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Think FSU: Plan aims to enhance critical thinking skills

Employers are increasingly saying that a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.

That’s just one reason why Florida State University is developing “Think FSU: Improving Critical Thinking in the Disciplines,” a comprehensive, long-term plan aimed at enhancing the critical thinking skills of juniors and seniors.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) requires a Quality Enhancement Plan, a five-year action plan for enhancing an aspect of student learning, as part of the comprehensive review process for the university’s reaccreditation. The QEP proposal will be presented to the SACSCOC reaccreditation committee during its visit to campus in March. The plan will be formally launched upon the committee’s approval.

“We think that this is something that will be transformative for Florida State University and that’s what the reaccreditation committee expects of us — that we would create something that will make a real difference in the lives and education of our students,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Garnett S. Stokes.

“We want to develop the kind of thinker who is flexible and nimble, and thus able to adapt to the challenges of living and working in the 21st century,” said Helen Burke, a professor of English who chairs the QEP Committee.

“We are already doing critical thinking, of course,” Burke said, “but we can do it better. We want to move from implicit to explicit teaching of critical thinking skills. It’s very often embedded in the coursework, but we need to bring it to the surface. We want to encourage faculty to develop new critical teaching and assessment strategies in their own areas and strengthen the emphasis on critical thinking in program curricula.”

To do that, the proposed QEP will implement the following:

  1. The Faculty Fellows Program, an initiative designed to improve the critical-thinking skills of upper division students by encouraging faculty to improve the teaching and assessment of critical thinking in core courses in the discipline. The program calls for competitive grants given annually to faculty to participate in a summer training program.
  2. Disciplinary Critical Thinking Projects, a grant-awarding initiative designed to encourage programs to strengthen critical thinking in their upper-division curricular offerings and develop and implement their own specific best practices. Individual faculty members or teams of faculty will be eligible for these grants.

The proposal also calls for a director and staff to support the implementation of every aspect of the QEP, Stokes said.

The goal, Burke said, is that students’ enhanced critical thinking skills will allow them to be better able to:

  • Explainan issue or problem clearly and comprehensively.
  • Gather evidenceand select and use evidence/information effectively in conducting a comprehensive analysis of the issue/problem.
  • Analyzecontexts, assumptions and perspectives when presenting a position on the issue/problem.
  • Develop a thesis/hypothesis that takes into account the complexity of the issue/problem and the variety of perspectives on this issue.
  • Draw logical conclusionsand implications from the analysis.

These skills are especially important in an era of increased emphasis on standardized tests, which tend to be administered in a multiple-choice format.

“There is not an industry in the world that requires good multiple-choice test taking skills — they’re useless outside the testing environment,” said Professor Richard Morris in the School of Communication Science and Disorders. “Critical thinking skills are needed everywhere. Everybody sees problems, and everybody has to know how to think through problems.”

Florida State began to lay the groundwork for its QEP with a 2013 summer pilot program in which faculty members developed and implemented innovative strategies for teaching and assessing critical thinking in their classes. The QEP committee will sponsor a second, expanded faculty-training program this summer and will begin soliciting proposals for the first two Disciplinary Critical Thinking grants.

“Florida State University is saying we really want all of our undergraduate students to have these skills, and that is a major statement about the quality of the university,” said Morris, who was among 12 faculty members who were awarded grants to participate in the 2013 pilot program. “It goes along with pre-eminence, and it feeds into our goal to be a Top 25 public university.”

Kevin Dixon, an assistant in the Department of Biological Science who also participated in the pilot program, agreed.

“That should be the goal of the university education — not so much to give students facts but to teach them how to think,” Dixon said. “And if they can think, if they’ve been trained to think in an effective way, then they can learn what they need to know.”

In his experimental biology course, Dixon for the first time gave his students an exam that tested not just the material covered in class but presented unfamiliar situations and asked students to draw graphs depicting relationships and critique scientific arguments.

Professor Lauren Weingarden, likewise, took ideas from a pilot program workshop and implemented them in her art history classes. Instead of testing undergraduate students on key dates and information about artists and various periods in art history — information students no longer need to memorize now that it can easily found on the Internet — she’s asking students to compare art history movements and relate them to today’s real world.

For Weingarden, the focus on critical thinking puts students back in the center of the teaching process.

“I think it brings back a kind of humanism into the teaching process,” she said. “It’s an attempt to really connect with the students in a new way, not just in terms of nurturing them but also putting them into a professional frame of mind. We’re refocusing on ‘What does the student need?’ and I find that really refreshing after teaching for 30 years.”