Preparing for uncertainty? Investigating the development of criticality amongst master’s students at three UK universities

Graham, Cameron William (2022) Preparing for uncertainty? Investigating the development of criticality amongst master’s students at three UK universities. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis aims to investigate the conceptualisation, development and application of criticality amongst master’s students in three UK universities. Criticality, as an attribute, skill and disposition in graduates, is particularly important now in a time of increasing complexity, uncertainty and societal change in order to effectively prepare individuals to critically engage with their world. A higher education for the common good predicated upon students’ development of criticality, which prepares individuals to effectually navigate and critically engage with the complex contemporary challenges society faces, is inarguably required (Barnett, 1997). However, within a context of neo-liberalism that pervades Higher Education, universities are seen to accentuate the development of students’ transferable skills for their employability as graduates, rather than attend to their critical thinking development.

Following Barnett, I argue that universities should displace their narrow focus on critical thinking linked to an employability agenda to instead encourage students to develop and exercise criticality, enabling them to make meaningful contributions to society and the world. Previous research identified limitations in the extent to which students perceive and develop criticality in Higher Education, where such development is largely assumed and not evaluated. Relatedly, research questions whether students can transfer and apply critical thinking in contexts beyond their academic study. This is a particular concern within the burgeoning area of master’s study in the UK where there is a scarcity of research about the development of critical thinking which could promote the growth of students as critical persons.

My research adopted a conception of critical thinking as critical being (Barnett, 1997). Questionnaires were completed by 293 master’s students from 13 programmes at three universities to establish their conception of critical thinking, identify the key activities related to its development and to indicate their perceived level of critical thinking, and evaluate their related critical dispositions. Drawn from the survey, 18 self-selecting students took part in semi-structured qualitative interviews, exploring their experiences of developing and applying criticality. Four staff interviews were also conducted to provide additional insight into students’ experiences developing criticality. Qualitative data was thematically analysed using NVivo, with quantitative data analysed via SPSS.

My findings revealed students’ overwhelming preference for social interaction as the core means for facilitating their criticality development. International students in particular. struggled with developing a level of criticality that allowed successful engagement in the critical practices of western higher education. However, the diversity of peers and exchange of differing perspectives prompted students to think and reflect critically, potentially influencing subsequent changes in thought, beliefs and action. Identifying these “contexts of difference” was a key contribution from this research: where in combination these three elements – dialogue, diversity and differing perspectives – provided the most favourable conditions forstudents’ criticality development. In addition, my research advanced Barnett’s (1997) framework for critical being by creating a spectrum of criticality conceptualisations consisting of four categorisations capturing students’ varying conceptions of critical thinking. Transposing this spectrum onto Barnett’s (1997) framework for critical being allows the facilitation and evaluation of students’ conception, development and application of criticality whilst also functioning as a pedagogical and curricular planning tool; this was the final key contribution from this research related to the application of criticality.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education
Supervisor's Name: Houston, Dr. Muir and Enslin, Prof. Penny
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-82721
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 04 Mar 2022 11:25
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2022 16:47
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82721

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