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Rethinking thinking

College classes that make one think - it's a basic concept assumed as a given. But many grads walk away with a diploma yet still lack critical-thinking skills. That's why some educators are asking students to close their textbooks and do a little more reflecting.

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While pondering a problem in a plant biology course at Ohio University one semester, John Withers suddenly realized something unusual was going on: This class was actually requiring him to think.

Thinking is presumed to be the bread and butter of higher education. Beyond simply getting a diploma to land a job that pays well, the promise of sharpening thinking skills still looms as a key reason millions apply to college.

Yet some say there is a remarkable paucity of critical thinking taught at the undergraduate level - even though the need for such skills seems more urgent than ever.

Americans can now expect to change jobs as many as a half-dozen times in their lives - a feat requiring considerable mental agility. The ability to sift, analyze, and reflect upon large amounts of data is crucial in today's information age.

Yet a major national report released last year entitled "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College" raises serious questions as to whether undergraduates are absorbing these essential skills.

"Outsiders who find college graduates unprepared for solving problems in the workplace question whether the colleges are successfully educating their student to think," the report notes.

Critical thought certainly receives considerable lip service on many campuses. College websites beckon students to "learn to think critically." Classes with "critical thinking" in the title are abundant.

But Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington isn't convinced.

"Critical thinking, social responsibility, reflective judgment, and evidence-based reasoning ... are the most enduring goals of a first-rate liberal education," says Ms. Schneider. Yet research shows "many college graduates are falling short in reaching these goals."

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