Helping Students Think About Thinking
Between assignments for a semesterlong research writing project, in a class titled Writing in the Social Sciences, my Penn State students and I discussed job applications and strategies for completing an application packet. The students in the class are mostly juniors and seniors; they represent a wide range of social science majors -- from psychology to history; education to economics; crime, law, and justice to philosophy. They answered questions about a few jobs, internships or graduate school programs that interested them and then drafted resumes (or C.V.s) and cover letters (or personal statements) tailored to each opportunity.
But as I was reviewing drafts of the students’ cover letters, something seemed off.
The students I’ve encountered while teaching writing at Penn State and as a TA at George Mason University generally seem to have little difficulty applying experience from their summer job, internship, or volunteer work to the requirements of the jobs or opportunities they apply for. They recognize the quantifiable skills — e.g., managing people, navigating computer programs — and pretty easily apply them.
But the possible higher-order thinking skills they’ve hopefully developed in their majors or through their employment experience — the ability to problem solve, analyze, self-question, write, etc. — often prove to be more difficult to identify and explain. These skills have ideally grown within them throughout college but still might only be faintly recognizable now. Putting words to these skills is yet another matter.
Thinking about one’s thinking is not easy. Considering that many of the majors in the social sciences and humanities might be viewed by some as less direct-to-workforce majors, compared to fields such as engineering or business, isn’t it imperative that instructors in the social sciences and humanities work with students to identify and discuss the critical thinking skills they are (one hopes) acquiring? And to discuss how these vital skills might transfer to jobs or other opportunities?
Maybe some instructors assume that students recognize these skills already, as one presumes the faculty member is able to do for herself. And many students probably do recognize their critical thinking skills. But for the students who have trouble realizing these skills (or who statistically have not developed them), the cover letter, resume, or job interview might be the first time they have to acknowledge and apply these skills. Sure, the student could just learn by doing and, over time, eventually write cover letters that better present and represent their ability to think critically, think differently. But if these students are able to recognize, discuss, and apply their critical thinking abilities — abilities that some argue are more highly developed in students in the social sciences and humanities — they may be able to move to the head of the job-hungry pack.
Recent data demonstrate that too many students are graduating college without improved higher-order thinking skills. I offered to my students a summary of Richard Arum’s and Josipa Roksa’s work Academically Adrift, which showed that 45 percent of undergraduates at 24 colleges made no significant improvement in their higher-order thinking skills — critical thinking, reasoning, or writing skills — during the first two years of college, and that 36 percent didn’t show improvement in these vital skills over their entire college career. While statistically not all my students are developing their higher-order thinking skills, many are. And I’m hoping that all of them will not only be proud of these very real and very transferable skills, but be able to express clearly what these skills are and how these skills are critical, and even provide a tangible advantage, in all facets of life.
As an exercise I asked my students to consider the top skills they’ve acquired or are acquiring in their major fields. How would you explain your major-specific technical and critical-thinking skills to a potential employer or, for that matter, to your crazy Uncle Ted who chides you for not pursuing a “real” (direct-to-workforce) major?
Many got to writing, but a few students appeared puzzled. The question wasn’t difficult on a primary level, but as they wrote I thought back to my own college experience as an English major. In college I rarely considered the higher-order thinking skills I was developing, if I was even developing them.
Something was brewing, I knew that. I was thinking more independently, more pointedly. I knew what I liked academically, and what I didn’t — I stumbled for a few semesters, then changed majors late sophomore year from business to English. I was developing strategies for my writing process and, therefore, my thinking process. I was questioning more. I had to speak quickly and sharply in class to defend my positions. But I never put words to what all this was. As an English major I knew I was learning how to interpret texts, gather a bevy of ideas from these texts, and then write and argue about them in a clear and intellectual manner. But beyond that, I never considered how these skills would translate to the wider (gulp) job world.
My first post-college job was as an intern in the operations department for a professional football team. My potential employers were not seeking someone who could deconstruct a canonical literary work or write a semi-decent opening to a short story (that sniffed of a bad Carver imitation); they expected me to explain to them in my cover letter and interview how the skills I thought I possessed from my major would fit in to this work environment (where I would be doing almost nothing that resembled the work I did in my major). They were looking for someone who would work hard and long hours, who was dependable, who had a clear interest in the administrative side of a football team.
They also sought someone who could, as I remember them telling me, think a little differently. (I don’t quote because I don’t recall the exact words.) How could I express that my literature degree had taught me to … think? If I had discussed in the classroom the skills I was acquiring as I acquired them, I might have been able to talk about their applicability to a greater extent.
The students finished writing. A few spoke, tentatively. A senior health and human development major and dual psychology and sociology minor said that she has gained many skills working in groups and teams. She took a human development class that was all group work, from quizzes to homework to presentations. It sucked, she said, in a matter of words. But that’s what the real world is going to be like. She plans to work in law enforcement. In class she worked with a range of personalities and learned how to communicate with each (encoding and decoding) as they problem-solved, while she was simultaneously building a better understanding of her own working style.
A junior psychology major offered that while some people might think she just sits around pondering how other people think, she says she works most often with data either that she helps collect in a lab, or that is obtained from the literature. She analyzes the data to form conclusions. She says that she also has been taught to see the world in grays, to see that people are complex. She hopes to attend graduate school in the fall, but this ability to consider other people from a multifaceted perspective could translate to many fields and opportunities.
Suddenly more students began talking.
A philosophy major agreed. She said she has shed her black-and-white thinking. While much of her work is argument — a definite skill — she said she’s better at understanding the complication of people, and she thinks that will benefit her in the work world. How to talk to a boss. How to address a subordinate. How to lead a team of people of all different personalities.
Another sociology student said that he’s written many complex papers of late, and by doing so he’s garnered organizational, logic, reasoning and argument skills. He’s had to analyze (and reanalyze) his findings and apply them. He’s communicated these findings accurately and clearly. He feels that now when he’s confronted with a problem, instead of jumping to conclusions, he’s able to consider it from numerous angles and reason out the best solution.
After more students spoke I offered to the students that sometimes it feels silly talking about these skills. It feels dreamy or airy or romantic. How can a student identify and prove that she can analyze? How can she prove she can communicate on a clear, concise, effective level? Grapple with complex problems? Observe and critique how others work and then apply that to her experience? Identifying the thought that accompanies these experiences is the culmination of good, hard intellectual work.
Maybe discussing these skills, putting words to them, after practicing them, will allow students to feel more comfortable identifying them. Michael Martinez, associate professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, writes in “What is Metacognition?” that instructors can have their students collaborate and practice thinking aloud. For instance, students can work together through difficult concepts, teach these concepts to others, create hierarchies of solutions to a problem, and then explain their process. Students could ask themselves: What major projects have I completed? Did I organize? Analyze? Conceptualize? Work with others? The researched argument paper I defended in front of a committee of professors — what steps did I take to successfully complete that?
If students can’t put words and examples to these vital skills, then what’s a university for? As evidenced by my students’ free-writing exercise and ensuing lively discussion, students seem quite able, when prompted, to produce at least initial examples of these thinking skills. But the issue seems to be that students rarely need to discuss these thinking skills (in addition to applying them), as evidenced by my students having trouble writing about their thinking abilities in their cover letter drafts. Maybe instructors in the Humanities and Social Sciences in a range of courses could set aside a portion of a class to at least begin the discussion — or add to it — of these essential skills.
I reiterated to my students that we’re not doing this exercise solely for job interview purposes. That feels too prescriptive. While it’s important to practice cover letters in a writing class like this (especially with the job market looming), I want more than anything for the students to do what feels right when it comes to their future, to follow their passion. If they enjoy researching in a psychology lab, then they should do it. If they lose themselves in deconstructing a text, then they should find a path that encourages and enhances that. If they have an interest in the theater, then they should get to the theater! And sure, maybe that theater student will end up working directly in the theater world for the rest of her life, but for myriad reasons, she may decide — or be forced to decide — on a new career path and will need to justify that the work she’s focused on for most of her adult life is transferable. That the organizational, planning, communication, problem-solving, imaginative, etc. skills translate far beyond the structure of the theater.
If our students acknowledge and are able to discuss these thinking skills, might they be more inclined to further develop them? To stay a little longer editing a complex paper? To pore over data looking for an idea and not just accepting the first thought that pops into their heads? To not shy away from dealing with a difficult group member? To read a complex article multiple times, to break down this information and apply it? And might they carry these skills to a lifetime of learning?
Deborah Graham, associate professor of psychology at James Cook University, writes in “Thinking About Thinking,”
It takes effort to stop and think about our thinking. Automatic processing is critical to perception and interpretation of the environment generally. At times though, challenging automaticity is necessary and rewarding. Actively thinking about thinking can change life for the better.
The looming “real world” and the materials used to enter it — the resume and cover letter — can become an opportunity for students to consider their own thinking. Yes, a major part of attending college is learning technical skills. But students would be remiss if they left college having not only garnered at least some level of critical thinking skills, but also having developed the awareness to identify and apply them in multiple fields, especially in such a difficult job market. This ability is necessary for an appreciation of life and its complexities.
I did not formally survey my students about the skills they’re garnering, but I did hear from about 30 percent of them in class. I asked all the students to whittle their list of skills to a top three, four, or five, and to consider it over the next few days. To carry it with them, physically or metaphorically. The list might appear flimsy, but I implore my students to take it seriously, if only for their elevator pitch in an interview, for a job they may have never imagined doing. This list will probably morph and adjust. I want them to consider the list as a representation of their four (or whatever) years, their (often many) tuition dollars, their involvement in the classroom, in clubs, at internships, all the time spent hanging out with their engaging, challenging peers.
But above all, this list is a representation of thinking in ideas. And if we can pinpoint these ideas by understanding on some basic level what it takes to at least begin to develop and discuss them, the once seemingly difficult questions of, "What skills do I possess?" and, "What is my thinking process?" suddenly don’t seem as daunting. The list is a representation of a dedication to something. And a list that might be transferable to wherever life takes them.
Casey Wiley is a lecturer in the Pennsylvania State University English department.
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