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Critical Thinking
Last updated prior to August 1998

The critical thinking (CT) requirement is described in the most recent CU-Boulder catalog as follows: "Courses in this area challenge students to think rationally and critically about those matters that educated people debate. . . In critical thinking courses, students will learn to recognize and avoid common mistakes in reasoning, to identify and assess tacit assumptions, to gather and evaluate evidence, and to distinguish different kinds of reasoning...Each critical thinking course will have a substantive topic or topics of inquiry. . . Students will be required not only to write papers in which they present or criticize arguments, but also to present arguments orally and to engage in reasoned class discussions. . . Students must take 3 hours of specified [critical thinking] coursework at the upper-division level."

Since the CU-Boulder outcomes assessment program began, units such as English, History, MCD-Biology, Physics, and Women Studies have used CT courses and assessment as part of outcomes assessment for their majors.

A pilot assessment of CT courses was conducted in 1992-93. Professor David Chizar of the CU-Boulder Department of Psychology was commissioned to design and conduct the study, which compared cognitive abilities of undergraduates who had not taken a critical thinking course with these abilities in students who had taken such a course. After examining commercially available instruments, he selected the Cornell Critical Thinking Test (CCTT) to measure the students' critical thinking skills.

In the first experiment, the CCTT was given in five non-CT courses to sophomores, juniors, and seniors who had not yet taken a CT course, and it was also given to the students in four CT courses. The instructors were asked to teach their courses as they normally would and not adapt them to the CCTT.

Like most tests of critical thinking, the CCTT focuses on students' ability to logically evaluate problems and situations rather than on their creativity. Some CT courses stress these evaluative skills, while others stress creativity. If the CT courses are accomplishing their goals, average CCTI scores in at least some CT courses ought to exceed those in the non-CT courses. In addition, because some CT courses emphasize the skills measured by the CCTT while some don't, the average scores of the CT courses should be more variable than those of the non-CT courses. The results of Experiment 1 confirmed these predictions.

In the second experiment, the CCTT was given twice, at the beginning of the term and again at the end, to students in one CT course and to students in one that had never been a CT course. Again, the instructors were asked to teach their courses as they normally would. The CCTT scores in both sections improved from the start to the end of the term, but the students in the CT course improved more than the students in the non-CT course did.

The results of both studies were statistically reliable, and indicate that these CT courses accomplished their goals. However, because of the wide variety of CT courses and the limitations of the CCTT, these are preliminary findings and are should not be generalized to all CT courses. Professor Chizar notes that, if possible, subsequent studies and assessments should add measures of the productive and creative aspects of critical thinking.

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Last revision 07/12/02


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