Many science courses ‘fail to improve critical thinking’

Major study finds major differences in academic development across China, India, Russia and the US

March 1, 2021
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Science students in China, Russia and India do not appear to improve their critical-thinking skills over four years at university, unlike learners in the US, a major international study has found.

On average, those studying in China also fail to improve their subject-based skills in areas such as physics and maths in their first two years despite starting university at a much higher level than peers in India and Russia, according to the research.

The study of the learning gain made by tens of thousands of computer science and electrical engineering students tested learners in China, Russia and India in academic and critical-thinking skills at the beginning, middle and end of four-year courses. Researchers then also benchmarked results against the critical-thinking skills of students in the US.

At the start of university, students in China and the US had similarly high skills in critical thinking that were well ahead of learners in India and moderately higher than those in Russia. Students in China also had much higher maths and physics skills than those in either India or Russia.

However, during the first two years of university, the gap in academic skills between China and the other two Eurasian nations closed, with students in India and Russia seeing “significant” gains and those in China seeing no progress or even falling back.

All three nations saw critical-thinking skills increase slightly over the first two years and then lose ground in the final years, while US data backed up previous studies that suggest students in the country see large gains in such skills across the four years.

The paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, notes that students in China have a “large head start” in terms of critical-thinking and academic skills over their counterparts in Russia and India.

But the apparent losses in academic skills – as opposed to gains in Russia and India – were “striking and perhaps unexpected” and could possibly be related to students in China being “rarely forced out of courses or programmes for poor performance” and therefore being “less motivated to study”.

Study co-author Prashant Loyalka, an associate professor in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said that for “the most part” students in China were “virtually guaranteed to pass their classes and graduate from their programmes on time in four years”.

It meant that employers relied on the university attended as a guide to a student’s aptitude, which “in turn signals to students that they should care much more about getting into a selective college rather than performing well during college”.

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