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Study shows few college students improve critical thinking

A new study provides disturbing answers to questions about how much students actually learn in college—for many, not much—and has inflamed a debate about the value of an American higher education.

The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent by a New York University research team of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement.

With the estimated average cost of attendance for full-time undergraduate Vanderbilt students totaling over $56,000, the value of an education gains further importance in the minds of undergraduate students.

Students such as Parker Dabbs, junior, see the value of education not in terms of skills gained but in facts learned.

“You get into college based on critical thinking and writing skills, but in college, you gain specialized knowledge. You’re not supposed to learn to be better at critical thinking, you’re supposed to learn your specific courses,” Dabbs said. “The most important part of college is getting a major and learning about that subject. I’m a biology major, and I probably haven’t improved my writing skills, but that’s not the point.”

Juliane McGee, senior, said he believes that an education is less tangible than facts learned in class.

“I learned how to learn, but I haven’t learned specific applicable skills,” McGee said. “As for the test they performed in the study, you can do better on the SATs the second time without having learned anything, I’m not sure if that’s the best way of getting the statistics.”

Mary Beth Harding, 2010 alumna, said course selection played a great part in an individual’s learning.

“I think it depends on the class you take,” Harding said. “If you take writing classes, you’ll learn writing. A single test like the one in the study is subjective.”

Among the findings outlined in the book and report, students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences major posted greater learning gains than students who did not.

Freshman David Dipanfilo believed class selection influenced learning.

“It depends on the professor and the class,” Dipanfilo said. “It’s a way of thinking. Although I wouldn’t remember rote facts, I would learn to think more. There are some classes that might be a waste—but definitely not all of them.”

Liz Furlow is a staff writer for the Vanderbilt Hustler. She is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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