Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills Over 4 Years of College
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Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills Over 4 Years of College

The benefits of student engagement in diversity experiences on a range of college outcomes have been well documented (e.g., Chang, Denson, Saenz, & Misa, 2006; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002; Hurtado, 2001; Jayakumar, 2008; Kuklinski, 2006). However, the potential influence of involvement in diversity experiences during college on the cognitive and intellectual outcomes of post-secondary education is only beginning to be understood (Bowman, 2010). Gurin et al. (2002) made a convincing argument for why exposure to diversity experiences might foster the development of more complex forms of thought, including the ability to think critically. Drawing on research that spoke to the social aspects of cognitive development, they pointed out that students will be more likely to engage in effortful and complex modes of thought when they encounter new or novel situations that challenge current and comfortable modes of thinking. This often can happen in classroom settings, but also can occur in other contexts when students encounter others who are unfamiliar to them, when these encounters challenge students to think or act in new ways, when people and relationships change and produce unpredictability, and when students encounter others who hold different expectations for them.

Consistent with the argument by Gurin et al. (2002), a series of studies by Dey (1991), Chang et al. (2006), Gurin (1999), Hurtado (2001), and Kim (1996) have suggested that exposure to racial and cultural diversity during college is significantly linked to such outcomes as student self-reported gains in “problem solving,” “critical thinking,” “cognitive development,” and “complexity of thinking.” This important initial work alerted scholars to the possibility that a considerable range of cognitive/intellectual growth during college might be fostered by a student’s exposure to diversity experiences. However, although student self-reported gains can be revealing and important outcomes, there are some serious concerns about their actual validity (e.g., Bowman, 2011). Inquiry that attempts to estimate the impact of diversity experiences on the development of cognitive and intellectual skills using more objective standardized measures than student self-reported gains is extremely limited. Two early investigations, analyzing the first year of the nearly 20-year-old National Study of Student Learning longitudinal database, addressed the link [End Page 86] between diversity experiences and critical thinking skills—as measured by the Critical Thinking Test of the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (Pascarella, Palmer, Moye, & Pierson, 2001; Terenzini, Springer, Yeager, Pascarella, & Nora, 1994). These early studies indicated that, net of important confounding variables (such as precollege critical thinking skills), individual diversity experiences such as attending a racial—cultural workshop and making friends with someone of a different race were significantly and positively linked to first-year gains in critical thinking scores. The Pascarella et al. (2001) investigation, however, also suggested that the positive efiècts of involvement in such diversity experiences on growth in critical thinking were more pronounced for White students than for students of color.

The most recent work estimating the influence of diversity experiences on the development of cognitive skills during college analyzed the first year (2006–2007) of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS), a longitudinal study focusing on the effects of liberal arts education (Loes, Pascarella, & Umbach, 2012). Loes et al. (2012) found that, when important confounding experiences (e.g., precollege critical thinking skills and tested academic preparation) were taken into account, students’ diversity experiences had no overall significant link with first-year gains on a standardized measure of critical thinking skills. However, consistent with the earlier findings of Pascarella et al. (2001), the positive effect of diversity experiences on critical thinking was significantly more pronounced for White students than for students of color. Loes et al. also reported that the effects of diversity experiences were more important for the students least academically prepared for college, as indicated by relatively low ACT scores.

The present study sought to determine if the effects of exposure to diversity experiences on critical thinking skills extended beyond the first year of college and if these...