Congratulations! How did you celebrate?
“With a really lovely drinks session where we sat at tables, with slightly fewer people than planned. I considered postponing the reception, but generally postponing things means you don’t end up doing them, and I wanted to do something to commemorate the event on the day. We had drinks at Dudok aan de Maas, near the Cruise Terminal, with a view of the skyline. We could keep our distance from each other there, while still raising a glass and enjoying some nice snacks.”
What was your research project about?
“I conducted research on how best to foster critical thinking in higher education. It was known that critical thinking is a skill you can learn, but what was unclear was how to ensure that students can apply that skill outside an educational setting. This is a ground for concern, because you want students to be able to apply critical thinking not just during their lessons, but also elsewhere – for instance, in their future jobs.”
What exactly does critical thinking mean?
“It’s a comprehensive concept. In a nutshell, it means that you reason and reflect before forming an opinion or making a decision, and that you know what it’s based on. I particularly focused on one aspect of critical thinking: avoiding systematic thinking errors. In order to avoid systematic thinking errors, you must be able to apply the rules of probability theory and logic, among other things. For example, you must be able to determine whether a conclusion was arrived at correctly. This is harder if you read a particular conclusion – let’s say, in a news story – that is not in line with what you know or what you have experienced. People are likely to overlook such things, and some people – like, say, politicians – will use that fact to their advantage.”
Can you give us an example?
“Which is more likely: that someone dies of the coronavirus, or that someone dies of the coronavirus and is over the age of 70? Your intuitive response may be: the second option seems more likely. Since we are often told that there is a correlation between old age and dying of the coronavirus, we have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of this combination. Nevertheless, the first option is more likely.
“I’ll give you another example. You are more likely to be a girl than to be a girl who also plays hockey. A combination of two aspects is always more unlikely than each of these aspects individually.
“Quick thought processes are very handy in routine situations. We’d be very inefficient if we were to think everything through critically and for a very long time. But quick thought processes also cause us to jump to conclusions sometimes. Tunnel vision is a good example of that. In certain situations it’s important that you repress your intuitive response and replace it with a rational response. I considered myself a critical thinker before my PhD, and I thought this wouldn’t be that hard for me, but I quickly found out it’s much harder than it looks.”
How did you conduct your study?
“We performed classroom experiments with students studying Safety and Security Management, Biology and Medical Laboratory Research and Chemistry at Avans University of Applied Sciences. We then repeated these experiments at Erasmus University with psychology students. We developed lessons in critical thinking that were adapted to situations in the students’ own field. They were first instructed on critical thinking and how to avoid systematic thinking errors, and after that they were given the opportunity to practise for themselves. We asked the students to take a critical thinking test both before and after the lessons so that we could determine how effective the various lessons had been, partly by teaching a control group a slightly different lesson. The test contained questions with which the students had practised before, as well as new questions, which were based on principles used in assignments with which they had practised, but which did look a little different. These were new problems to which they could apply the things they had learned. This is called ‘transfer’.”
What was the main conclusion you drew?
“We saw time and again that students performed better with critical thinking questions with which they had practised, so it was clear they were learning. But how they were practising did not seem to matter all that much. The students all learned the same things but did not improve in terms of transfer. We found that students had the knowledge but had some difficulty recollecting all of it and applying it to a new context.”
Is that in line with your pre-study hypothesis?
“No, to be honest, it isn’t. We were studying practice strategies that, according to academic literature, do contribute to transfer, for instance in the teaching of mathematics. These strategies do often work for things other than critical thinking. In other words, the transfer of critical thinking is a tough challenge. What matters in critical thinking is not just your level of skill but also your attitude towards critical thinking. Maybe we should focus much more on this attitude. In terms of teaching, this means that a certain culture of thinking and a certain atmosphere must be established in classrooms, where people are allowed to make mistakes, dare to share things with each other and can debate topics with each other.”
How did you get involved with this study?
“I’ve always liked conducting research, so I’d done a research work placement during my degree programme, but I wasn’t the kind of person who always knew she wanted to get a PhD. I liked the job advert for this position, because of the subject (fostering critical thinking), but also because it was applied research, to be carried out in association with a university of applied sciences. So I conducted the research during existing lessons, and I spent a day each week at the university of applied sciences, where I collaborated with lecturers and researchers rather than trying to figure something out on my own at my desk at the university.”
What was being a PhD student like?
“It was a lot of fun! When I first started, I didn’t know an awful lot about doing a PhD and everything it entails, such as attending conferences. But I soon found out, thanks to all the other PhD students at my department. In the first three years, in particular, I tried to treat my PhD research like a regular job, so I tried to work from 9 to 5 and not in the evenings and on weekends. At the time I generally managed to do things that way, partly because I was surrounded by people who had a similar rhythm. But things did change in the final year, because I wanted to complete my dissertation within the four years I’d been given and was offered a new job as an education innovator at the Erasmus MC. In the end, it took me four years and one month. That was my original ambition, and I’m glad it worked out that way. Which is partly due to the team I was working with.
“In a way, being a PhD student felt like a transition from being a student to getting a proper job. For me, personally, what I liked most about being a PhD student was the fact that I learned a lot. I watched myself grow both professionally and in my private life over the course of four years. In addition, I loved being able to conduct my research in a hands-on situation, with lecturers and other stakeholders who really wanted to incorporate it into their courses or modules. As a result, I really knew what I was working for, rather than just getting an article published (which sometimes takes a lot of effort).”