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Survey Shows Critical Thinking Is Still a Weak Spot for Recent Grads


Survey Shows Critical Thinking Is Still a Weak Spo …

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High Confidence but Low Scores on the MindEdge Online Quiz

By Frank Connolly
Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge Learning
After a solid year of news reports, commentary, and public debate about fake news and other deceptive online content, public awareness of the issue is sky-high. But the public’s ability to counter the fake-news epidemic is anything but clear-cut, according to the findings of MindEdge’s second annual State of Critical Thinking Study.
correct responses to critical thinking questions.
The online survey of 1,002 college students and recent graduates, aged 18 to 30, shows that most are highly confident in their critical thinking abilities and related “soft skills.” But that confidence seems woefully misplaced.
The survey included the same nine-question quiz on critical thinking and digital literacy that ran in the 2017 Critical Thinking Study. Last year’s study documented significant weaknesses in the critical-thinking skills of many millennials—and this year’s results are even more underwhelming.
Fully 52 percent of survey respondents could not answer more than five of the nine questions correctly, earning a failing grade of “F.” The proportion of failing grades jumped by eight points, up from 44 percent in 2017.
Only 19 percent earned an “A” or “B” by answering eight or nine questions correctly. The proportion of “A”s and “B”s dropped by five points, down from 24 percent a year ago. Overall, the scores for all nine questions in the quiz are lower than in 2017.
At the same time, survey respondents express high levels of confidence in their own critical thinking abilities. A clear majority (59 percent) say they are very confident in their soft skills, and 40 percent say specifically they are very confident in their ability to detect false content online. The latter measure represents a five-point increase from 2017.
This stark disjunction, between high levels of self-confidence and low performance scores, suggests that critical thinking and online literacy remain a significant issue for today’s young people.
It’s important to note that these results apply only to millennials, not to the public-at-large. Pending further research, there is no current data to indicate whether millennials are better or worse at critical thinking than older Americans are.
Indeed, it is tempting to assume that millennials—as “digital natives” who have essentially grown up online—are better able to sniff out bad online content, just as they tend to be better at many other online skills. But there’s a countervailing school of thought, which holds that millennials—precisely because they have grown up at a time when Google et al. have made information available instantaneously—may lack the patience and academic discipline to double-check sources and question assumptions, which are crucial critical-thinking skills.
So, which school of thought is correct? MindEdge will attempt to answer that question in its 2019 State of Critical Thinking study—so check back in a year.
Other survey results point to some promising findings. Respondents, for instance, recognize the importance of critical thinking and other soft skills: 50 percent say that soft skills (such as creativity and critical thinking) are just as important as hard skills (such as computer programming and analytics) in the workplace. Another 31 percent say soft skills are more important.
Interestingly, respondents are less sure of their hard skills: only 33 percent say they are very confident in their hard skills, compared to the 59 percent who profess to be very confident in their soft skills.
Overall, however, three-of-four (74 percent) survey respondents say their college education provided them with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the workforce. On this point, respondents with a two-year college degree (69 percent) are almost as positive as those with a four-year college degree (75 percent).
On a related issue, the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of respondents says that soft skills are not innate; instead, they believe these skills can be taught and learned. This finding strongly suggests that young people are open to improving their own skills—including their critical thinking abilities—through continuing education and lifetime learning.
The survey also shows that:

  • 48 percent say the problem of fake news has gotten worse over the last year; only 17 percent say it has gotten better.
  • 24 percent fault politicians for the fake-news problem; 21 percent blame partisan websites; 20 percent fault content farms that turn out false material for profit; and 17 percent blame social media.
  • Significantly, only 11 percent blame “readers who don’t have the critical thinking skills to detect false content”—a description that applies to many news consumers like themselves.
  • In assessing blame for the Cambridge Analytica data breach that exposed the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users, most (54 percent) blame Facebook for not protecting the data in the first place.
  • Only 29 percent blame the analytics firms that allegedly misused the information.

For a complete listing of MindEdge’s course offerings on critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, click here.

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