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Enhancing Skills Students Need: Critical Thinking

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Written by Capsource

Many recent college graduates believe they’re ready for jobs, but a large majority of employers don’t agree. In fact, according to a 2013 Strada Education and Gallup Poll, almost 90% of college employers think recent college graduates really aren’t properly equipped with job-ready skills to enter the workforce. This is commonly referred to as the “skills gap.”

Specifically, employers see gaps in areas such as professionalism, work ethic, oral and written communication, leadership, digital technology, career management, and global/intercultural fluency, which are some “soft skills” that are typically considered essential for most professions. For example, according to the 2018 Jobs Outlook Survey, 79.9% of students considered themselves proficient in critical thinking, while only 55.8% of employers rated recent graduates proficient in this area. Seemingly, students are overconfident in their abilities, while employers think recent graduates have difficulty with critical thinking in real-world settings.

What is critical thinking? Do you think students lack the ability to think critically? Let’s dive in!

One of the most sought-after skills in the workplace is critical thinking, which is the objective analysis of information to formulate decisions. Critical thinking involves breaking down information and evaluating it piece-by-piece, asking questions, and challenging assumptions. Critical thinking is essential to career success, as it offers a systematic process for solving difficult problems in the workplace. Employers look for job candidates who can assess different situations, using reason, to determine the most favorable outcome. Critical thinking enables you to make and understand the connections between ideas.

By now you might be asking, “how do you improve critical thinking capabilities?” Anyone can incorporate critical thinking into their everyday lives, including students. When a decision is needed or a problem presents itself, students can utilize the following strategies to enable them to critically assess a situation:

  • Start with the End Goal: Before diving into deep analysis of any situation, students consider what should be achieved or changed from the current scenario, so they understand what outcomes are desired. By determining the end goal, you’re able to work backwards to begin figuring out what needs to be done.
  • Ask Lots of Questions: Of course, in most situation, the answer isn’t always obvious (and there’s not always only one correct answer!). That’s why asking questions is so crucial. Students should question the details of the entire scenario. Some questions to consider are, “what do we already know”, “what’s causing this issue”, “who’s involved with this situation”, “why is there a need for change now”, “what tools, resources, and prior knowledge do I have at my disposal,” and “who will benefit if I do a good job?” Although these are seemingly broad questions, there are questions that make you (and those around you) think, and as a result, discuss, troubleshoot, and come to a consensus.
  • Question your Assumptions: Once you’re off asking questions and investigating the situation, you have to consistently analyze and rethink your assumptions. Operating with certain assumptions as truths can result in a lot of time and energy wasted if they turn out to be false. Questioning your assumptions is about stress-testing your thought process to ensure your insights are accurate and factual and not just unproven (or wrong) assumptions.
  • Examine the Whole SItuation: Sometimes you need to take one big step back and change your perspective. Even if you feel you understand the situation, sometimes it’s important to change the way you’re analyzing the situation and approaching your solution. This process gives you the best chance that you’ve covered all your bases and that you aren’t missing viable solutions or overlooking critical pieces of information. Proper examination involves breaking down information and analyzing it piece-by-piece until you’re comfortable moving forward.
  • Search for Patterns: In your analysis, have you noticed any patterns? If so, what are they? Why might these patterns formed? Patterns can help inform strategy, direction, or the need for more investigation. In any capacity, noticing patterns is a valuable insight and a way to show that you’re focused on the details.
  • Apply Foresight: Try to predict what will happen next (especially under different sets of assumptions). This can help you identify variables that must stay constant versus other variables that can be adjusted. Although it’s pretty tough for anyone to accurately predict the future, if you’re good at investigating and challenging your assumptions, you’ll produce much more thorough and useful results.

Based on these six principles, we feel it’s imperative for students to understand how to critically think in order to be job-ready. Since it’s vital for students to gain critical thinking skills, it’s important to create opportunities and environments where students can apply what they’re learning in the classroom to real-world situations. Experiential learning is a form of applied education that is research-oriented and project-based, which is most impactful when it revolves around real-world situations. This type of learning brings together students, educators, and company partners to determine real outcomes for businesses and organizations. Through experiential learning, educators act as facilitators or coaches, fostering environments that are designed to empower students to think on their own and resolve real challenges. Students are encouraged to ask a lot of questions, thoroughly examine and analyze the information provided to them, and come to decisions (often in teams) that they can defend. Ultimately, these environments allow students to enhance their critical thinking and collaborative capabilities all while gaining reference-worthy experience.

CapSource brings together companies, schools, and students to collaborate on project-based, experiential learning engagements based off of real company challenges. CapSource offers engagements in several different formats, including Live Business Cases, Capstone Projects, Co-Ops, and Site Visits.

For example, CapSource brought together students in the University of Maryland MBA Program and HUNGRY, a company that connects private chefs with companies for corporate catering gigs. The goal was to help strategically plan for HUNGRY’s geographical expansion. Students worked closely with their faculty and the company’s executive team to learn about the business and produce meaningful insights. The end goal was for students to create a Launch Playbook for HUNGRY’s growth strategy team while considering the company’s business model, growth goals, financial position, and competitive advantages.

Before proposing a solution to the company’s business challenge, students asked questions and got up-to-speed on HUNGRY’s product, industry, and growth plan. Once informed, the students established (and continuously questioned) their assumptions as they analyzed the company’s financial goals, marketing plan, and talent strategy to determine the best way to expand into any new city. Students needed to use their understanding of finance, accounting, talent management, data management, growth strategy, sales, business development, and marketing in order to assemble an appropriate and actionable plan. The students were successful and were able to recognize patterns by looking at competitor strategies and similar business models in order to come up with an appropriate solution. The students even applied foresight and anticipated how HUNGRY’s expansion into other cities would impact their business model in order to best prepare the company for growth.

Students were able to create a Launch Playbook by combining a real-world situation, with real research, and cross-functional, critical thinking. This project is one of many examples where students were able to deliver meaningful outcomes to their host company by thinking critically and breaking down larger, more complex projects into smaller digestible chunks. HUNGRY has since completed 6 total projects with schools and their students with CapSource’s assistance and plans to continue to leverage student insights to build their business. They just expanded into their 8th city and reached $1M in monthly revenue as of October 2019.

CapSource’s foremost objective is to bridge the skills gap between the professional work environment and higher education in order to ensure students are prepared to enter the real-world upon graduation. The educational model is to carefully expose students to the real business world through careful collaboration with real business leaders. The experiential learning engagements that we source and design help students strengthen their abilities, like critical thinking, and ultimately leave students more prepared and eager to enter the working world.

To learn more about Capsource’s project-based experiential learning engagements, review our project charters and live businesses cases here.

About Guest Blog Writer – Jacqueline Luciano is the founder of UNRAVELED – a space catered to undergraduate students and young professionals trying to figure out and navigate life after college. After being in the professional world for over three years, Jacqueline has learned that there is so much more to figure out than what can be taught in the classroom. Students need to assess themselves, their skill-set, and their life goals in order to make themselves feel most successful about their career progress. Her foremost objective with UNRAVELED is to provide undergraduates and young professionals with resources that will make them more successful and better prepared for the real world. She hopes to provide readers with alternative perspectives that challenge conventional views of the workforce, on what college offers, and what students should consider about their lives after college. Jacqueline joined the CapSource team as a Guest Blog Writer because she believes experiential learning can alleviate a lot of the challenges she encountered while transitioning between higher-ed and the professional work environment.