A good employer values job applicants with well-developed analytical skills, such as the ability to perceive and interpret information, analyse and assess arguments, and apply new learning to practice. Critical thinking underpins effective decision-making and is therefore considered one of the most important outcomes of a university education. Irina Shcheglova, Yulia Koreshnikova and Olga Parshina examined the relationship between undergraduates' critical thinking skills and engagement with academic, research and extracurricular activities at university. The authors interviewed more than 3,300 Bachelor's students as part of the SERU (Student Experience in the Research University). Project and published their main findings in Educational Studies.
Dividends of Engagement
The researchers tested the hypothesis that academic engagement may not be the only thing that undergraduates need and that universities should not underestimate the value of other aspects of campus life. This hypothesis was confirmed: the researchers found that alongside studies and research, extracurricular involvement - such as student organisations and clubs, competitions, quests and other activities, as well as making and maintaining contacts with professional communities - is essential to the development of analytical skills.
Indeed, the more students are engaged in extracurricular activities, the better their critical thinking skills appear to be, contributing to academic and other achievements.
Self-assessment was used to measure change in critical thinking skills: students were asked to estimate their critical thinking skills at enrolment and at the time of the survey on a scale of six options from 'very low' to 'excellent'. The respondents were also asked about their studies, research, and participation in student organisations (No=0; Yes=1).
Benefits for Students
The study demonstrates a number of benefits of extra-curricular engagement, such as:
- higher self-esteem;
- higher sense of belonging and satisfaction with student life;
- both of the above factors can boost motivation and lead to better academic performance;
- better teamwork and responsibility;
- better communication strategies and leadership skills;
- accumulation of social capital through connections with fellow students and broader academic, professional and business communities.
And finally, student engagement has been found to influence early career earnings.
According to Shcheglova and her co-authors, students involved in research and extra-curricular activities were more likely to report an increase in critical thinking skills than uninvolved peers. Among respondents who reported engagement in research projects and student social activities, the proportion of those mentioning an increase in analytical skills (as opposed to no change) was also higher (69% in each group).
Contribution to Success
Binary logistic regression was used to establish a link between studies, research and extracurricular activity on one hand and the development of analytical skills on the other (Table 1), where:
- the independent variable was the self-reported level of critical thinking skills;
- the key independent variables (predictors) were represented by indices of academic (in-class or out-of-class), research and extracurricular engagement;
- calculations were made while controlling for such factors as gender, year of study, academic achievement, etc.
Exp (B) values greater than one (Table 1) indicate a positive correlation between a given predictor and the level of critical thinking skills.
According to the authors, higher values in most types of engagement mean higher chances of success - in this case, higher levels of critical thinking skills. While in-class academic engagement was unsurprisingly shown to be the most significant of all predictors studied, the role of research and extracurricular engagement should not be underestimated.
Enjoying All Benefits
It follows from the study that expanding research and extracurricular engagement on campus can be beneficial.
Since the study did not control for the type of student organisation, the results cannot be extrapolated to specific associations and clubs. Meanwhile, available empirical evidence shows that participation in different types of student organisations yields different outcomes.
For example, involvement in political organisations and creative activities has a positive effect on academic performance, whereas participation in sports and religious involvement do not affect student achievement significantly.
Interestingly, it follows from the study findings that academic performance is not related directly to the development of critical thinking. This inference is consistent with similar conclusions made by Russian and international researchers who assert that good grades and graduating with honours do not necessarily guarantee that a graduate will make a productive employee.