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Most Grads Say College Taught Them Few Critical Thinking Skills

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One of the core purposes, if not the core purpose, of college is to give students the knowledge to be successful in their careers. However, a recent study from the University of Washington finds that many college students have to adapt their critical thinking skills after graduation in order to benefit from them in their professional lives. Furthermore, less than one-third (only 27 percent) of graduates said their education taught them how to develop and ask their own questions.


As critical thinking is an important business skill, this issue could pose a problem for future grads and their employers, alike.

A brief note about critical thinking in the age of big data

In a world where many companies find themselves relying on fewer employees to handle the same amount of work, critical thinking might be more important in the workplace now than ever before. Businesses’ preference for smaller teams is a side effect of our obsession with big data, which has become an integral part of many organizations’ business models. Big data, however, when incorporated into a work environment with many employees, is left unstructured and becomes nearly useless. That is, with enough employees, teams don’t need to automate tasks, so the data being collected is left to pile up without being put to productive use.

How do employers solve this productivity problem? They hire fewer employees. With more stress put on a smaller team, employees are forced to find ways to automate tasks, thereby putting the collected data to use. When organizations use big data efficiently and their employees work more productively, the company as a whole benefits.

This big data downsizing has been going on for years, and is very likely to continue in the future. However, in light of this recent research, college grads might be in for a rough time at their new jobs if they can’t think critically and formulate productive, problem-solving questions.

Related: Why Business That Use 'Big Data' Make More Money

What the research shows

The study, published in January 2016, consisted of researchers interviewing over 1,600 graduates from ten U.S.. colleges and universities. The study’s goal was to evaluate the continued learning needs of today’s college graduates.

What researchers found was that 30 percent of graduate learning needs after college were related to the workplace. Of these learning needs, 69 percent were related to professional development, 57 percent were related to desktop and laptop use and 56 percent were related to interpersonal communications. Furthermore, of all 1,600 participants, 84 percent had approached a coworker in the past year, informally, to learn more about the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Related: How Making Employees Lifelong Learners Can Help Your Company Succeed 

Career skills and higher education

While I admire these grads’ motivation to seek out the information they need to improve their professional lives, I can’t help but wonder at the state of the education system when less than 30 percent of our graduates said they know how to frame critical thinking questions.

As I touched on earlier, not only do many of today’s job applicants need to be tech-savvy, but they also need to have excellent problem-solving and critical thinking skills in order to been seen as valuable members of their teams. As Gloria Larson and Mike Metzger pointed out in 2013, professors and higher education professionals need to do some reassessing in order to better prepare college grads for the demands of today’s job market: “They must ground their curriculum in real-world experience so millennials are prepared for lifelong learning beyond campus gates.”

However, not all of these adaptations must be made on the part of the education system. There are considerations employers need to make as well.

Related: 4 Ways College Grads Can Prepare for Their First Real Job

What leaders should understand

Employers will likely have to understand that even highly-skilled and knowledgeable job applicants may require additional training. Many workplace leaders - as much as 63 percent of decision makers and 68 percent of recruiters - find millennials difficult to manage (Larson & Metzger). Yet, as I’ve discussed above, these perceived difficulties are not wholly the fault of millennials.

Though stereotypes concerning young people in the workplace are being more properly addressed, some business leaders still have the idea that hiring millennials means potentially hiring a group of people who are characteristically lazy. That’s not the case. I see it at WebpageFX all the time: millennials are highly motivated and passionate and possess valuable skill sets (not the least of which is their enthusiasm for technology).

As leaders in both our businesses and communities, we need to acknowledge the skills of these recent college graduates. Rather than criticize their weaker points, we need to find ways to work with educators to better prepare graduates for a successful future in the business world - and maybe even in your own organization.

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