67% of high school graduates in 2016 enrolled in college.

That leaves us with a significant portion of college freshmen who are not college ready. Under-prepared students face an uphill battle to learn new content, never mind working toward thinking critically about that content. So, what’s to be done?

Using technology to conquer “bear-ier” #1, under preparedness

Ultimately, we tend to teach diverse students who have differing knowledge gaps. This is where we can leverage technology and text materials to help our students fill their gaps and lay their foundation so they can build on that foundation in class.

Educators and students don’t have to “go it alone” as they navigate the forest of critical thinking. Rigorous platforms like Pearson’s MyLab and Mastering apply advanced algorithms that can tell students what they know, what they don’t know, and what they don’t even know they don’t know. These invaluable tools quickly identify and remediate knowledge gaps.

Arguably, the technology is there for more than just identifying and filling knowledge gaps. In fact, if all we get to in class is remediation content, then there’s no way we’ll have time to get to critical thinking. I use technology with my students so that they come to class prepared to participate.

Here’s a little secret…students don’t need a graduate credentialed professor to teach them basic vocabulary and low level foundational material. Let the technology do that so your class time is spent pursuing higher-order applications.

Don’t miss part two of the series to explore “bear-ier” #2: The bear that lacks a map through the critical thinking forest.

Hear directly from Dr. Norman-McKay in her recent webinar Thinking Critically from Day ONE of Class on how to explore and apply case-based content to facilitate deeper thought and authentic learning opportunities.

About the Author

Lourdes Norman-McKay

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay  earned her B.S. in microbiology and cell science from the University of Florida and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Her postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology and immunology focused on the role of viruses in cancer. She has fifteen years of experience teaching allied health students at the associate, baccalaureate, and post baccalaureate levels. She is a full-time professor at Florida State College Jacksonville where she mainly teaches microbiology and anatomy and physiology, and where in 2016, her peers and students recognized her with the Outstanding Faculty Award.

Dr. Norman-McKay has extensive STEM program development experience that ranges from developing and launching a biomedical sciences baccalaureate program to serving as a curriculum designer and subject matter expert for the Florida Space Research Institute and Workforce Florida. Most recently, she was invited to serve in the U.S. Department of State’s speakers program to promote STEM education innovation and women in STEM. Dr. Norman-McKay is an active participant in the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Microbiology in Nursing and Allied Health Task Force Committee, which just published curricular guidelines for microbiology courses that train nursing and allied health students.


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