January 24, 2023, by aczjb1

How project-based learning can promote students’ critical thinking skills

Embedding project-based learning and participatory action research in degree courses and executive education can provide students with the critical thinking skills increasingly in high demand by employers. Projects or challenges ideally take the form of company-based challenges or company-based dissertations. With these challenges, a framework of learning outcomes addresses knowledge, skills and behaviours through project-based learning and includes students’ reflections on what they have learned through the experience of real-life community or work-based issues and challenges.

A recent book from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlights how universities must increasingly provide their students with the critical thinking skills required by employers. In their study – analysing data from the US, UK, Italy, Mexico, Finland and China – 45 per cent of students were found to be proficient in critical thinking, with only 20 per cent having an “emerging” talent.

Crucially, the OECD’s definition of critical thinking skills involves not only thinking, but the application of this thinking to real-life scenarios through the interrelated processes of “inquiring, imagining, doing and reflecting”. Students on such courses will often benefit from the practical application of their learning through partnerships in the workplace or in their local community.

While research from cognitive sciences focuses on how critical thinking skills should be taught through direct instruction, an argument could also be made that direct instruction is precisely what can hinder students from developing critical thinking skills in the first place. What, therefore, might be another solution to developing critical thinking in our students? The obvious answer is to think about other pedagogical approaches, which include students practically applying their learning and which develop the key competency of independent learning – an established prerequisite to critical thinking.

Professor Andrew Bacon explained: “While working with Dr Tom Dobson from York St John University throughout 2022,  we reviewed  research undertaken into pedagogies used with 11- to 19-year-olds. This looked at where the students engaged with their local communities and businesses on projects of their own devising. In the review, substantive evidence was found of positive outcomes when students had experienced one of two pedagogical approaches: project-based learning (PBL); and youth participatory action research (YPAR).”

For each of these projects, students worked through processes with a facilitator in a way that mirrored the OECD’s definition of critical thinking skills. This includes:

  • Imagining and enquiring – where they develop developing and research a problem and think about beneficiaries and barriers involved.
  • Taking action, where they work in partnership with local businesses and third sector organisations
  • Receiving feedback on their actions, helping them reflect and set actions and targets for the future development of their projects.

YPAR is differentiated from PBL in that it also involves the teaching of research methods to students. This formal understanding of research methods helps students to gather data to develop their problem statement as well as design a project that will impact positively upon their target beneficiaries. To date, YPAR is relatively underused in the UK and tends to take place in the US and Asia.

Given that most university courses already develop students’ knowledge of research methods and require them to undertake an independent project towards the end of their course, embedding PBL in Level 4 modules and then YPAR in Level 5 and 6 modules would be one way of facilitating student progression in developing critical thinking skills in line with the frameworks for higher education.

Given also that most social science courses involve partnerships with local business or third sector organisations, and that most natural sciences courses are driven by the pursuit of knowledge to improve people’s lives and the environment, the use of PBL and YPAR should be seen as highly feasible and a way of meaningfully developing partnerships and the application of knowledge.

Andrew Bacon OBE is a Professor of Practice at Nottingham University Business School and CEO of Enactus UK.

Tom Dobson is Professor of Education at York St John University, UK. He is a former secondary school teacher whose research focuses on creative pedagogies, and this article is drawn from research he is currently undertaking with Enactus UK into the benefits of students driving their own community-based projects.

Read about how Nottingham University Business School’s MSc students take part in company-based challenges at nottingham.ac.uk/business/study-with-us/masters

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