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The Critical Role of Critical Thinking

Apr 12, 2023

Rusty Handlon, Senior Manager, Instruction Faculty, General Education at WGU, is working as a part of the dynamic team of instructors teaching core courses in Critical Thinking, Composition, and Communication. While skills acquired in this curriculum may have once been thought of as optional, or ‘soft skills,’ today’s employers have voiced loudly and clearly that critical thinking and communication are among the powerful human skills they need from their employees.

In 2022, the learning content company Pearson published its Skills Outlook Report providing insights into the needs of today’s modern workforce and the future of work. They established power skills they saw emerging from looking at 21 million job postings. Between now and 2026 these include communication, leadership, attention to detail, collaboration, customer focus, achievement focus, and cultural and social intelligence. Critical thinking plays a key foundational role in an employee’s ability to master these skills.

There are many definitions for critical thinking. Handlon shares his definition: “When I think of critical thinking, I think of individuals who are thinking carefully and honestly and in ways that move things forward,” said Handlon. “Critical thinking is a necessary aspect of our society. But specifically, it’s important for the individuals in a society to have the ability to put themselves in check as well as to analyze the information that they’re getting - to be able to step back and say, “Does this track? Does this argument sound correct?”

“My father used to say, 'Don't raise your voice, improve your argument.' " - Desmond Tutu


Handlon notes that critical thinking is not just external facing as done by scrutinizing information an individual is receiving, but it also builds the character and capacity to look inward. “Critical thinking also helps a person say, “Let me check myself. Do I have biases as I am making this decision?” He continues, “We all have biases of some sort. Recognizing what those biases are can help us to step back and make better-informed decisions and take a more deliberately ethical and logical approach.”

Ethics play a key role in teaching critical thinking, according to Handlon, and that’s a good thing. “If you have a person who is an adept critical thinker, but they lack ethics, that could create a very dangerous scenario,” he said. One need not think much further than any evil mastermind in any book or movie for his point to be well taken. “You must have an ethical base and lens as you’re making evidence-based decisions. It’s the pinnacle in critical thinking.” 

In General Education, there is one course that it titled 'Critical Thinking,' but Handlon notes that the topic is woven throughout many other courses as well. “Our course titled 'Critical Thinking' is probably the largest course in the university because most students are taking it at some point in their learning journey here. It provides the foundation for our students, but in my domain, which I think of as the foundation of the foundation – Critical Thinking, Composition, and Communication – they are learning how to write, how to communicate, and how to think…so it’s woven throughout the curriculum across the three subjects. Being able to apply critical thinking skills in these more task-based courses benefits the individual in everything from distinguishing fallacies to making more successful evidence-based claims for something they believe.”

In fact, Handlon’s research has found that the importance of critical thinking on a student's learning journey should not be underestimated. At WGU, the four colleges can determine when general education courses are placed into the curriculum sequencing. “We’ve done the research, and we have seen the students who struggle in the course tended to struggle in additional courses. 

Students who have not had critical thinking also tended to drop at an elevated rate compared to those who took it and successfully completed it, which makes sense. The skills you learn in this course benefit you for the rest of the education pathway," he says. Because of this Handlon and the team have worked with the colleges (Education, IT, Business, and Health) to move Critical Thinking up in the sequencing.

In the WGU competency-based model student progression is measured by mastery of the subject matter, not seat time in class, which creates a model of better personalization. Students can typically proceed more quickly through material they understand and slow down where they need additional support within each six-month term. Assessing whether a student is grasping and assimilating the knowledge and skills can take many forms.


"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle


“Instructors watch for students to have that ‘light bulb’ moment where the way they frame an argument changes. They look for fallacies, they look at the quality of the sources being cited, and they watch for biases that have taken a role in the formation of ideas and decisions. There are objective assessments where a student needs to show they know how to map an argument, how to pull in reliable sources, and understand the impact of bias,” said Handlon.

The goal, says Handlon, is for each student to be able to test their own thinking and assumptions for life and see if they are using the critical thinking skills they developed at WGU. “Of course, all of this here is just the first step in the journey,” he said. “Then they have to take what they learned here and apply it in all of their other courses, and later in their careers.”

Regarding careers, WGU degree programs have been specifically designed for current and future workforce relevance.

Handlon provides some examples below of how critical thinking skills learned at WGU may play out in various career tracks from within the Schools/Colleges of IT, Business, Health, and Education.

College of IT

“This industry requires employees/ talent to be agile – it’s a fast-moving area where decisions often have to be made very quickly. Critical thinking helps a person come to the right decision through a process that can speed outcomes, while also giving them the skills to know when to temper that speed with caution and if needed, force more consideration before a decision is reached. Today it’s also more important than ever to have people with the powerful combination of ethical critical thinking because of where we are going with AI and the deep integration of technology into our daily lives,” Handlon said.

College of Business

We’ve seen the outcomes of the benefits of critical thinking, and the pains of the lack of it throughout society as leaders of organizations either displayed ethical critical thinking, or they didn’t, and they got themselves and often many others into significant trouble. “Strategic planning and corporate finance are complex topics that benefit tremendously from a leader who has honed their critical thinking skills. It also protects from that “next best or big thing” syndrome that can plague businesses. Our graduates know how to step back and look at the entire picture to determine what will work best vs. how it has always been done. They don’t give in to the quick and easy approach because they can discern and determine if it has flaws in the long run. Critical thinking helps create systems thinkers which help businesses be successful and understand how to move things forward.” (An interesting side note, the College of General Education has recently added Systems Thinking courses that are taught by the same faculty as the Critical Thinking course.)

Leavitt School of Health

Nursing comprises a large population of students at WGU, and these students as well as those from other areas of focus in the Leavitt School of Health will be working with vulnerable populations who are leaning on their care team of professionals to understand their unique situations and help improve their health. “Health professionals are using critical thinking all day long, every single day, especially when a patient can’t express or advocate for themselves,” says Handlon. “Oftentimes, decisions that could be lifesaving must be made quickly by assessing multiple factors and understanding dependencies and contingencies. That’s a great example of critical thinking in real-time.” The best doctors and nurses use credible sources of information to formulate evidence-based decisions and claims – all an integral part of critical thinking.

School of Education

Teachers are a great influence on a child’s future, and for that to be a positive influence they need a deep understanding and practical knowledge of learning science, their area of expertise or topic, empathy and observation skills, and ethical critical thinking. Handlon explains, “Our teachers must constantly be scanning the classroom and identifying where each individual is on the learning journey, and in many cases, also in their personal lives. Who is following, and who is not? Who has factors external to the classroom that are impacting learning? How can each teacher be sure they are asking the right questions, and giving the right assignments and assessments? This is all critical thinking in play, and it profoundly impacts the future of society,” he says.

“In the College of General Education, we collectively believe that what happens here has a positive effect on the future life and career of our students, and being ethical critical thinkers better prepares them for whatever comes their way,” said Handlon.


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