Meet The College That Launched A Certificate In Critical Thinking

“As more and more tasks and jobs become automated,” Berkowitz says, “being able to think critically is becoming an increasingly valuable skill that can set you apart and put you on the path to higher levels of leadership.” Photo Credit:GETTY

A growing number of colleges and universities are recognizing the benefits of coursework devoted to critical thinking.

Case in point? Last year, the Cornell University SC Johnson College of Business launched an online certificate program that focuses exclusively on developing critical thinking skills. Working online, faculty help students learn how to analyze problems, gauge the merits of potential solutions and weigh the risks involved.

Interestingly, says Sally Berkowitz, e-Cornell’s Product Director, the very idea to develop such a program was “sparked by requests from organizations — many of whom partner with us for learning and development initiatives — looking to further develop this competency in their employees and managers.”

For the better part of the last century, a student interested in developing critical thinking strategies would likely have to do some searching to find a program or even a class. If they were lucky, the student may have found a philosophy or English class, where the basics of evidence-based reasoning were part of the curriculum.

 But the economy is changing, driving demand for richer forms of reasoning and independent thought. While entire programs devoted to critical thinking like the one at Cornell University are far from the norm, there are now a number of schools, including the University of Michigan, that offer classes or programs in better decision making.

The launch of the critical thinking program at Cornell University was an easy sell. “As more and more tasks and jobs become automated,” Berkowitz says, “being able to think critically is becoming an increasingly valuable skill that can set you apart and put you on the path to higher levels of leadership.” And, she notes, it can “reduce the risk of your work becoming automated.”

Cornell University got ahead of the curve by employing some critical thinking of its own. The University recognized that improved decision making can help forge thriving teams and organizations. Critical thinking skills are “in-demand for working professionals in every industry,” Berkowitz explains.

Cornell established its online certificate program in June 2018, and the program includes six courses, each of which runs for two weeks over a 3-month period. Course topics range from “Applying Strategic Influences” to “Problem Solving Using Evidence and Critical Thinking.”

In a course titled, “Making a Convincing Case for Your Solution,” for instance, students learn to summarize their analysis of a problem. They also learn how to create — and reject — alternative solutions to a problem. This type of perspective-taking helps people make better arguments, according to a large body of research.

Even the course guide to the certificate gives some good advice. For instance, the guide encourages people to find ‘win-win’ solutions during debates by laying out the following scenario:

When trying to persuade someone, the tendency is to begin in advocacy mode for example – here is something I want you to agree to. Most people do not react positively to the feeling of being coerced. To make a convincing case, it is more effective to engage with the decision maker as a partner in problem-solving.

After reading the above statement, students then receive this following advice: Begin by asking yourself what is the problem you and the decision maker are solving together?

Cornell University’s critical thinking course does have its downsides. The program is fully online, for instance, and that means that students will not benefit from any face-to-face interaction and mentorship. But no doubt that the certificate program will help people gain some skills that will help them navigate an increasingly complex world.

“More and more leaders are looking for people who can make sound judgments driven by context,” Berkowitz says, “soft-skills like critical thinking can help our learners ‘robot-proof’ themselves.” Berkowitz says that now is the “perfect time”  to launch a program designed to help people develop a more critical mindset.


Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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