Can a critical thinking course stop people believing in daft ideas?

A number of people have pointed me towards an article about study on the teaching of critical thinking. The study took place at North Carolina State University and the subjects were undergraduates students.

The test subject were given pre-tests on their knowledge of science and belief in pseudoscience, pseudo-history or pseudo-archaeology. These areas basically encompasses those ideas popular in best-sellers of the 1970s such as that Atlantis really existed or Stonehenge was built by aliens.

Students in the experimental condition were then taught a humanities course in, “Frauds and Mysteries in History”. There were two texts to support the course. The first was a ‘positivist’ text which seems to have dissected fraudulent claims on the basis of evidence and plausibility. The second text was groovier, with a, “post-modern approach to understanding interests in the past in popular culture and the ways people connect with the past in the present.”

The students who participated in the course saw a decrease in their beliefs both in those ideas that had been studied as part of the course as well as in similar ideas. This is taken to suggest that the course taught them critical thinking skills.

I am quite happy to accept that a course like this might have an impact. Far from teaching critical thinking as a set of skills such as “think about why the author might be making this claim”, it teaches relevant content. This is precisely the mechanism by which an increased knowledge of the world leads to better critical thinking; we can reason by analogy. We can say, “this reminds of that idea about Atlantis that we debunked in history class.” This is one key advantage of studying standard subject disciplines in depth.

However, there are a number of pretty fundamental caveats.

Firstly, the students were low in dodgy beliefs to start with. So these are students who are already well along the path of critical thinking. Further, this was not a randomised controlled trial. There were three groups of students. The first group had opted to study psychology. They were the control group and did not receive the humanities course. The two experimental groups both volunteered for the humanities course and one of these groups consisted of many more science students. The three groups differed in other ways such as their gender profile. So we can’t be sure whether any effect was actually due to the different make-up of the groups.

Finally, we have demonstrated only near transfer here. Students can apply what they have learnt about one pseudo-archaeological claim and apply it to another. I think this is worth having and I don’t expect much more from education. That’s why students have to learn so much stuff to be able to function as educated citizens. However, claims about critical thinking tends to be more general than this. We have no evidence, for instance, that this kind of training might make students more sceptical about political claims or the claims of those opposed to vaccination.

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4 Comments on “Can a critical thinking course stop people believing in daft ideas?”

  1. ijstock says:

    I taught ‘A’ level Critical Thinking for quite a few years. I found that many students said to me that it did help them, often through the mindset that it develops when applied to their more mainstream subjects.

    I also found that it sharpened my own thinking when I had to study the subject in order to first teach it.

    There are many myths about CT, seemingly perpetuated by those who never taught it.

    First, there is no content. It is entirely true that a skill without material to which to apply it is useless – but there is plenty of content in CT. It is just diverse, and many of the topical issues it chose to address were educationally sound in their own right.

    Secondly, that knowing those skills is different from using them. Yes of course they need to be embedded – but explicitly knowing the potential weaknesses in an argument, or how to construct a strong one oneself, does make it easier to self-check for rigour.

    Thirdly, it is of no practical use. I found that CT opened the eyes of many students to, for example, unbalanced reporting in the media, and how to evaluate for it. That is surely a useful thing.

    I also once encountered a teacher who was delivering to CT to disaffected KS4 boys. She said that after overcoming their scepticism, they found it immensely empowering, for example in resisting antisocial peer pressure.

    • teachwell says:

      What was the criteria for critical thinking on the course? What was the prior knowledge the students came with? How far was the transfer possible? What variations were there within the units taught and how did this relate to their other studies?

  2. David says:

    Teachers are the final customers of education research. We are shown a chart. Presenters use terms such as “chi-square” and “standard deviation.” We are told what to do. We do it “with fidelity,” or get in trouble. When we’re sure no one is observing, we teach like crazy and establish rapport and effective teaching/learning practices with each student.

    I think education research must be the easiest research to complete and the most difficult with which to compete. The researcher can say anything, and someone will believe it. Presenting a verifiable study, however, has to be complicated because consumers –administrators and others in charge– believe anything well presented. Their jobs depend on it.

    Disclaimer: No personal knowledge of education outside of the US.

  3. Robert Craigen says:

    As I just pointed out in a Twitter discussion of this piece, the test used seems to be a test of conformity of belief, not any examination of any skills. It was, in other words, an orthodoxy test. I’m reluctant to equate that to “critical thinking”


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