Everybody wants a critical thinker on their team these days.

According to a study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, approximately 93% of surveyed employers believe that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” Another study, this one by career-search website Indeed.com, found that “Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009.” President Obama has even discussed the idea in multiple State of the Union Addresses, stating that schools needed to develop standards that measured “21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking”.

The message is clear: critical thinking is critical to one’s success in the 21st century economy, but does anybody know what that means?

Considering the amount of media attention given to an abstract intellectual concept, and the recent pedagogical focus on it from educators, it’s almost easy to forget that the notion of critical thinking originated in ancient times through the Socratic method. Socrates discovered that many individuals couldn’t “rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric.” So critical thinking isn’t a 21st century skill; it is a timeless and even ancient skill. Undoubtedly, the ability to think critically, to objectively analyze and evaluate information before forming a judgment, is a requisite trait for competing successfully in the arenas of adult life. All students can learn to think critically, and all students would benefit from strong critical thinking skills. This, however, presents a problem: how do we go about teaching it?

Teaching critical thinking is unlike teaching other subjects. In my experience, I had some amazing teachers and professors who built in time during class periods for discussions and debates, encouraging us to challenge each other’s assumptions as well as analyze our own. Unfortunately, this method simply doesn’t work for all subject matter, especially for courses in the increasingly important STEM fields.

Aaron Hall is currently pursuing his PhD in Organic Chemistry at U.C. Berkeley, so I sat down with him one day and asked him how he learned to think critically in the course of his studies. Most of his courses were structured traditionally, with the final grade based on a combination of classwork, homework, and tests, but as he explained, “rarely did much of that material comprise what we’d been taught. In order to answer the questions, we had to connect bits and pieces from a variety of areas, both inside and outside of the course. We had to produce an argument and show the analysis that led to it, and we were encouraged to think through the ‘whys’ and feel free to utilize any argument we saw fit to prove our point.” One professor in particular had a habit of creating test questions that presented information from a different scientific perspective, “so in order to solve the question, an analysis of the information had to be done and then translated to produce an argument in the perspective we were using. The beauty of the question was that it validated understanding of prerequisite subjects, forced the understanding of the current subject, and reinforced that knowledge is a flat plane, not compartmentalized, which is the foundation for critical thinking.”

However, despite the various strategies educators are using to teach the skill of critical thinking to their students, employers are still claiming that recent graduates don’t have the critical thinking skills they need to succeed. Clearly, there is a disconnect here.

The problem here lies in the medium candidates are using to apply to jobs—it is nearly impossible to demonstrate critical thinking skills on the static, flat document that is the resume. Instead of a bulleted list of skills, what candidates need is a medium that allows them to show proof of their abilities. Digital portfolios, for instance, allow candidates to demonstrate their skills through the visual presentation of digital evidence. Since individuals are able to upload a wide variety of multimedia to digital portfolios, they can be used by candidates in nearly any industry to demonstrate not just critical thinking, but all of their skills and knowledge. Employers will then be able to see what their candidates are really capable of, and candidates will get to hear the four greatest words in the job search:

“Welcome to the team.”


Katie McPhee is a Marketing Manager for Pathbrite. With Pathbrite, students can create a digital portfolio that will help them display their mastery, critical thinking skills, and talents by telling visual stories that display their passions, strengths, talents, and more. Encourage your students to register for a free Pathbrite account and try it out for themselves! 

How do you use critical thinking activities, assignments, and methods to prepare your students for the jobs and other roles and responsibilities they’ll face in the future? Share your ideas. in the comments.

Below, view slides from a Stanford student’s Pathbrite ePortfolio, which illustrate how it can be used to show evidence of one’s critical thinking skills.

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