Published on 2015/02/06
The EvoLLLution | Critical Thinking and Getting a Job
Critical thinking is an immensely important skill for graduates entering the workforce, and higher education institutions need to re-commit to ensuring it is developed.

Adult students, for the most part, want to think more effectively. But why?

Simply put, their lives are a complex puzzle comprised of balancing work, life, children, parents and myriad other challenging responsibilities each day. Going to school as an adult is not for the meek. These challenges demand a lot from adults who want to use education to achieve their professional goals. What’s more, the goal line to earn their dream job keeps changing. Recently, employers have added critical thinking abilities as part of the interview process, and while people think critically, talking about one’s capacity to think is uncommon.

So, in seeking their ideal professional position, how does a person convey their capacity to think critically?  Does noting the accomplishment of an academic degree define a person as a critical thinker? Are some disciplines more likely to graduate those who think critically? As adults take classes and complete assignments, faculty members expect students to provide evidence of thinking. Increasingly, preparation for a job interview should include personal awareness of an individual’s thinking strengths and the capacity to talk about them.

Defining and Demonstrating Critical Thinking

To academics and educators who have studied cognitive functions, critical thinking is straightforward and definable. Basically, it is the ability to think clearly and rationally. Other definitions include aspects of cognitive functions such as the ability to analyze, the capacity to synthesize information and processes, and the skills to evaluate tasks and processes in order to make recommendations. By and large, thinking is a known function.

Given the wide and robust range of information about thinking and the many tests and processes available to determine one’s capacity and ability to think, pinning down what exactly thinking looks like in a job interview can be difficult to do. Perhaps, thinking is recognized when the famous line, “I’ll know it when I see it,” permeates the process for discerning a person’s capacity to think.

Given this approach, there is not a clearly defined paradigm for assessing thinking during an interview. This finding is based on interviews with several human resource directors who all emphasized the importance of critical thinking as part of the hiring process, but none were quite able to explain what they were assessing as they discussed the need for critical thinking. If an employer cannot define what critical thinking is, yet expects that capacity to be within the applicant, how can the applicant make a case that s/he thinks effectively during an interview?

Critical Thinking in Practice

One question academics constantly hear from students is, “How will this help me in the workforce?” The demand for a greater connection between higher education and the workforce has grown over the past decade, and leaders across the industry are scrambling to respond.

However, we cannot lose focus on developing critical thinking skills (among other soft skills) as we turn our attention toward specific career-relevant skills, and other, non-academic institutional features aimed at improving retention (if not outcomes).

A recent study by the Council for Aid to Education found that a whopping 40 percent of university seniors lack the complex reasoning skills to succeed in a white-collar career.[1] This is especially troublesome given the increasing importance of critical thinking in today’s workforce. According to an analysis done by career-search site Indeed.com, mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009.[2]

Supporting the critical thinking skills of our students is critical to our twin missions of creating an educated citizenry and preparing students for the workforce.

Talking about Thinking

First of all, what is thinking? When the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman “was about eleven years old, an off-the-cuff remark had a transformative impact on him. He remarked to a friend that thinking is nothing more than talking to yourself inside.”[3] Clearly internal messages are difficult for another person to know, so private self talk will need to be made public. This is an important point. The capacity to explain how a person decided to go from one step in a problem to the next step needs to be carefully detailed, so the thoughts that guided the decisions become known. This expectation could well be part of an interview, so familiarity with how to explain one’s thinking is really important. Often though, reflective statements receive little attention.[4]

Another point is to remember learning is creating. As you read and acquire information, “you’re creating little neural hooks to hang your thinking on, making it easier to grasp the concepts.”[5] This understanding of creating ideas connects to a point raised in conversations with human resource directors. They indicated an applicant who can convey innovative approaches to using a smartphone to conduct business connotes the capacity to make connections between the familiar device and how business is conducted. Explaining these connections sensibly and clearly displays the capacity to communicate complex systems and using those systems for more than social interactions. This is a plus.

Critical thinking may also include familiar expectations associated with problem solving. Here the applicant outlines a problem, describes characteristics, notes variables, and organizes elements discernable in the problem or case study. Next, the problem may require talking through it as an example of one’s thinking strategies. Depending on the problem to solve, the complexity may be beyond simple solutions. If a person does not form a cognitive map or establish thinking patterns to formalize thinking processes, or if the problem is more complex than other problems solved previously, solving the problem in real time with people listening to the thought processes may require some time to step away from focused thought. In other words, time may be needed to stop direct or focused thinking on the problem and let the mind wander through diffused thought. Through diffused thinking, creative thinking processes are used and many possible approaches to the analysis may be realized. Applicants need to be aware of how they think and use that awareness to connote the processes, focused or diffused thinking, needed to be successful when thinking about and solving problems.

The notion of giving applicants the opportunity to work through really complex problems by pondering and articulating solutions may not be common. Nevertheless, articulating solutions to complex problems will take practice. Perhaps teaching a person how to solve a complex problem is good practice. After all, presentation is suggested to be the highest level of understanding.

In conclusion, an applicant needs to prepare for an interview. Increasingly, that preparation should include the capacity to explain how one thinks, to be able to solve and explain complex problem-solving processes, and to link familiar activities such as using a smartphone to business practices. To be successful in a job interview where expressing one’s capacity for critical thinking is required, the applicant needs to have the wherewithal to be able to convey their thinking processes and through that self-awareness communicate in clear and rational language how thinking occurs and what thoughts are occurring. Making this kind of information known may be a large leap for many applicants especially given the typical emotional stress involved during an interview. Consequently, being familiar with thinking and being able to explain one’s thinking must be practiced frequently through reflection. The capacity to reflect and explain one’s reflections may well be the differentiator between getting the job offer or not.

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References and Footnotes

[1] Douglas Belkin, “Test Finds College Graduates Lack Skills for White-Collar Jobs,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2015. Accessed at http://www.wsj.com/articles/test-finds-many-students-ill-prepared-to-enter-work-force-1421432744?KEYWORDS=college+graduates

[2] Melissa Korn, “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ But What Is That?” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2014. Accessed at http://www.wsj.com/articles/bosses-seek-critical-thinking-but-what-is-that-1413923730

[3] Excerpt From: Barbara Oakley. “A Mind For Numbers.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/a-mind-for-numbers/id761835360?mt=11A

[4] The author was trained to score Kansas Professional Teaching Portfolios for the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE). Aggregated data shared by KSDE indicated trained scorers rated the section based on reflections lower than other sections in the portfolio.

[5] Excerpt From: Barbara Oakley. “A Mind For Numbers.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/a-mind-for-numbers/id761835360?mt=11

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