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New Research Finds Higher Levels of Critical Thinking in IB DP Students

By Dr. Tiffani Betts Razavi

Critical thinking skills are often cited as one of the key strengths of the International Baccalaureate, the Diploma Program in particular, vital to the core mission of IB programs “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect…to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

In the ocean of digital, algorithm-sorted information that has surged since the establishment of the IB some 50 years ago, the need to develop the capacity for discernment combined with open-mindedness has become even more acute.

So, it is good news for the IB DP that recent research from the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA) finds evidence of significantly greater critical thinking skills ability in students of the program compared with non-IB peers.

The study involved over 560 Grade 11 and 12 students from eight schools in Australia, the U.K., and Norway, and was based on an independent, validated critical assessment measure: the Cornell Critical Thinking Test.

Analyses of matched samples showed that DP students scored significantly higher than their non-IB counterparts. Further, the results indicated that the difference was greater in Grade 12 students than in Grade 11 participants, suggesting that the experience of the DP program contributes directly to greater critical thinking ability.

A follow-up interview-based phase of the study sought to explore more specifically through the perceptions of a small group of students and teachers how the DP program fosters critical thinking skills. Students highlighted the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course as particularly important, describing how it explicitly challenges accepted knowledge and demands that students consider multiple perspectives and different points of view. One student in the study commented that TOK “makes you really be aware of how knowledge and its acquisition and production is significant to our everyday lives… it makes you think about how there are also always two sides or more to things, and how we can look at them from different perspectives and gain a greater understanding.” Students also reported that they believed that this kind of critical thinking preparation improved their effectiveness as learners, allowing for deeper understanding of subjects, especially the humanities; they were less likely to connect critical thinking with mathematics and science.

Teachers reported various approaches to help students develop critical thinking skills, including making it an explicit objective, applying questioning techniques, requiring reflective writing, classroom discussion, collaborating with teachers across subjects and using a range of formative assessment strategies, including providing feedback to stimulate further thinking.

There was concern (also shared by students) about some standard approaches to assessment, such as the use of rubrics, being adequate to the evaluation of a skill as complex as critical thinking. Teachers also felt they could improve their effectiveness in building critical thinking skills through more professional development (for example, about research methods).

It is worth noting, then, that the combined quantitative-qualitative approach of the OUCEA study is important, as past research on the impact of the IB program, which is generally favorable, has often been based on participants' impressions and subjective experiences, and in other cases failed to assess variables apart from educational program participation that could account for differences between IB and non-IB students, for example, prior academic performance.  

Dr. Therese Hopfenbeck, lead researcher on the project, concludes, “While we can't know for certain whether IB participation improves critical thinking, it is noteworthy that, even after controlling for many pre-existing differences, IB students appear to hold an advantage when it comes to critical thinking. The findings suggest that instructional approaches that focus on teaching critical thinking skills explicitly as well as embedding opportunities for students to think critically within each subject may facilitate the development of critical thinking skills. IB students and teachers have identified many potential avenues by which the IB encourages the development of critical thinking and hopefully, in the future we can build an even clearer picture of how to improve students' critical thinking skills.”

Dr. Tiffani Betts Razavi is a staff writer for The International Educator, and a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Maryland Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. She holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Oxford, and has lectured in psychology, research methods, and organizational behavior at the University of Southampton. Her research and writing explore people and their environments, the changing nature of work and education, women and peace.  She is especially interested in human values, and in the conversations that connect observation and insight with practice.  

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