As college students, we are often given research papers or pieces of writing that, at the time of their creation, were fantastic examples of critical thinking or innovative thought. As readers with little context for the academic climate decades ago, students can rarely put together why these pieces are chosen as standout examples of research or literature leaving them unable to figure out the formula, or make their own essays and projects articulate. Instead, they repeat ideas and phrases from the greats, assuming that repetition, not innovation, is how the genius of these works can be tapped into.
The assignments students are given in classes are more likely to take away their creative license than to promote the multidisciplinary kinds of work that allows for innovation and thoughtfulness.
In reality, college classes allow students to learn a small fraction of what they will actually need to know to conduct research or be successful in a career. That fraction—more often than not made up of memorization and misunderstanding—is the less important part of the whole. The most important—the one often left uncultivated—is critical thinking and agency in a student’s ideas.
With that said, here are some ways you can work to make yourself more of a critical thinker while taking college classes:
Actively rebel against the notion of efficiency:
Efficiency is formed when we find little habits that increase our productivity. Efficiency, however, does not prioritize learning, it prioritizing getting things done. It puts the emphasis of our academic experience on how quickly we can write a paper rather than in the intellectual connections we made while writing that paper.
Take pride in taking more time to write something. Start the project earlier and focus on doing extra research. The Wikipedia wormholes are a pleasure in themselves.
Start conversations with your peers:
If college is truly about learning then the end goal of each class shouldn’t be for a student reach all the requirements. The end goal should be to create an environment where students feel like they have to learn more because their classmates are consistently demonstrating a level of knowledge that isn’t stagnant, but is constantly growing and expanding.
Surrounding yourself with people who have a thirst for knowledge will help you fill the in knowledge gaps and learn about new disciplines and ideas.
Become friends with your professors:
Offer to walk them back to their offices after class, or just chat with them in the elevator. Simple chats with your professors give you a chance to test out some of the observations you’ve made on your own. As novice college students, despite our best efforts, we are generally wrong because we don’t have the context to understand all aspects of a subject. Talking with a professor gives a student a better understanding of how to form an opinion and what to give weight.
Take less classes and focus on learning outside the classroom:
As a high schooler, economist Tyler Cowen turned down his parents’ offer to be sent to a high ranking private school and instead attended a less academically rigorous public school. He used his free time to read books on the side, continuing to research areas of interested that were not being touched on in as much depth as he would have liked in his classes.
College classes are designed to either teach a skill or give a broad overview of a topic. By augmenting our classes with our own study and research we can specialize our education better than a more rigorous academic schedule would allow us.
Be a contrarian:
There is always something to be skeptical about. There are always more questions to ask. Being a contrarian allows to test everything before you passively accept it. Accepting anything at face value underemphasizes the way that all knowledge connects together.
Each time you question new information, you are holding it against what you already know. This allows you to not only save yourself from unhealthy or poorly constructed information, it gives you the toolset to take exactly what you need from larger claims and break down their formation.