Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking?


Following on the heels of last week’s discussion of non-philosophers teaching critical thinking, the Chronicle of Higher Education drew attention to a meta-analysis of studies about whether colleges succeed in teaching critical thinking at all. As it turns out, they do:

Students’ critical-thinking skills do improve in college. The difference is comparable to a student whose critical-thinking skills start at the 50th percentile and, after four years in college, move up to the 72nd.

The Chronicle also reported:

The study’s authors found no differences in the critical-thinking skills of students in different majors.

Wait. What? How could philosophy majors not be leaving most others in the dust? So I looked at the study, “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis,” by Christopher Huber and Nathan Kuncel (Minnesota), in Review of Educational Research. Here’s the relevant passage on philosophy:

The current evidence on differences between majors is inconclusive. Pascarella and Terenzini’s (2005) review failed to find strong evidence for differential gains across majors. By contrast, Ortiz’s (2007) meta-analysis suggests that philosophy students may learn more critical thinking than other students. Ortiz estimated gains of 0.26 SDs per semester for philosophy students compared to only 0.12 SDs per semester for other majors. However, the number of pure philosophy samples in her analysis is small (k = 6), and the samples appear to be from unpublished studies. In addition, the confidence intervals for the philosophy and nonphilosophy effect sizes show substantial overlap. Ortiz herself suggested that the observed difference may simply be statistical noise. (pp. 3-4)

Assuming the meta-analysis was relatively thorough, it appears that philosophers lack good empirical evidence for what I take to be the widespread belief that majoring in philosophy is a superior way for a student to develop critical thinking skills. Was a study overlooked? If not, someone, get on this!

Of course, part of the issue may be disagreement as to what counts as “critical thinking,” which Huber and Kuncel discuss. There is some controversy over whether “critical thinking” should be conceptualized as

a broad ability to interpret information and approach problems correctly that can be applied across a wide variety of domains 

or whether, since

the ability to reason and think critically is required for a broad range of tasks beyond analysis of logical arguments, such as “finding one’s way home, investing money, fishing, driving a car, doing sums, shopping, playing hopscotch, intelligent voting, building math models, writing poems, and countless other classes of activities” … the ability to think critically about such a broad array of domains is not well represented by any general skill (e.g., analyzing arguments), and therefore critical thinking ability is best conceptualized as domain-specific.

It appears that more work needs to be done before philosophers can claim the bragging rights to which we think we’re entitled.

yamashita - question-mark

(“Question Mark” by Kumi Yamashita)

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