In Pursuit of Cultivating Students’ Critical Thinking Abilities

In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal that students are only “minimally improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing during their journeys through higher education.” In their study they revealed two major findings:

  1. By the end of their sophomore year, students improved their performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam (a proxy for the skills referenced above) by 0.18 standard deviation.
  2. 45% of students exhibited “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.”

In terms of cultivating those skills, the authors noted that demanding faculty who expect students to “read, synthesize information, and write a coherent argument” can be effective. They added that even when adjustments are made for such factors as institutional selectivity, “faculty expectations continue to be related to student learning.”

Published research provides important insight into student learning outcomes and the effectiveness of efforts to improve such outcomes. Based on research provided by Arum and Roska, among others, and outcomes in my classes, I now include a rigorous writing requirement in all my classes. In addition, I have increased the use of case studies.

In business classes, Harvard Business Review provides some useful case studies. Harvard Business Review is available to all faculty and students through the Lehman Library’s electronic resources.

Last week, my class analyzed Thomas J. DeLong’s and Vineeta Vijayaraphavan’s “Should You Listen to the Customer?” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012). The case involved a dance company that was seeking to expand internationally and strike arrangements with Hollywood. In pursuing its goals, the question arose as to whether the company should, for the first time, survey its customers.

Like many decisions in business, there were no clear-cut, unambiguous solutions. Moreover, the company’s mission had components that were somewhat contradictory. Part of its mission was to “push the boundaries of modern dance.” Another aspect of its mission was to bring its shows to the broadest possible audience. Creativity and mass appeal are not necessarily compatible. One sees examples of the trade-offs in throughout the art world. For example, modern art does not appeal to all persons. Hence, the dual aspects of the company’s mission could come into conflict.

Another issue concerned the company’s source of competitive advantage. The company has succeeded, even in a stagnant economy, by focusing exclusively on the interests and aspirations of its dancers. The company’s founder and artistic director explained that “our business depends on the creative expertise of our artists.” He also dismissed relying on customers for creative content, noting that they can’t envision what they have not seen before. Should a shift to a more customer-centric focus occur, that shift could inhibit the creative freedom of the company’s dancers and some might depart.

On the other hand, Hollywood and television producers might want solid research to back the company’s proposals. Customer feedback might also reduce the risk of some problems that the company had experienced, most prominently a performance that involved the use of large masks had frightened children and resulted in reduced audiences.

My students were expected to consider the company’s mission, its source(s) of competitive advantage, and to identify the benefits and drawbacks of a customer survey. Afterward, they were expected to evaluate the various trade-offs. Finally, they were asked to make their own recommendation(s).


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