Study: Nearly Half of Millennials Get an ‘F’ In Critical Thinking

Posted By Terri Williams on May 30, 2017 at 7:11 am
Study: Nearly Half of Millennials Get an ‘F’ In Critical Thinking

In what seems like an eternity ago, false information was occasionally shared via viral email. The success of these misinformation campaigns was dependent on each recipient forwarding the email to a new group of readers – in other words, failing to demonstrate critical thinking. At that time, a viral email containing fake news was problematic, but it only reached a limited audience.

However, social media has created a highly efficient way for false stories to reach millions in a hurry. Some fake news ends up trending on Twitter and Facebook. And millennials may play a critical role in this process, as both victims and unwitting accomplices.

According to a recent study by MindEdge, a Waltham, MA-based learning company founded in 1998 by Harvard and MIT educators, many millennials lack critical thinking skills.

When young adults between the ages of 19 and 30 (both current college students and recent grads) were given a test designed to test their ability to detect fake news:

  • Only 24 percent were able to correctly answer eight out of nine questions
  • 44 percent could not correctly answer six out of nine questions

The inability of discern false information is problematic for more than one reason:

  • 55 percent of millennials rely on social media for news
  • 51 percent share social media content very or fairly often
  • 36 percent have accidentally shared inaccurate information

These findings by MindEdge are consistent with a Stanford University survey that found middle school, high school, and college students were unable to distinguish between a news story, an ad, and an opinion piece, and college students actually fared worse than high school students.

It’s more than mildly alarming that college students would be less likely than their younger peers to discern between true and fake news. And according to the MindEdge survey, 61 percent took critical thinking in college – although 13 percent aren’t sure if they took a critical thinking course or not while in college.

Generational trend?

Research suggests that financial literacy may be a generational problem. Is the lack of critical thinking skills unique to millennials, or have young adults always lacked this ability? That question can’t be answered conclusively because there is no generational data that could be used for comparison, according to Frank Connolly, a senior editor at MindEdge, where he manages curriculum design and content creation for a variety of courses.

“But it doesn’t seem likely that millennials are afflicted by some strange critical-thinking deficit that distinguishes them from their older counterparts,” Connolly tells GoodCall®. “Rather, what’s changed for millennials is the sheer amount of information – both false and legitimate – that they will encounter over the course of their careers and lifetimes.”

Undoubtedly, social media plays a more central role in the lives of teenagers and young adults. For example, a recent survey reveals that social media posts – not test scores – may determine if an applicant gets accepted into college.

The importance of critical thinking skills

Whether this issue is generational or not, it’s vitally important for these young adults to learn how to analyze the material they receive. “The ability to distinguish between true information and misinformation is more vital for millennials precisely because they’ve got to deal with far more information than earlier generations ever did,” Connolly explains.

“We’re living in the information age and, like it or not, the ability to make sense of information – to understand it, to use it, and to distinguish the good from the bad – is the key to getting ahead in today’s economy.”

Fortunately, most millennials understand their need to develop this trait, since 64 percent admit it’s very important to their career success. “Forty years ago, you didn’t need advanced critical thinking skills to earn a good living on an assembly line,” Connolly says. “But in today’s knowledge-based economy, critical thinking skills are at a premium: according to a survey of chief human resources and strategy officers by the World Economic Forum, by 2020, complex problem solving and critical thinking will be the top two skills workers need.”

It’s a view shared by Eugene Fram, EdD, professor emeritus at the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology, who tells GoodCall®, “From a higher education perceptive, critical thinking is vitally important because educated persons must be able to demonstrate these skills.” However, Fram says that this is a problem across the board, as revealed by academic studies, professional studies, and comments from employers.

Developing critical thinking skills

While 61 percent of MindEdge survey respondents stated that they took critical thinking in college (and 13 percent weren’t sure if they did or not), many of them were doubtful that they’re equipped to discern between false and factual information. Only 35 percent thought they were well-trained in critical thinking, and only 20 percent thought their colleagues were well-trained.

That doesn’t surprise Fram. “Most colleges and universities are taking a band-aid approach by adding a required course or two, but to solve the problem, critical thinking pedagogy must flow through all curricula – professional, stem and liberal arts,” Fram explains. “Many more graduates must be proficient in applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.”

Fram has been teaching critical thinking education for 51 years at RIT. “Early in my career, I noted that students were just taking notes, not thinking about the material in the courses, and I then developed a series of teaching and evaluation processes that involved critical thinking in all my courses.”

In addition, students can take a more proactive role in the development of these skills. Connolly says some of his tips are just common sense:

  • Be skeptical.
  • Ask more questions.
  • Double-check sources.
  • Don’t take information at face value.

In addition, MindEdge has developed a free, introductory online course. According to Connolly, “Dig Deeper: Critical Thinking in the Digital Age, takes a brief and entertaining look at this issue within the context of online information, social media, and fake news.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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