Higher Education: The Smart Choice for Better Critical Thinking and Decision Making

road-signsLaw enforcement officers face dozens of important decisions every day. Some are tactical decisions that must be made in split seconds, while others are strategic decisions arrived at over the course of weeks or months. Most will have an impact on personal or public safety, and several may be lifesaving. Phrases like “good judgment,” “common sense” and “street smarts” are often used to describe the knack for making the right choices on the job, but the best source of sound decision making is critical thinking — the ability to evaluate and analyze the information at hand, then use it to reach an informed conclusion. Surveys of law enforcement supervisors routinely identify decision making and critical thinking as top competencies they look for when selecting candidates for promotion or transfer to specialized units. But how do you acquire those skills and demonstrate them to employers?

While professional training teaches manual tasks such as how to restrain a suspect or use a firearm, the problem-solving and reasoning abilities that help you determine when to apply those techniques are just as important and harder to quantify. Pursuing higher education is one of the most effective ways to develop your critical-thinking skills and show that you have what it takes to succeed. In 2013, Hart Research Associates conducted a survey of employers about their priorities for the kinds of learning needed in today’s economy. Nearly all the respondents (93 percent) agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Critical thinking and analytical reasoning topped the list of proficiencies that employers expect colleges and universities to emphasize, with 82 percent wanting even greater emphasis placed on these areas, while closely related complex problem-solving and analytic skills followed just behind at 81 percent. Clearly, critical thinking is in high demand in the workforce, and a college degree — in any subject — can signal to employers that you have the decision-making know-how they’re looking for.

Helping students develop critical thinking is a major goal of higher education, and most colleges and universities state their commitment to it in mission statements and teaching objectives. The University of Cincinnati, for instance, designates critical thinking as one of the four core competencies that all graduates are expected to achieve, and identifies which classes focus on promoting each competency. Schools often have specific coursework about critical thinking — sometimes within a particular discipline (such as math, business or philosophy), and other times as a general-education topic. For example, Bellevue University offers an undergraduate three-course cluster called “Critical Thinking in the Real World” that explores the nature, importance and application of critical thinking in different areas of everyday life, and University of Phoenix includes “Critical Thinking and Problem Solving” in the sequence of courses required for first-year undergraduate students.

But you don’t necessarily have to take a special class; all elements of higher education can foster critical-thinking skills. Through research, you learn how to gather, assess and interpret relevant information. Studying textbooks and other documents, you learn how to examine sources closely and form your own interpretations. By completing assignments, you practice analyzing and solving problems. Through reading, lectures and class discussions, you are exposed to different viewpoints and taught how to look at an issue from all sides. By conducting experiments and inquiries into new topics, you learn how to test your ideas and reach well-reasoned conclusions based on evidence. Through writing and other creative pursuits, you learn how to question your assumptions and think outside the box. All of these are competencies that employers value and associate with a college diploma. It might be difficult to prove in an hour-long interview that you can think critically and make judicious decisions, but having pursued a degree shows that you’ve worked to cultivate these abilities.

Improving your critical-thinking and decision-making skills is just one benefit of higher education. Explore more tips to help you advance your career, along with specific schools and programs, at Education Connect.

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