Dig Deeper: Critical Thinking in the Digital Age

MindEdge Online Survey of Critical Thinking Skills

In a world overrun by information, critical thinking skills are essential to online learning and success in the workplace. To understand how millennials perform in this vital area, MindEdge commissioned an online survey of critical thinking skills. Conducted April 4 - 11, 2017, the inaugural survey explored the attitudes and behaviors of 1,002 young adults, aged 19 through 30 — both current students and recent graduates.

The survey provides a sobering look at the extent to which millennials need to sharpen their critical thinking skills. It also shows that a large majority of these young people understand the importance of critical thinking in the knowledge-based economy — an understanding that may drive more of them to improve these skills in the future.

Key survey results include:

  1. Millennials struggle to identify false content. Millennials struggle to identify false content.
    • Only 24% of millennials were able to correctly answer eight of nine questions designed to gauge respondents' ability to detect fake news.
    • Close to half feel that critical thinking is very important in assessing online content — yet only 35% are very confident in their ability to detect false information online.
    • 44% were unable to correctly answer more than five of these questions.
  2. Millennials understand critical thinking is important, but they are not confident of their skills in this area. Millennials understand critical thinking is important, but they are not confident of their skills in this area.
    • While most studied critical thinking in college, only 36% think they are well trained in this area, and only 20% think their colleagues are skilled critical thinkers.
    • Almost two-of-three (64%) say that critical thinking skills are, or will be, very important to their future job prospects.
  3. The lack of critical thinking skills may also contribute to the spread of false information through social media. The lack of critical thinking skills may also contribute to the spread of false information through social media.
    • 55% of millennials rely on social media for news.
    • 51% say they share online content very or fairly often.
    • 36% say they have accidentally shared inaccurate information.

Listen to a Discussion of Results

Frank Connolly, a senior editor at MindEdge and a former political pollster, discusses the survey results with Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. Professor Kennedy is a nationally known media commentator who has written extensively on fake news and digital literacy.

Frank Connolly: Hi, this is Frank Connolly from Mindedge and we are here today with Dan Kennedy, associate professor of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Dan is also a nationally known media critic and author and his latest book, "The Return of the Moguls" will be out in 2018, so welcome Dan.

Dan Kennedy: Thank you, Frank.

Frank Connolly: And we're going to talk today about a survey that Mindedge sponsored on the issue of critical thinking, and in particular critical thinking in the online world, and just to give you some of the basics it was an online survey of a thousand young adults ages 19 through 30 both current students and recent graduates ranging from folks in a two year degree program all the way up to folks who have done or are doing postdoctoral work. The goal of the survey was to determine how these folks feel about their own critical thinking skills, the importance of critical thinking skills (both in the workplace and in the online environment), and then finally the survey contained nine knowledge questions, questions that actually had right or wrong answers. During the course of the survey all of the respondents answered those questions and we got a sense of how well their critical thinking skills corresponded with how they thought their critical thinking skills were. So the three major takeaways that we had from this survey is first young folks, I guess we can call them millennials, feel that critical thinking skills are extremely important particularly in the job market. Roughly 64 percent say that critical thinking is very very important to their future job prospects, but they don't feel particularly confident about their own critical thinking skills, only about 35 percent feel that they are well trained in critical thinking and only about 35/36 percent feel confident in their ability to distinguish what's real and what's false online. Two more points, roughly half of the respondents in the survey say they share online information either very or fairly often, and a large majority of them, the ones who say they share very often, 62 percent of them say that they have accidentally shared incorrect information, the question there is, what's the correlation? Finally, one area which seems to be consistent with the larger national debate, these respondents, large majorities of them, see fake news, quote on quote fake news as a serious problem, and seem to be more confident about their ability to see what's real and fake in the news environment than they necessarily do in an academic environment. So that's a quick summary of the results but I'd like to get Dan's take on them. First, is this surprising to you?

Dan Kennedy: No, I must say as somebody who's worked in journalism my whole life I have often shared false information and then you end up having to run a correction after the fact. One of the things that struck me about this survey is that although the respondents seemed to lack a certain amount of self confidence, their skills, their understanding of how to weed out bad information from good actually seemed to be at a pretty high level. So, if they simply apply those skills when they're evaluating information it looks like they would do pretty well.

Frank Connolly: As I've said before there's nine knowledge questions in the survey and a surprisingly high proportion, 44 percent of the respondents got 5 or fewer correct which you'd think would translate to a failing grade and yet in terms of distinguishing fake news they seem to be fairly good at it as you mention. So, I guess one question is, do you think that this is a lack of confidence in their skills or a lack of skill?

Dan Kennedy: I think a lot of it is a lack of confidence in their skills because, you know, some of this is not rocket science, and I think that students and instructors and civilians and everybody else kind of know the basics of how to separate out good information from bad information. You know, does it looks fishy? If it looks fishy maybe I ought to check this out at snopes.com or another fact-checking site. Are other news organizations that I've heard of reporting this? I mean these are fairly simple things to do, and I think people tend to be fairly good at it. You ask me how my students are dealing with this, you know one point of comparison that I really can't make is I will not connect with my students on Facebook, I just don't think that's a good practice. So I can't really compare their Facebook habits to those of friends and family members and things like that, but I have to tell you I am often struck at how Facebook friends even people who are retired journalists, even people who sometimes are retired investigative journalists, will share things that are obviously from fake news sources and at least anecdotally from what I've seen my students are a fair amount savier than that. They do have a sense of what's quality, what's trustworth, and what isn't. I don't know whether they consciously have a checklist that they go through to help them with this but I don't really see them often succumbing to the worst of the worst that's online.

Frank Connolly: Now, of course your students are students in journalism.

Dan Kennedy: Yes, so automatically they're smarter.

Frank Connolly: That's right (laughs). They certainly have more investigative bent and are more inclined to ask questions at least the ones who are passing your classes. From what you might see of other students around this campus or other campuses do you have a feeling that the level of digital literacy is as high as it might be among your students?

Dan Kennedy: I would suspect that it probably is because I mean every student here is a digital native, and they regularly need to separate out good information from bad information. It could be that when it comes to news their definition of what constitutes good information is different from that of journalism students because with journalism there is a certain amount of traditionalism at work. Brand names like the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Boston Globe really mean something to them, and when you get beyond journalism students there may be other sources of news and information that they're going to that are not necessarily automatically associated with quality, and yet I know that students often will look at alternative sources such as Vice News and things like that and a lot of those are very reliable sources of information as well. And, you know, let's not forget When you say that 62 percent of the respondents say that they have shared something at one time or another that turned out to be false that could have been a story in the New York Times we are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

Frank Connolly: That's right, yeah that is a very good point. One of the things that in this fragment we talked about a little bit was the relatively high percentages and proportions of respondents who could single out the signs of fake news and see what qualifies as fake news. Those are all roughly three quarters in each case who get the quote on quote correct answer, but what is interesting somewhat is that if you look at folks who have higher levels of educational retainment, the postdocs the doctorals the folks with postgraduate degrees, they tend to be somewhat less confident or say they are less confident in their abilities than folks with a two year college degree or a bachelor's. Again Im wondering if you think that that might again speak to the idea of a lack of confidence rather than a lack of skill.

Dan Kennedy: Yeah, I mean I think it definitely does because it it could very well be that as your educational attainment grows ever more impressive one of the things that may come with that is just simply a heightened appreciation of what a complicated world we live in and how difficult sometimes it can be to separate the good from the bad, but I don't think that it would speak to their lack of ability to separate this out. You know what may have happened is they're doing higher-level research and trying to get to the bottom of something they may all have had an experience of having been taken in by something that looked very good and reliable and they've remembered that and they're now asking themselves how would I do at preventing myself from falling into that trap in the future.

Frank Connolly: Turning a little bit more in detail into the topic of fake news, it's obviously something that's in the real news quite a bit, and I would imagine that you've had some pretty interesting discussions with your students about it. What advice do you give them in terms of not just how to identify fake news themselves, but how to deal with people who are trying to spread fake news to them as sources or as elected officials.

Dan Kennedy: Well you know, that's a really good question and I can't say that it's one that I have wrestled with extensively. Certainly we've all talked about how to avoid falling into the trap of fake news ourselves, but I think we are living in a moment when it is extremely difficult to persuade other people that what you're trying to share with me is fake. I had an experience just last week with somebody on Facebook who I don't know that I've met her face to face, but I've known her on Facebook for years and she's a good reasonable person, and she was sharing some crazy story that came from a site that looked dubious to me, and she kept defending it and I don't know maybe there was some work I needed to do and I didn't want to do so I started diving into it a little bit deeper, and you know before I knew it I had discovered that the person who was perpetrating this fake news had written a book about 9/11 being an inside job, a false flag operation. So I showed her that and she still wasn't willing to back down completely she took the assertion that she had put up on Facebook, and put a question mark after it. I mean that's the best I could do after trying to talk her in off this crazy conspiracy theory that she was promulgating. So, it's really difficult, it's really difficult, and of course we now have a president who is espousing fake news and I think that the news media struggles horrendously with how do you report that, do you constantly have to point out that the president is simply spouting falsehoods, it's very difficult dilemma. I mean after all until recently we had a national security director who was putting forth the fake news story that Hillary Clinton was somehow involved in some sort of a child sex ring and he was putting this out on Twitter and…

Frank Connolly: General Flynn has gone away now.

Dan Kennedy: General Flynn, he's now gone. So it's difficult we're at a very weird moment that's for sure.

Frank Connolly: Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Dan Kennedy: Oh I'm pessimistic, but what am I pessimistic about could you be more specific?

Frank Connolly: Well..

Dan Kennedy: I mean I'm just generally pessimistic about many things.

Frank Connolly: It's the Irish genes Dan I know, I've got that too. I guess I'm curious to get your take on whether we are going to return to a more normal national discourse and a more normal set of relations between press and not just white house but public figures in general, and if you think things might get normal again what's it going to take to do that?

Dan Kennedy: Well, I don't know the answer to that. One thing that I would point out is that fake news is as old as news and there's a talk I give on fake news in which I show that our commonly understood story of the Boston Massacre was fake news. The New York Sun reported in the 1830s that we had landed on the moon, fake news. The New York Journal's reporting on the explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba in the 1890s was fake news, and that they blamed it on the Spanish and had a famous front page engraving of the wires coming to the shore and how it was blown up and you know we now know that none of that happened and it led to a war. So what the internet has done is it has hugely increased the quantity and the velocity of fake news, but there's nothing particularly new about it, and there have always been small but not insignificant percentages of the population who believe this stuff. So, yeah I'm a little pessimistic because I think the internet has just created so much more of it that it's kind of overwhelmed the system.

Frank Connolly: Then I guess it kind of gets to the question of is there a particular role for higher education to play in whether it's formal classes on critical thinking or digital literacy, or simply fostering a more questioning attitude among students. Is there something that institutions of higher education like Northeastern and others can do to help address this problem?

Dan Kennedy: Yes, and I think that absolutely we need to be aware of it, we need to talk about it with our students, we need to teach it, and I would say that it's at all levels. My wife is an elementary school library teacher and one of the things they talk about is digital literacy, but I don't think that that can stop in the 6th grade, I think we have to continue with that right through secondary school and right into higher education, I don't think it's something that we can ignore at any level.

Frank Connolly: Well I think that kind of wraps it up for today we've been talking with Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University and renowned blogger and media critic and author. Thanks for your time Dan and we'll see you all very soon.

Dan Kennedy: Thank you very much, Frank.

MindEdge's Dig Deeper Course

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