Saturday, May 12, 2012

REASON 2: College Doesn't Teach You How to Think

College students taking a break from all of that hard thinking.

"Critical thinking skills" is a buzz phrase that is often tossed around by proponents of higher education.  The opportunity to "learn how to think" is a strong selling point that admissions representatives shamelessly use to reel in new students.  The prospective student is told that employers these days desire employees with critical thinking skills - which is true. And conveniently, students are told, college is the place where students will acquire these in-demand critical thinking skills. This, however, is a myth.

 Before we get into why the belief that college refines your thinking skills is a sham, let's take a quick step back. First let's discuss what critical thinking skills are and why they are so important.  But rather than offer an original definition, I'm going to cheat by giving you a definition from

                                  critical thinking


                        disciplined thinking that is clear, rational,
                        open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Now isn't the most scholarly source, but this definition is good enough to serve our purposes. As you can see, critical thinking skills refer to your ability to take in information, break it down in a logical fashion, and use reasoning to draw your own conclusions about the information you've absorbed.  At face value, this doesn't sound very special. But your success at just about any professional job that you could hope to have after college relies on your ability to synthesize large quantities of information so that you can make rational decisions.

So it would make sense that college, which is the usual stepping stone to these illustrious jobs, would endow students with the ability to think critically. Yet according to a recent New York University study that sampled thousands of college students, a large percent of the students showed no improvement in their thinking skills after four years of schooling. If you're familiar with the typical college experience, these findings are no surprise.

For many of the same reasons that college won't satisfy your intellectual curiosity (See Reason 1), college is a terrible place to pick up critical thinking skills. What often happens in college is that students become so pressed for time that they go through the motions of learning. When you're dividing your time between school, work, and extracurriculars, you don't have time to really think. You learn how to fake it to get by. Students who just care about getting some decent sleep after their shift at Starbucks and getting As so they can go to grad school tend to take classes with the easiest professors, only review information that will be on tests, and regurgitate their professor's opinions on essays. 

Quick hint: many professors say that they want their students to learn how to think; in reality they really want their students to share their views.

Now sometimes, by choice or by accident, college students take classes that force them to put away the SparkNotes and think on their own. You just have to realize that engaging in true independent, critical thinking when you're in college will be the exception and not the rule.

If it's thinking skills you're after, you might consider daily logic puzzles, the kind that come in those puzzle booklets along with crossword puzzles and cryptograms.  You can find them at the grocery store and you won't have to pay thousands in tuition.


  1. You don't always know if it teaches you how to think.Did you run tests to clarify,huh?

  2. You do note an important study, which ultimately became the well known book "Academically Adrift", in which one can argue that not all students improve upon their own critical thinking (and other academic skills). Curiously, I wonder if it is partially from brain drain due to being overworked as you noted in your post.

    However, I do think colleges teach students how to think from a variety of perspectives. If you are interested in the alternative opinion to the above post, check out my blog at:

  3. Schools generally punish students who 'wrongthink'.