ANALYTICAL THINKING: HOW TO EFFECTIVELY TARGET THINKING EARLY IN UNDERGRADUATE TERTIARY EDUCATION
Whilst the majority of university courses in the sciences are designed to enhance students’ skills with respect to their ability to critique existing research, design new research, make meaningful use of data, and use sound forms of reasoning and argument, this generally happens in the context of discipline-specific content. For this reason, little emphasis has traditionally been placed on enhancing generalisation of skills across disciplines. The Analytical Thinking course, which is the central focus of this paper, was created with the intention of forming a generalisable set of skills that could be applied to many different discipline areas. The course, which received its first cohort of students in 2010, was designed specifically to be delivered in the first semester of study for new university students, and to build generic and generalisable skills in research design, argument and reasoning, and basic data analysis; in short, to provide a basic skill set for students pursuing study in any field of science. It is one of two compulsory courses students undertake in their first year when they enrol in a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences degree; the second compulsory course covers the skills underpinning academic writing. The way in which the Analytical Thinking course was designed to effectively meet the challenges inherent in delivering a purely skills-based course to a heterogeneous student cohort are described, together with the process of further refining the course in response to student feedback in relation to desired teaching and learning outcomes. Data on downstream outcomes for students of Analytical Thinking are still emerging, given the relatively short time the course has been operational. However, preliminary results are promising. As expected, results indicate positive relationships between performance on tasks in Analytical Thinking and performance in second year statistics tasks. More interestingly, there is some indication of better performance in a second year statistics course for students who had completed Analytical Thinking in comparison to students from mixed Arts/Sciences degrees who did not have access to this new course. Limitations of the current study include the fact that statistical power is limited due to a small initial student cohort, and that little opportunity has existed so far for replication of results. It is concluded that there are some indications, both in course results and the qualitative reports students make of their experiences, that teaching a generalisable set of skills for scientific enquiry early in tertiary study is both possible and of benefit to students.