To Develop Students' Critical Thinking Skills, Ask Them To Conduct Scientific Research
Helen Lee Bouygues
For decades—for centuries, in fact—students have been listening to lectures, reading books and taking exams. But this traditional mode of instruction is becoming ever more inadequate as a method of educating our young people. In a complex world overrun with information, there’s one skill above all that the next generation will need: the capacity to engage in critical thinking.
College would seem to be an ideal time to develop this faculty, but higher education’s often-hidebound ways aren’t doing the job. One widely-cited study found that at least 45 percent of students in its sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in their reasoning and communication skills during their first two years of college.
Spurred by such findings, educators have sought to engineer new approaches. One that seems to be working: asking undergraduates to conduct actual scientific research. It may seem implausible or impractical to expect college students to carry out authentic experiments—as opposed to “cookbook” lab exercises with a preordained result. But that’s exactly what CUREs are all about. CUREs—course-based undergraduate research experiences—are becoming increasingly popular, implemented at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country.
Generally understood, CUREs have five defining characteristics. First, they contain an element of discovery: the student scientists are bringing brand-new data to light. Second, the experimentation in which they engage involves “iteration”: repeating a process a number of times, altering a single variable to find out what happens. Third, participants experience a significant degree of collaboration, with their peers and with the expert scientists who are their instructors. Fourth, students learn how to execute professional practices, from using techniques like pipetting to applying meta-theories like the scientific method. And fifth, the subject of their investigations is “broadly relevant”—of interest to people outside the class and perhaps even worthy of publication in a scientific journal.
What kind of research are CURE students carrying out? One of the most popular such activities entails identifying and naming new bacteriophages. A bacteriophage is a virus that replicates inside bacteria, and there are millions of them as yet unknown to science. Other CUREs involve the study of genetic mutations—in the gene known as p53, for example. This is a tumor-suppressor gene that is mutated (and thereby rendered ineffective) in more than half of human cancer cases.
An evaluation of a p53 student-research project conducted by biologists at Stanford University found that the experience helped shift undergraduates’ conceptions of what it means to “think like a scientist,” from novice to more expert-like. Using a set of open-ended written prompts, the authors found that by the end of the course, students identified experimental repetition, data analysis and collaboration as important elements of thinking like a scientist. Meanwhile, students’ performance on course exams demonstrated gains in their ability to analyze and interpret data.
Comments collected from undergraduate participants confirm the researchers’ conclusions: “Before, I would have been more prone to quickly accept the results from science experiments as being always correct,” said one student. “But because this course taught us to question our results and look for possible sources of errors, I developed a more critical eye when interpreting experimental results.” Remarked another student: “I am happy that errors occurred in the process, because troubleshooting them really helped me develop greater critical thinking skills, instead of just following the protocol.”
Beyond helping students to think like a scientist, CUREs appear to develop their critical-thinking faculties more generally. That was true of a student-research project conducted at Florida Atlantic University, where undergraduates were challenged to discover new antibiotics produced by soil bacteria that the students isolated from local habitats. Researchers at the university gave participating students a critical-thinking test before and after they worked on identifying novel antibiotics (an undertaking that, not incidentally, addresses a worldwide health threat: the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics). The test required students to analyze and interpret information; to draw accurate and warranted inferences; and to evaluate inferences and explain why they represent strong reasoning or weak reasoning.
Although other types of interventions have generated little or no improvement in student scores on this test, the Florida Atlantic researchers found that taking part in the antibiotic-finding CURE did significantly increase students’ critical-thinking scores—while the scores of students who were enrolled in a traditional cookbook-style lab stayed the same or actually declined. “The discovery-based, unpredictable nature” of the antibiotics research, the authors speculate, “might engage student attention and curiosity more than standard labs, which may have contributed” to the positive result.
What is clear is that, if we want the next generation of young people to be able to think critically, the same old methods are not sufficient. Fresh approaches and bold innovations are needed to make sure that our nation’s students can grapple with the complexity of the world we’re bequeathing them.
I founded the Reboot Foundation, an organization that aims to better integrate critical thinking into the daily lives of people around the world. The foundation conducts surveys and opinion polls, leads its own research, and supports the work of university-affiliated scholar…
This article first appeared on Forbes.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation