IMPACT Students Show Mastery of Critical Thinking, Moral Reasoning

As founder and director of the IMPACT Learning Community, Dr. Neil Browne felt that the students in the community were doing well, but the results of two recent formal assessments have amazed even him.

IMPACT centers around two skills: critical thinking and moral reasoning, explained Browne, also an economics faculty member. In addition to annual self-evaluations, every three years the program conducts a major assessment of student learning using methods familiar to and accepted by the broader community of scholars. The students’ performance on this year’s external assessments demonstrated that they epitomize the University’s emphasis on critical thinking skills and values exploration.

Last spring, IMPACT students' scores on the California Test of Critical Thinking averaged in the 97th percentile. When the results and analysis were returned, they included a note from Dr. Peter Facione, the test’s developer, that said, “These results are amazing. This is the highest mean score for any undergraduate group we have ever sampled since the inception of this test. Congratulations to your students.”

“That’s about as good of an endorsement as you can get,” Browne said proudly.

The California Test of Critical Thinking is one of the three most widely regarded national measures of critical thinking. Facione, provost of Loyola University of Chicago, is a former BGSU philosophy department chair who is internationally known for his work in critical thinking.

When asked if the students were surprised by their outstanding results, Browne said “They were extraordinarily surprised. While these tests don’t match exactly with what we’re trying to do, they’re a pretty good fit and to do this well really surprised them.”

IMPACT students also scored exceptionally high in a recent assessment of their moral reasoning. They took the Defining Issues Test (DIT), one of the foremost measures of people’s ability to use moral orientations to solve ethical dilemmas. Based upon Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory of moral reasoning, it rates stages of moral development. The highest level of achievement on the DIT is called “post-conventional.”

“Thirty-eight students took the test, and 15 scored, according to the official results from the DIT coordinators, at the level of a graduate student in philosophy specializing in ethics,” Browne said. “And every one of the IMPACT students scored in the post-conventional stage of moral development.”

Students participating in the assessment had been in the IMPACT program for a year and a half to
four years.

In addition to the two tests, the program invited four external reviewers to campus to evaluate students’ critical-thinking abilities through observing two days of discussions on two topics: the writing of Arthur Miller and written arguments about partial-birth abortion.

The evaluators included a philosophy professor from Florida, an ethics professor from Michigan, a California attorney who has written a business ethics text and numerous professional articles about critical thinking, and a representative from Procter and Gamble concerned with ethics. Following their observations, they provided an analysis of IMPACT members’ performance.

The reviewers commented on the students’ remarkable engagement with the topics and with learning in general, and on their demonstration, as one wrote, of “higher-order thinking skills: analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The IMPACT students demonstrated that, as a whole, they have mastered these skills.” Another wrote that the BGSU students are “performing extremely well across the measures of critical thinking.”

IMPACT’s focus on critical thinking has played a part in its students’ success in the National Mock Trial championships. Two-thirds of BGSU’s Mock Trial team members are also IMPACT members.

“Out of 555 teams, we wound up 23rd,” Browne said, adding that BGSU’s success comes despite its being at an “extraordinary disadvantage” in having to compete against universities that have million-dollar endowments and several coaches.

Still, Bowling Green has now been invited to participate in two competitions for Top 20 teams for the 2005-06 season and plans to continue. “It’s great experience for students in pre-law or communications,” Browne explained.

Now entering its fifth year, IMPACT, which stands for Integrating Moral Principles and Critical Thinking, is a living-learning community located in Offenhauer Towers. Members can be in any discipline, but all share a love of reading—an important quality since much of the learning in the program comes through reading, Browne said.

The students’ dedication is evident in their decision to continue their Great Books reading program through the summer. “Twenty-five students chose to do this, which is way above and beyond what’s expected,” Browne said in amazement. Last week, the group wrapped up its summer reading of Russian books with a 12-hour book-sharing session in a member’s apartment.

“The book discussions are probably one of the most popular things we do in IMPACT,” said Bethany Nanamaker, a junior from Findlay majoring in political science. “What makes them so appealing is that, even though they have a common theme—we’ve done French books and Spanish books, a different theme each semester—everyone picks his or her own book, which can come from any discipline.

“Some people are actually coming from out of town to participate in the summer reading,” Nanamaker added. The agenda is that the readers split into groups of three and share something about their book and then discuss the selections, looking for commonalities; then the groups rotate.

“When you’re in your major, that tends to be all you read,” Nanamaker said. “Through the Great Book readings, I’ve read books I probably would never have gotten to read—in psychology, philosophy and many other areas.”

Participants compile lists of books they’d like to read based on their peers’ recommendations, she said. “It’s fun to do reading that isn’t graded,” she added.

July 25, 2005