Can Critical Thinking be taught at the Collegiate Level – Anyone?… Anyone?…

As a college educator who spent over 30 years in the business workplace, I commonly hear discussions about how to improve recent college graduates/new staff’s critical thinking skills. A Google search of “Employer Critical Thinking” yields well over a millions hits on this topic. A quick survey of the results yields two certainties: 1) Many employers do not think new graduates have proper critical thinking skills, and 2) “Critical Thinking” is tough to define. Revealing articles include the following:

The third and fourth articles discuss a study in students at over 200 colleges and universities who participated in a Collegiate Learning Assessment, which evaluated critical thinking and other analytic “higher level” skills. Disturbingly, the results found that over four years of collegiate study, more than 33% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.” According to the Wall Street article, “at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.”

Within the accounting world, the quest for critical thinking has filtered into the newly revised CPA exam. In its Exposure Draft: Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination, the AICPA states that “newly licensed CPAs must also possess high-order cognitive skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and analytical ability.” The Exposure Draft later states that new CPAs will require “higher order skills such as critical thinking” due to technology changing the nature of the work and that newly licensed CPAs will be “responsible for more complex tasks earlier in their careers.”

According to Michael Decker, AICPA vice-president, “Remembering and understanding fact patterns isn’t enough.” Decker adds that these new CPAs “have to be able to assess situations and apply professional judgement.” Gone are the days from my CPA youth, where as a staff auditor, we would “foot” ledgers for accuracy and seemingly spend endless hours on the copy machine. Now, CPA firms and other employer thrust new staff into a technological maze where the proficiency on the technology often outweighs the basic accounting/tax concepts - which many times are assumed knowledge.

We used to joke “in the old days” that CPA meant Cut, Paste and Assemble, as my first year colleagues spent lots of time getting files ready for field use and seemingly endless hours on the copying machine. This is no longer the case, starting from day one new staff must integrate technological and concepts from the get go.

Thus, based on the many comments from employers desiring higher levels of critical thinking in their new hires, it seems that college professors and employers are currently in a transitory period where the teaching done at the collegiate level does not clearly align with future employer expectations of how recruits should be trained, especially in critical thinking.

To try to drive home the importance of critical thinking and “soft skill” development, we started a program at Trine University for business and engineering majors called P2 (P-squared) which stands for Professional Paradigms.  On a weekly basis, business and engineering faculty engage students in workshops that develop “soft skills” – how to network, working as a team, telephone etiquette, managing stress, etc. However, in addition to these terrific programs (in my humble opinion), as educators we need to ask more of our students in the classroom regarding critical thinking.

Before my full-time plunge into academia almost exactly one year ago, I surveyed many different professors at different colleges/universities mostly from business, but also from a few other disciplines into teaching tips and guidance. From these different meetings, the number one guidance given to me was to incorporate the “Think, Pair, Share” format where students are first given a question/problem to review, we put them into a group to discuss, then we can call on the different groups for their answers. I enjoy trying to teach in this style, since it normally keeps discussions lively, and students are willing to offer their group answers, which avoids the Ferris Bueller “Anyone?... Anyone?...” syndrome; but, it rarely offers students a chance to make a mistake on their own.

In pondering on this current perceived disconnect between collegiate teachings and employer expectation on critical thinking and my own experience,  I am reminded that many of the best lessons I learned were from the many mistakes that I made (and still make) throughout my career, both technical and “soft.” So then, how can we incorporate a “safe to fail” atmosphere in the classroom that is engaging and useful? I also wonder what the 50-somethings of my youth said about our generation (tail end of baby boomers) and what areas of knowledge they earnestly wished we had when entering the workplace. Honestly I cannot remember what they said about us 20-somethings back then, but now as a 50-something, I imagine the 20-somethings of today have read/heard of their supposed lack of critical thinking.

Based on the number of Google hits pertaining to critical thinking, I believe we have a long way to go in understanding what it is and training how to do it. But I would surely welcome any insight into my quandary of how to effectively teach critical thinking to our future accountants. Anyone?... Anyone?...


Note: This article was originally written by Jeff McGowan for the Indiana CPA Society’s CPA Center of Excellence.


Jeff McGowan

Jeff McGowan, CPA, CGMA - Consultant
574.289.4011 ext. 245 |

Jeff specializes in tax consulting services for closely-held businesses and their shareholders and officers, and is a Level III Certified Indiana Assessor-Appraiser. Jeff served as a partner in the firm until 2016 when he transitioned to a consultant role so he could pursue a full time teaching career at Trine University.

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