Study Snapshot: Does College Teach Critical Thinking?

Study: “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis”

New Research from the American Educational Research Association

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235 (office), (202) 288-9333 (cell)
Victoria Oms,
(202) 238-3233 (office)

Study Snapshot: Does College Teach Critical Thinking?

Study: “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis”
Authors: Christopher R. Huber (University of Minnesota), Nathan R. Kuncel (University of Minnesota)
Published online September 16, 2015, in the AERA peer-reviewed journal Review of Educational Research

  • Despite the value placed on teaching critical thinking in college by educators, policymakers, and employers, the actual effectiveness of college at doing so—through either explicit instruction or general exposure—has been a disputed point.

  • For this study, the authors analyzed 71 research reports published over the past 48 years, to determine how successful four-year colleges are at teaching students critical thinking. They found that students’ critical thinking skills, as well as their dispositions toward critical thinking, improve substantially over a normal college experience.

  • Based on their analysis, the authors estimate that the overall effect of college on critical thinking skills is comparable to moving a student who starts at the 50th percentile to the 72nd percentile by the end of four years.

  • "The big takeaway for students is that college can help their critical thinking skills a good deal, and it can also be a good place to develop a more nuanced, thoughtful perspective toward a variety of issues,” said study coauthor Christopher Huber.

  • The authors did not find conclusive evidence on differences between majors. In addition, while study results suggest that gains in critical thinking skills during college are nonlinear, it remains unclear whether increases are more likely to occur in the early or late stages of college.

  • While a normal college experience appears to be effective in increasing critical thinking, the authors found that adding instruction centered specifically on improving general critical thinking skills does not produce larger gains in the long run.

  • The authors looked in particular at nursing students as a measure of whether curricula that place particular stress on critical thinking actually result in improvements. Nursing programs include critical thinking as a skill students must develop; however, nursing students did not experience gains surpassing those of non-nursing students.

  • “Our research suggests that infusing more critical thinking instruction into curricula may not produce measurable long-term benefits beyond those of a normal college experience,” said Huber. “Although we see critical thinking as an important skill, time spent focusing on critical thinking is time not spent focusing on reading, writing, mathematics, technical skills, and other skills that are needed in the U.S. labor force.”

  • The authors analyzed studies from over a 48-year period, allowing them to examine changes in students’ critical thinking gains over time. The results indicate that critical thinking gains have decreased over time, despite growing interest in fostering these skills. However, the authors note that this finding is not conclusive evidence that college educations have declined in quality.

  • The authors note several possible explanations for this pattern, including that students are coming to college with these skills already, decreasing the extent of gains to be made. Alternatively, the authors speculate that the increased numbers of students attending college could include more students who are not fully prepared to learn critical thinking skills.

Periodically, AERA will send out a brief overview, or snapshot, of a recent study that has been published in one of its peer-reviewed journals. AERA's "Study Snapshot" provides a high-level glimpse into new education research.

To see the full study, click HERE.

To speak with study author Christopher Huber, please contact Tony Pals at or Victoria Oms at

To browse more recent AERA research, click here.