The 20 colleges that improve critical thinking skills the most

Results from a standardized test that measures college students' ability to think critically may add to the debate about the value of a college degree, writes Douglas Belkin for the Wall Street Journal. But the schools that scored the highest could provide some optimism.

The College Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) is an exam administered by the Council for Aid to Education. The exam aims to measure college students' critical thinking, reasoning, writing, and problem-solving abilities. Colleges are evaluated based on how much they improved students' abilities in these areas between the students' freshman and senior years.

The data that show how students performed on the CLA+ is not made available to the public. The Wall Street Journal submitted requests to over 100 public institutions to make their results publicly available. The CLA+ results the Wall Street Journal received in response were from the years 2013 to 2016. 

The Wall Street Journal ranked institutions based on their value-added percentile rank, which is based on the percent change in average test scores of students between freshman and senior years, graduation rates,  and how other colleges perform.

The top 20 colleges in the Wall Street Journal's ranking, based on value-added scores, are:

  1. Plymouth State University
  2. Western Carolina University
  3. University of New Mexico
  4. California State University, San Bernardino
  5. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
  6. West Chester University
  7. Colorado State University
  8. California State University, Sacramento
  9. California State University, Northridge
  10. California Polytechnic State University, Pomona
  11. Shippensburg University
  12. Kansas State University
  13. California State University, Fullerton
  14. University of Wyoming
  15. University of Texas at San Antonio
  16. University of Texas-Pan American
  17. East Carolina University
  18. University of Missouri-St. Louis
  19. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
  20. California State University, Fresno

Plymouth State University, which had the greatest value-added score, makes deliberate efforts to encourage students to discover solutions to questions on their own, says Adam Civinskas, a Plymouth State graduate who is matriculating to law school.

Op-ed: It's time to ask ourselves if it's possible to teach critical thinking

Other members of the campus community agree. "We don't hand the students anything. I ask them to really think and discover what principle they will live their lives by," says Maria Sanders, an assistant philosophy professor at the school.

Is the test accurate?

Some in higher ed have criticized the CLA+. Skeptics argue that the test can't "completely untangle cause and effect in something as complicated as improving critical-reasoning skills and as broad as a college education," Belkin writes. He reports that some colleges that have stopped using the exam because they say it fails to "reflect the rigor" of an institution's curriculum.

Others point out that students arrive at college with different skill levels, so student demographics and institutional mission could affect a college's performance on the exam. For example, some highly selective colleges say that there is little improvement between their students' freshman and senior years because students already have superb critical thinking skills when they enter college from high school (Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 6/5).

Help your students learn soft skills like critical thinking


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