Did my critical thinking skills improve in college?

CBS News (and several other sources) reported this week that “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” Additionally, the article cited statistics showing that colleges don’t require enough writing and reading in their coursework. This information comes from a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by sociologists Richard Arum (NYU) and Josipa Roksa (University of Virginia). There’s more info in the article; check it out.

The article got me thinking: did my critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills improve in college? It’s a difficult question for me to answer, because I feel that, when I left college, I was just as confused about a lot of things as I was when I enrolled. I know that I learned a lot, and I also know that I’ve forgotten a lot of it.

A synopsis of my personal academic experience:

I sort of breezed through high school as an A student, and enrolled in a private college.

In college, I was a Mathematics major for my first five semesters, but I struggled with it, and eventually ran into a wall when I scheduled a class called Differential Equations in my sixth semester. My departmental advisor had encouraged me to defer DiffEq until later, and to instead take certain theory-ish classes, which were only taught once every four semesters, as they became available – Point Set Topology, etc. Having no foresight myself, I followed that advice. As I was also working through my GenEd curriculum and a Business Administration minor, DiffEq was continually put on the back burner until three semesters had passed since I had finished Calculus 2.

My advisor was my DiffEq professor. On the first day of class, he started writing equations on the board and asking us to solve problems that were vaguely familiar. After a few minutes, he noted that there would be no review of Calculus 2, since we should have already learned it.

I felt like the guy was laughing at me. Or punching me in the heart. It had literally been 20 months since I had done any significant calculus. Had I taken the course the semester after Calculus 2, I likely would have retained much of that knowledge, but a year and a half later I found myself clueless.

There were 45 minutes of class left. I closed my book. I was in a class of 40 or more people, and this was the first lecture, so I withdrew into my own thoughts.

I was stunned. I felt like I had been betrayed by my advisor. For a long time I wanted to be a math teacher, but I had already had doubts about my abilities before this, and this was basically the nail in the coffin. I had struggled through Probability & Statistics the semester before, barely grinding out a C+, my lowest grade yet. The leaders of the math program were, like the rest of the school, firmly of the mindset that we should work in groups, and I had felt like a marginal contributor to many of those group accomplishments. The door seemed to have been closing on me for a while, and now it was shut.

My DiffEq classmates were sophomores, fresh off of their Calc 2 semesters, and I watched them busily scratch away in their notebooks.

I got out my notebook and started writing a letter to my parents, telling them what was happening and apologizing for failing, for spending their money to get this far toward… nothing. I never sent the letter, but I communicated much to them over the phone later that week.

Eventually, I went to my Accounting professor and asked him if he thought I could swap my major and minor and still graduate on time. He referred me to the departmental head, who assigned me an advisor; we worked on a plan, I dropped and picked up some classes, and, with a fairly heavy schedule over the final three semesters, I did graduate on time with a degree in Business Administration and 3/4 of a Math major as my minor.

And no idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

End background story.

Did I learn anything? Of course I did. I actually felt that I got more out of my business courses, and several of my GenEd classes, than from my original major.

However, I’m not sure if my “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing” skills improved much while I was in college. I have a feeling that, when I received my degree, they were at a similar level as they were when I graduated from high school.

If anything, I have learned, improved, and retained much more in the decade or so since I graduated. Sure, I learned a lot in college, and I matured in many ways. However, I feel like my focus gradually shifted along the way, from “grow and learn” to “survive and graduate.” I wasn’t often considering my thinking and reasoning skills; there were times when I thought about them, but they fell off my radar when I had a mountain of work that I just wanted to get done and get a good grade on. Whether that’s my fault, the college’s fault, or a combination of the two is difficult to determine. I’m willing to take the blame.

Anyway, back to what I was starting to say: I feel that I have used and developed my thinking and reasoning skills more post-college, through my hobbies and my work experience, than I did in college. In particular, I probably written over the past fifteen months as a blogger than I’ve done over the rest of my life combined. It may or may not be noticeable to readers, but I’ve observed that my writing and editing processes have evolved, and I’ve become more conscious of readability and structure, among other things. I’m consistently more confident in the posts that I publish, and I’m more productive when I write. I’m still an amateur, but I’m also still developing. In contrast, the essays that I wrote in college were total hack-jobs compared to what I’m writing now; I’m amazed that I didn’t get lower grades than I did in courses that required papers and written exams. With a couple of exceptions where I was proud of my written work, I’m glad that those papers will never be read by anyone, ever again.

At any rate, it’s a difficult question for me to answer. There are a lot of things to think about, with respect to both the question and my life choices. Perhaps I was on the wrong track all along – if I had to do college over right now, I don’t know that I would choose mathematics or business as my course of study – and, if had I started on the “right” track, I might have had the interest, in addition to the desire to get good grades, to drive me to betterment in those areas. I do know that I spent too much of my time in college feeling unfocused, disillusioned with my prospects, and out of my league. Perhaps those are some of the reasons that the results of this study are what they are.

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2 Comments on “Did my critical thinking skills improve in college?”

  1. Kate says:

    You make me want to write more. I don’t remember feeling that my analytical skills were vastly improved in my undergraduate years, but I did notice that my reading comprehension improved greatly, and that was something I had struggled with all through primary and secondary school. I do know that in the one graduate level class I’ve taken so far, the emphasis was on analysis and synthesis, with a close second emphasis seeming to be placed on how correctly I used APA 6. I may comment further later but time constraints require me to end this comment here.

  2. Tesh says:

    I feel I improved in college, but it was mostly because I wanted to. Most courses had the same problem I found in classes earlier; they were busywork machines and avenues to textbook sales. The best classes I had were those that just challenged me to develop my own skills on my own dime.

    …something I still do today, for far less money. But hey, I have the paper that says I graduated.


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