Are Critical Thinking Skills A Benchmark Of Higher Education?

Recently I wrote a blog, A Standardized Test To Identify Reasons For The Skills Gap, and in this blog I want to dig a little deeper regarding the CLA+: a standardized test used to assess transferable skills learned in college. Colleges incorporate teaching these skills in their “general education requirement, a collection of courses usually taken in the first two years to prepare students for their next two years (where they usually take course related to their particular degree). There are pundits who argue that building these transferable skills is the primary objective of a college degree; in his book Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok says:

It is impressive to find faculty members agreeing almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education.[i]

Transferable Skills
Transferable Skills

I am reading Academically Adrift where Richard Arum and Josipa Roska conduct a longitude study based on the results of CLA test (among other things) and question the value of the first couple of years in a college education.

Are students learning essential transferable skills in the first couple of years of college?

Not really. In a study of 2,300 students who took the CLA before college and two years after college, there were:

No statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students.[ii]

And this is precisely what colleges are trying to accomplish in the first couple of years! Students take a combination of writing, math, and humanities courses to improve related transferable skills.

Some blame higher education institutions saying teachers cater to the whims of their students by treating them as consumers (which leads to inflating grades, etc.). But I think the problem hinges on the willingness of students to spend time learning and not just trying to get a grade. For example, I never understood why someone cheats on a test or copies the contents of a paper; I am not necessarily coming solely from a ‘purist’ point of view, but sabotaging an opportunity to learn seems senseless to me.

Is what students learn during the first two years of a traditional bachelor’s degree worth the cost of tuition?

For the majority of students, probably not. Too many are concentrating on a social experience and do not dedicate enough time to learning. Full-time students on average spend merely twenty-seven hours a week towards academic activities.[iii] This is far less than the typical forty hour work week of a professional.

I am not discrediting the value of a social experience because I think it is important to build lifelong friends, learn to be assertive among peers, and assimilate with a diverse student body. However, I do not think colleges should be run like a country club.

In my opinion, the problem rests with the maturity of students rather than higher education per se.  I would like to see students having the same dedication towards undergraduate programs as they do with graduate programs. I attended a MBA program where every student had almost perfect attendance, completed their homework, and participated in discussions.  It was like a full-time job where we all worked very hard and the social experience was amazing too. Perhaps there is a way to instill self-guided (as opposed to parent-guided) diligence in high school, so incoming college students are ready to learn.

In Academically Adrift, the authors call this academic preparedness and make the conclusion that it has a strong relationship with CLA growth – students who are more academically prepared, have a bigger increase with their performance on the CLA after two years of college.

Are there cost-effective ways to learn these transferable skills?

Parents are allowed to homeschool their children. Once they pass a test to demonstrate competency, they get a high school degree. Similarly, let students complete a collection of MOOCs and then take the CLA+. Once they score high enough, give them a credential that they are academically prepared.

Community colleges offer general education courses and charge far less per credit hour. Spending a year or two at a community college is a smart decision for someone who needs to get their academic bearings straight.

Are there ways to prepare for the CLA+?

The CLA+ is an open-ended test. You are provided with documents and certain parameters, and must create a persuasive essay where you discuss the results of your analysis. It is an accurate predictor of critical thinking skills: analysis and evaluation of information, problem solving, analytic- and quantitative-reasoning, and writing communication.[iv]

There are collectively thousands of courses offered by the MOOC consortiums. Courses in journalism, math, statistics, humanities, social science, psychology, finance, politics, history, and science all build critical thinking skills. I bet there will be preparatory courses for the CLA+ soon (akin to SAT prep courses).

Like any standardized test score, if you do well, it is a valuable credential. You can share the results of the CLA+ with employers. Think of the benefit in telling a potential employer, “I scored in the top 25 percentile of all college students on a standardized test for critical thinking.” You are telling an employer that you have a strong foundation to build whatever technical skills they throw at you.

In terms of taking the test, it is currently only available to students at higher education institutions and through StraighterLine. So if you take a series of MOOCs and then take the CLA+ through StraighterLine, you can skip the equivalent of two years of college all for the cost of taking the CLA+: $79.


[i] Derek Bok. Our Underachieving Colleges, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

[ii] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[iii] Jeffrey J. Selingo. College (UN) Bound: The Future of Higher Education And What it Means For Students, (Boston: New Harvest, 2013)

1 thought on “Are Critical Thinking Skills A Benchmark Of Higher Education?”

  1. Good discussion. On 11/13/2013 8:03 AM, TheProfessionalWebsite – Personal Professional Website wrote: > WordPress.com > TheProfessionalWebsite posted: “Recently I wrote a blog, A > Standardized Test To Identify Reasons For The Skills Gap, and in this > blog I want to dig a little deeper regarding the CLA+: a standardized > test used to assess transferable skills learned in college. Colleges > incorporate teachin” >

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