Is It Even Possible to Teach Critical Thinking to Today's College Students?


By Jenny Ortiz
It’s no secret that as a society, we get our basic legal information from the television show “Law & Order.” When I interact with students, most cite this show along with “CSI,” “NCIS” and “House” as their favorites because they’re based on “real life.” I love television more than most, but I also know that not all my information about the United States legal system should come solely from actress Mariska Hargitay. I understand the need to read and research a variety of articles and primary sources in order to form and support my own opinions. Recently, however, I realized that the euphoric feeling I get from researching and proving my own points without falling back on cliches is not a thrill shared by my students. My students like cliches. For them, proving a point is pointless and unnecessary.
They’d rather fail the assignment than stop spouting their unsupported opinions or turn to a primary text for evidence.
At Adelphi University, I wanted my students to learn how to be persuasive in their academic writing, so we read “Adams” by George Saunders in class, then I proceeded to play devil’s advocate. The students disagreed with me, as I knew they would, but they couldn’t prove their points, as I knew they wouldn’t. Though I kept telling them to use the text, they continued to repeat their opinions. One student not only disagreed with me, but became so upset with the assignment that he caused a scene in class. He stated that not only did he not have to prove common sense, but that I was wrong and that he wasn’t paying attention to the discussion anymore. He didn’t give a…add your own colorful words. Rather than argue, I simply smiled and told him we could discuss it in class. I finished the lecture by showing the students how to prove the point they wanted to formulate using textual evidence.
After class, the student who made a scene tried to flee, but I caught him before he could run out. I explained to him that academia, like it or not, was about discussion. I also told him that I had taken the opposing view so that the students could think. He was bewildered that I could argue a point I didn’t agree with. As he began to feel better about our discussion, he (not yelling this time) explained that he didn’t understand why he had to prove his point using the text if he could make a strong argument using common sense to which I explained not all common sense is common sense.
In the end, he didn’t do the assignment, but realized his actions were rash. He apologized and we moved on with the week. However, this is only one example of students who are unwilling to compromise in their perspectives. Being strong-willed and opinionated is fantastic, but many of these students are not backing up their statements or opinions with solid proof. Academia is about being challenged every day and in every lecture. These students were willing to challenge their professors and their fellow students, but when asked to prove their own points they became defensive and turned to cliches.
In a society where we all have opinions, we are rarely asked to justify them. Likes and dislikes are created based on shallow and on the surface information as opposed to research and thought-provoking questions. There are the students who want to be challenged, the students who awaken to the process of learning, students who understand instinctively what it means to learn but then there are other students that refuse to be challenge and will cause a scene to avoid such challenges. Perhaps this event happened because I was working with a group of traditional freshmen and their world has yet to open…it is my hope that this is the case as I fear what it means if this isn’t the case.
What are your thoughts? What are your solutions to the unchallenged student?
About the Freeway Flyer: Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 25 year old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious). When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off  earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun).  When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream.  If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on,, Jersey Devil Press,, Break Water Review,Stone Highway Review, Eighty Percent Magazine and InkSpill Magazine…or you can follow her on Twitter:

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  1. Regardless of who to blame for the lack of critical thinking, I still get so angry at was seems to
    be a lazy attitude. I realize (at some level) that this regurgitation of the facts is what was expected of them in high school and other college classes, but am I naive to think I can
    re-train them? I teach a non-science environmental science class and
    often have non-traditional students. This semester (of 6 years) is my first with more
    traditional students. I am shocked at the non-attendance of classes I am witnessing.

  2. I realize this article was published over a year ago, but I’m new here. This article REALLY spoke to me as I realized I wasn’t the only one for whom students quoted cliches instead of turning to the text before them. When they DO attempt to use the text, as in a paper, they copy/paste large blocks of text from eight or ten authors making a patchwork quilt of other people’s words rather than their own and don’t understand why this is NOT ok. After all, I’d asked for “proof” right? It’s become part of my teaching strategy to spend large blocks of my pacing schedule countering this practice, but I often feel I’m the only teacher doing so. I’ve heard comments from “It’s too hard” and “It’s too much work” to “I never knew how to support my opinions before” or “Wow, you allow me to show you what I really think.” Sadly, we’re an ingest and spew nation of learners. We’ve so relied on those damnable “standardized” tests or the need for a scantron as “proof” for later on that we’ve been participants in this, I fear. Thanks for the article. I will persevere until they tell me not to, but really….will it end?

  3. I hope that you continue to challenge students and stand your ground when pressured to inflate grades or reduce expectations. For me, the half of each class who appreciated my efforts to teach them (and reciprocated by putting in the effort to learn) kept me from giving up for a long time, but eventually I had to choose between the integrity of my course and my own health. I chose the latter and resigned. ?????

  4. I think what you are experiencing (and what I experienced increasingly during the last 5 years of the decade I spent teaching upper-division research methods and statistics) is mostly the result of a combination of failed post-modern approaches, increases in narcissism, and the kind of shallow thinking which results from today’s emphasis on standardized testing.
    Many students are not accustomed to thinking deeply and resent being asked to do so. Many feel entitled to continue to study the way they have always studied: memorize associations among words by studying bullet-points and flow charts rather than reading, writing, and discussion. Many view critical feedback as “disrespectful” rather than constructive. In my classroom, a large portion of the class would go to great lengths to find ways to pass my exams without actually learning the material and it was a challenge for me to revise those exams constantly to ensure that I was assessing real understanding.
    I hope that you continue to challenge students and stand your ground when pressured to inflate grades or reduce expectations. For me, the half of each class who appreciated my efforts to teach them (and reciprocated by putting in the effort to learn) kept me from giving up for a long time, but eventually I had to choose between the integrity of my course and my own health. I chose the latter and resigned.

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