“If there was an Olympics for test-taking, Irish students would be gold medallists.”
So says Prof Brian MacKenzie of Maynooth University’s centre for teaching and learning.
It’s a familiar refrain these days: the education system at second level, we’re told, is dominated by teaching to the test and an over-reliance on rote-learning.
Yet, employers say they need graduates with skills that machines can’t yet replicate: evaluating evidence, making balanced judgments and communicating ideas clearly.
So, is it possible to transform spoonfed students into self-directed problem-solvers?
Universities certainly think so. More and more colleges are rushing to embrace giving students the tools to analyse and make sense of the world on their own terms.
Around 800 of this year's 3,000 freshman students in Maynooth University have enrolled in a new "critical skills"module, which was introduced in September as an optional subject for first years in all disciplines.
“We know that at second level they learn certain habits about how to do school work and then when they get to third-level we need to catch it early on and get them to think for themselves,” says Dr MacKenzie.
While he says he does not want to be dismissive of the Leaving Cert, he notes that students are overwhelmed with “content” by having to take so many subjects and do not have time to think critically about what they are learning.
“Their preparation up to third level has been content orientated and then focussed on one major test at the end of it all,” he says.
“We want students to be more self-directed and autonomous. I don’t tell them what they have to read or study. If you use lots of small, low-risk assignments where there is less at stake, they’re more willing to take risks and go beyond surface learning,” he says.
The drive to promote these skills has come from the university president Prof Philip Nolan and forms part of a wider revamp of the undergraduate curriculum at the university, focusing on broader entry routes and greater flexibility for new entrants in relation to subject choice.
Results from a pilot programme in 2016 showed students who took the critical skills module reported significant improvement in their learning in other subjects.
The module has limit of 25 students in each class, compared with lecture halls filled with up to 500 students for other popular subjects, which allows for debate and groupwork.
MacKenzie cites the example of a debate on politically motivated violence after far-right activist Richard Spencer was punched in the face live on camera following Donald Trump's inauguration.
“Our debate was short and engaging. It was current and got them talking and working in groups.
“They weren’t being tested on information they have read and had to go regurgitate. It was a chance for them to go research it, develop and opinion on it and debate it with their peers,” he says.
MacKenzie says what are referred to as “soft skills” as employers are things like building confidence with communication skills.
He says it’s not enough to have a 2:1 degree; employers want graduates who are confident at presenting information and who are flexible and adaptable.
“Public speaking and writing are important skills but they may not get to flex them depending on the course they do at college. It goes back to the Leaving Cert and third level and the amount of content students must get through,” he says.
The small classes mean students are more confident presenting in front of their classmates which, for many, may be their first experience of public speaking, says MacKenzie.
“The research on first-year university students is pretty clear that small class sizes will make a serious difference in their transition to third-level,” he says.
In the critical skills class, students from vastly different degrees – such as arts and computer science – are put together in groups and are told to work on a white paper on a chosen subject.
“We’re big on encouraging teamwork because it is such a key feature of academic and professional life,” he says.
At a recent presentation of student projects, the feedback from students themselves was positive.
Alicia Boylan from Kildare is studying English and sociology through her arts degree, says it has been useful to be exposed to new skills.
“Our project is about using primary sources and referencing them properly because it’s one of the first things you do as an arts student when you’re given an essay or assignment, but you come out of secondary school without a clue about it all,” she says.
“Our project looked at paraphrasing, references, sources and quotes so that you can successfully avoid plagiarism,” she says.
Chance to learn
Daniel Flanagan from Wicklow is studying computer science, says it has been a chance to learn a range of new skills.
“We looked at all kind of things I never would have a chance to cover in my degree such as paraphrasing, citation and all the different types of academic referencing,” he says.
“I think the course has been really helpful and will come in handy if I decide to move away from computer science after I graduate as you would not get a chance to learn critical thinking skills otherwise,” he says.
Rebecca Thornton, who is studying arts, adds: "It also gave us a chance to work with students from other, really different course and learn from each other because if you do arts – you wouldn't typically mix with people from engineering or business or whatever."
MacKenzie says this kind of teamwork is important and helps prepare students for what they’ll experience in the workplace.
“It’s not so much about the end result what they learn from working as a team, doing research on their own, making networks,” he says.
How to become a critical thinker: a step-by-step guide
Being “critical” does not mean just being negative. It means being informed, and capable of supporting in-depth analysis and assessment.
The Open University has a "stairway" to help students understand the skills in thinking critically.
The lower steps are the basics that support moving to the higher-level thinking skills that can underpin taking a critical approach.
Process: take in the information (ie in what you have read, heard, seen or done).
Understand: comprehend the key points, assumptions, arguments and evidence presented.
Analyse: examine how these key components fit together and relate to each other.
Compare: explore the similarities, differences between the ideas you are reading about.
Synthesise: bring together different sources of information to serve an argument or idea you are constructing. Make logical connections between the different sources that help you shape and support your ideas.
Evaluate: assess the worth of an idea in terms of its relevance to your needs, the evidence on which it is based and how it relates to other pertinent ideas.
Apply: transfer the understanding you have gained from your critical evaluation and use in response to questions, assignments and projects.
Justify: use critical thinking to develop arguments, draw conclusions, make inferences and identify implications.