To prepare students for post-graduate success, critical thinking skills must be woven into all aspects of instruction

Colleges must intentionally teach critical-thinking skills

To prepare students for post-graduate success, critical thinking skills must be woven into all aspects of instruction

Key points:

Our college faculty recently held a training session, during which one member shared a striking view of how emerging artificial intelligence will impact our current undergraduates.

“Once they enter the workforce, they’ll never need to do anything ordinary,” said Associate Professor Chris Yust. “Our students will never do anything ordinary again.”

AI is–rightfully–drawing a lot of attention in higher ed. And as the workplace becomes increasingly automated, our leadership team at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School has come to understand that Mays students had better be imbued with more than rote knowledge and technical business skills. They must become good thinkers. More to the point, they must become critical thinkers.

Reacting to what employers increasingly say they are seeking in new hires, and with the understanding that we previously hadn’t been intentional enough about teaching and measuring critical thinking, Mays has been highly focused on strengthening our pedagogy for the past four years.

First, we narrowed our student learning objectives to three: critical thinking, oral and written communication, and technical competency. In order to properly assess performance on critical thinking and written communication, we partnered with the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), a nonprofit leader in designing innovative performance tasks for measurement and instruction of higher-order skills.

CAE’s performance tasks, which measure analysis and problem solving, writing effectiveness, and writing mechanics, revealed significant deficiencies, specifically with problem solving and writing mechanics. This objective, independent source was telling us what was difficult to learn: our students were underperforming in two of our three learning objectives.

So, for Fall 2021, we again partnered with CAE to develop critical thinking instruction, a framework we could use throughout the college.

This fall, we’ll have about 1,300 students entering Mays, and all Introduction to Business classes will employ this framework, which includes case studies and performance tasks, and a focused effort to teach students the building blocks of how to think critically. It is a keystone of the class.

A student’s first semester is a great time to begin ingraining critical thinking as a daily habit. Their whole world is turned upside down. Many of our first-years don’t even know why they chose business school, or Texas A&M for that matter. Giving them tools to think more deeply about their choices–from the appropriateness of their major to where they want to eat dinner on any given night–will help them for the rest of their lives.

We’re focused on scaffolding critical thinking building blocks throughout their Mays experience, because you can’t teach something to an 18-year-old once and expect it to stick. If we only mention it once, is it really that important?

Exiting Introduction to Business students now uniformly use well-supported arguments to back up their recommendations. We also implemented this framework into our senior-level Strategic Management capstone course. To test effectiveness, in 2021-2022, some students received the instruction while others did not. All seniors took a CAE assessment at the end of the spring semester and students who received critical thinking instruction performed statistically significantly higher.

Of note, as educational leaders, we’ve also found that deliberately focusing on instilling critical thinking has made us think more critically about our own work. In a way, we’ve become the students. This framework is now so ingrained in our thinking, it impacts every major decision we make as a college.

Mays works closely with industry leaders who time and again stress how important critical thinking is in the candidates they hire. It’s evident in how these employers now conduct hiring interviews.

“More and more companies are moving away from testing technical skills, the business fundamentals,” said Mihir Cherukumilli, a Mays peer leader and teaching assistant who has interviewed at several companies. “No one’s going to put a balance sheet in front of you anymore, but a case interview that requires you to demonstrate critical thinking is becoming very common.”

Mays Business School is committed to this new framework, even while recognizing it’s a more daunting way to teach than simply lecturing about content. Our faculty must deeply engage with students, listening for poor or limited thinking in order to draw out the best decision making.

That said, it’s worth it, for us and for any school focused on preparing students for the reality of the AI-driven workplace. As higher education leaders, it’s incumbent on all of us to make today’s college students much more than ordinary. 

If we teach them to think critically, they’ll have a better chance to be extraordinary.

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