“Below Basic” Critical Thinkers: The Sad State of Many American College Seniors

After four years of college, should a student be able to evaluate the quality of evidence in a document or article? A nation-wide test indicates 43% of college seniors have not mastered this important skill.

A report from the Wall Street Journal (Newsweek summary, if you don’t subscribe to WSJ) used data from the College Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA+ to show that higher order thinking skills like critical thinking, communication, and reasoning are not being broadly learned in American colleges and universities. The number of students who demonstrate “accomplished” or “advanced” skills is lower than one would hope, but what may be worse is the lack of improvement between students’ first year and graduation.

Here is a graph from the CLA+ National Results 2015-16. Notice that 43% of seniors possess only a basic or below basic level of higher order skills.

This next graph shows the improvement between the average scores collected from freshman to senior year:

According to the Journal: “At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.” You can see a more detailed list of results and improvements for individual schools here, however the full results are not made public.

All of this raises the question of purpose in pursuing a degree. Given that employers now place a greater premium on critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving than ever, shouldn’t this also be a priority for higher education? As we watch story after story about the effects of fake news, can’t the argument be made that citizenship in the 21st century requires confidence in one’s ability to sort fact from fiction?

The CLA+ score is not perfect. Many point out that as a voluntary test not administered to all students, its results should be taken as more of a bellwether than ultimate truth. Even with these caveats, these results are concerning for families looking at the skyrocketing cost of tuition and hoping to get a fair deal on such a large investment.

For more information on how schools can improve the higher order thinking skills businesses seek in candidates, we’ve made available the recordings from our recent webinar series, The Onus is On Us: How Higher Education Can Close the Skills Gap. The 3-webinar series features thought leaders from the academic world, Kate Sawyer and Laurie Burruss.