Independent thought essential

December 19, 2003

Critical thinking skills must be more widely taught if we are to broaden access, says Alec Fisher

Many university courses have too many "good" applicants for the number of places available. For example, something like 90 per cent of Cambridge University applicants have at least three grade A passes at A level, and colleges can admit only one in four of them.

The problem is how to choose wisely and fairly from among the candidates.

Decisions are usually based on predicted A-level results, the head teacher's report and an interview. Interviews are rather subjective affairs, and it is very rare for universities to research how effective they are. So what could be done to aid more objective decision-making?

Excellent predicted grades show that applicants are very hard working and good at learning a lot of material, qualities that are certainly necessary for success at university, but how well will they function when they have to think problems through independently or argue a case for themselves? These qualities are also vital to success in university, but university admissions officers rarely have any direct evidence of them (although that is often what the interview attempts to assess).

The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) being taken over the next few weeks by some 2,000 applicants to Cambridge aims to provide just such information - it will assess candidates' critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

From a university's point of view, and given the evidence so far, this looks as though it could really help in identifying the applicants who have what it takes to succeed. Furthermore, its results will be objective, and it will be possible to assess how well it works (unlike interviews).

But will it widen access? It might help in the short term, because some able students who have had to work out a lot of things for themselves may score very well on the assessment and some who have been "spoon-fed" will not. However, the TSA assesses skills that are clearly teachable (and most academics take the view that these critical thinking and problem-solving skills are very important in much university work, so they would be delighted if students were taught them before coming to university), and once this is realised, students from more privileged backgrounds will be given instruction in these skills before taking the TSA, and their advantaged position will be maintained.

The only way to avoid this would be to ensure that all able A-level pupils are given equal access to the teaching of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This would be desirable anyway because the skills are important at university, but it would also provide a level playing field where the assessment was concerned.

Admission to these demanding universities and courses would be seen to be fairer, and students would be better prepared for the kind of work that universities demand.

It is worth remembering that more than 40 years ago the Robbins report recommended finding better predictors for university admission than A levels, and the result was a huge project called the Investigation into Supplementary Predictive Information for University Admission.

The core of this project was a test called the Test of Academic Aptitude (TAA), which was modelled on the North American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and although the project took ten years and involved studying 100,000 students, the TAA failed completely in its objective.

The TSA is different from the TAA and the old SAT because it aims to assess skills that are teachable, but that is why these skills need to be widely taught if the TSA is to broaden access to oversubscribed universities such as Cambridge.

Alec Fisher is former director of the Centre for Research in Critical Thinking at the University of East Anglia.

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