The Likert item teaching evaluation instruments completed by our undergraduate college students usually contain something along the lines of “The course improved my critical thinking skills.” This 2011 Religion Dispatches column by Nathan Schneider, about why the world needs religious studies, points out that the phrase “critical thinking” is for the most part an empty cliche for students, policymakers, and the public at large. Schneider argues that if we think the liberal arts should be an integral part of higher education, we need to specify that our courses teach students how to:
- evaluate truth claims
- identify value
- apply diverse methods to problem solving
- create and disseminate persuasive narratives.
And then we need to gather the data to demonstrate that our students in fact acquire these skills because of what we do in the classroom.
As a first step in this process, I’ve been replacing all references to critical thinking in my syllabi with the above phrases. When I do a close reading of the syllabus with students on the first day of class, that’s what I’ll be focusing on.