Test Critical Thinking? Yes, You Can

If you made a list of the crucial abilities you would want your colleagues to have, critical thinking skills would be near the top of that list. After all, while the knowledge that is required today could be obsolete tomorrow, the value of critical thinking never fades. Unfortunately, critical thinking is also near the top of the list when employers report the skills that their employees lack.

To solve this problem, we need to build critical thinking skills throughout the educational process, but to do that we need some working definition of "critical thinking", and we need some way of measuring it so that we can find out whether we are making any progress. This is where things really get controversial. Definitions of critical thinking vary, and many people are against even the thought that tests can measure critical thinking skills. But these problems can be overcome. Even though different people have different takes on critical thinking, they tend to center around the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. Critical thinkers make logically-sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and are fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.

Can you test these skills? Yes, but it’s really hard. At my company, we have hundreds of people who write questions, but only a small percentage who write critical thinking questions. It often takes me an hour or more to write a single question. They are really subtle, and there’s a lot that can go wrong. Many so-called tests of "critical thinking" are really tests of whether you share the opinions and biases of the person who wrote the question.

Here’s an example: suppose that you are running a company, and you are thinking about expanding into a new market. You have just learned that your usual main competitor, who sells basically the same thing that you sell, does not compete in that market. Does that new information make this new market sound more attractive, or less? With only this information, it’s impossible to tell. Some people will conclude that the competitor’s absence is good news, because you’ll have less opposition. Other people will conclude that the competitor’s absence is bad news, because perhaps they know something about this market that you don’t. Either perspective is defensible, and so it would be unfair to reward a test taker for picking one over the other. Still, it would be fair to ask the test taker to describe the questions they would ask before making a decision. Is your product different from the competitor’s in any meaningful way? Could you be better suited for that market than the competitor is? Does the competition have especially good market research? There’s room for creativity, too: Some might ask if the competitor is legally or contractually prohibited from competing in the new market. Possibilities abound.

Perhaps you’re convinced that you can test these skills, and so I’ll make a more ambitious claim: it is possible to measure critical thinking skills with multiple choice questions, those demonized but ubiquitous bubble-filling challenges. Again, these are hard, but you can ask test takers to pick the choice that represents an assumption, a relevant question, or a logical conclusion. You can ask them to identify a flaw, an analogous situation, or a supporting principle. No one question would be enough to decide whether someone is a critical thinker or not. But answering a bunch of them can tell you quite a bit. If you disagree, ask yourself this: would you want your lawyer to be a top scorer on the Law School Admission Test, which measures only critical thinking skills, or a low scorer? Let’s raise the stakes. Make the lawyer your criminal defense attorney, and then see which lawyer you pick. I’m not saying that critical thinking skills are the only important skills, but they are at least part of the picture.

If you still disagree, maybe you’ll take this challenge: We’ll choose 100 people and (against their will, most likely) give them a critical thinking test of my design. My team will consist of the top 10 scorers, and you get the bottom 10. Then the teams will compete in some kind of task that requires reasoning but can also involve other skills, such as collaboration and creativity. So the task won’t be pure logic, but it won’t be a weightlifting competition, either. If my team loses, I’ll admit defeat and declare my last 20 years a complete waste of time. But if your team loses, then you have to admit that maybe, just maybe, those tests of critical thinking are measuring something important. Any takers?