College Students and Critical Thinking

This article synthesizes information from several current news pieces to advocate that college instructors have an obligation to push their students to think more critically.

In June, the Washington Post published an article examining the use of Wikipedia in the college classroom. Undoubtedly, instructors across the country squirmed a little. While the article makes a good case for academics (and students) broadening their horizons in terms of research, stalwarts might reasonably wonder: what’s wrong with the age old requirement of students using scholarly, peer reviewed material? The kind of material that instructors can be comfortable has been critically vetted by other experts? Is it unreasonable in today’s society to expect students to be able to navigate a digital library, housing robust academic databases, as fluently as they can Google?

Only a few months later, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against a company alleged to have deceived academics about the quality of its journals as well as its editorial, peer review process. This reminder that scholarly journals may not be the quality sources so often touted leaves anti-Wikipedia, anti-Google-ing instructors in a bind. Where should students go for information?

While these are interesting, debatable points, there is a more relevant problem that needs to be remedied. Why are so many college students not critical consumers of information? How can instructors help students learn to vet what they read and incorporate into their own writing? Google, Wikipedia, and suspicious journals are not the root of the problem.

Primarily, this is a call to instructors and librarians to spend less time developing guard rails around (in)appropriate sources, and more time asking students to think through the material they cite. It might be more time intensive, but is arguably more educational. Students don’t really need rules to get through a class, they need guidance on how to question what is put before them, before they sign their name to their work in any class. Rather than saying, “you cannot use this website”, shift the conversation to, “Is this website a blog? Who has signed their name to it? What credibility do they have? Are you concerned if you cannot find an author’s name? Is the material outdated?” Instead of saying, “This appears to be a commercial website”, talk to your students about what that means – there is a financial element to the content posted. Give them a little information about how troublesome native advertising has been in the last few years. Ask them to dig a little deeper than the surface of a Google or Wikipedia page. Remind them that it may be wise to weed out some sources, rather than trusting the first article they find.

There seems to be few sources available for the teacher’s or librarian’s toolbox. A textbook on critical thinking is too much. Advice columns are too nebulous. Apps on the market are an added task for students and practitioners. If students already struggle with critical thought, having them draw parallels between these options and their assigned task may cause more frustration than advancement. In truth, the responsibility lies with us to help guide the next generation, one assignment at a time.

Asking students to abandon Google or Wikipedia is unreasonable. The lure of quick, convenient hyperlinks is unavoidable, and academia does need to take this into account. However, this does not mean that the significance of primary sources has waned. It just means that students need to be educated that Google and Wikipedia are not primary sources. Ask students to trace their cited claims back to the original source, and see if they like what they find. Did the message change? Did context make a difference in the presentation of the idea? Is the quote still relevant to the essay the student is writing? This is how the bar should be raised for student writing as well as critical thought.

As Seth Godin eloquently writes in his book Linchpin, students throughout every education level are taught to follow rules, to figure out just enough to make a passing grade, and to accept what is put before them. Such indoctrinated behaviors don’t allow for, much less encourage, actually thinking through the material they find. If students don’t get to practice critical thinking skills in elementary, middle, or high schools, what happens when they could actually use that skill set in the real world? If it’s not required in college, why are we surprised that there is a whole workforce without this ability, where employers and employees alike are both unhappy?

Critical thinking is a difficult skill to teach. Instead, we are teaching that references must be formatted a certain way, and they should be from a select catalog of materials. Students don’t understand why these rules exist, and it’s seldom explained because there is not a good explanation. It’s just another rule to follow. To that end, defying the rules by using nontraditional sources may be one avenue of hope. If students have to defend why Wikipedia is acceptable, and why the item they selected off of Google merits entry into their paper, they are practicing communicating and defending ideas, and it is better late than never.


Dewey, C. “The surprising reason some college professors are telling students to use Wikipedia for class.” The Washington Post, 20 June 2016, accessed at

Godin, S., Hagy, J., & MacLeod, H. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable?.

Federal Trade Commission v. Omnics Group Inc. Case No. 2:16-cv-02022, accessed at

Strauss, K. “These are the skills bosses say new college grads do not have.” Forbes, 17 May 2016, accessed at

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Ms. Nykorchuk has spent fifteen years in college or university systems, either as a student or professionally. She is interested in operations efficiencies, and promoting critical thought and elegant solutions within the academic workplace.

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