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  • Diversity and Collegiate Experiences Affecting Self-Perceived Gains in Critical ThinkingWhich Works, and Who Benefits?
Abstract

This study is grounded in the theoretical and conceptual frameworks that postulate diversity and collegiate experiences as triggers for the cognitive disequilibrium that fosters critical thinking (CT). With the assumption that CT is both a general and a discipline-specific facility, this longitudinal, single-institution study of 447 students examines the effects of both diversity and collegiate experiences on self-perceived gains in critical thinking among white and ethnic minority students. Implications for institutional policy and further empirical research are discussed.

Keywords

critical thinking, self-perceived gains in critical thinking, diversity, cognitive disequilibrium

Since the 1960s, cultivating students’ critical thinking (CT) has assumed a central place in higher education policies (Association of American Colleges and Universities [aac&u], 2008, 2009). In fact, 74 percent of aac&u member colleges and universities indicate that CT is a core learning objective within their general education curriculum (aac&u, 2009), which is in line with the 73 percent of employers that expect colleges to place greater emphasis on CT and analytical reasoning (aac&u, 2008). CT, as a result, is deemed as an essential skill needed not only to understand the complexities of an increasingly diverse [End Page 15] U.S. society but also to thrive in what is now considered our knowledge-based economy (aac&u, 2008, 2009).

Students’ CT development, within the college impact literature, has been studied through tests and self-reports. Researchers have sought to understand which college experiences facilitate CT or self-perceived gains in critical thinking (spct) and given the increasingly diverse student population, which college experiences work effectively for which groups of students. Research exploring either of these outcomes is often shaped by contrasting views of CT. Some view CT as a general facility that is transferrable across disciplines and is a common attribute that develops from living and working in a diverse environment (Facione, 1990). Scholars who side with this notion examine how CT can be facilitated by (a) being exposed to and engaged with diverse learning environments (e.g., taking diversity courses and interacting with diverse peers) (Bowman, 2009; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002; Loes, Pascarella, & Umbach, 2012; Nelson Laird, 2005), (b) learning CT skills from carefully designed curricular interventions that teach CT as a general competency (e.g., taking general education classes that teach CT) (Inlow & Chovan, 1993; Smith, Strand, & Bunting, 2002), and (c) having a variety of learning experiences in and out of the classroom (e.g., interacting with faculty) (Waite & Davis, 2006). By contrast, others view CT as a specific cognitive facility particular to disciplinary content (Moore, 2004). Scholars with this view examine disciplinary differences and the effects of discipline-specific interventions linked directly with content or program-specific goals (e.g., undergraduate research programs) (King, Wood, & Mines, 1990; Li, Long, & Simpson, 1999).

In this longitudinal, single-institution study of 447 students, we examine the following two research questions: Which diversity and collegiate experiences contribute to students’ spct? How do white, Asian, and underrepresented ethnic minority students benefit from diversity and collegiate experiences in achieving spct? We aim to contribute to the literature by examining diversity and collegiate experiences and exploring the conditional effect of race. First, examining diversity and collegiate experiences together is grounded in both conceptual and empirical considerations. We view CT as both a general and a discipline-specific skill that students develop. Armed with both, students can more readily adapt to the challenges of working and living in a knowledge-based and diverse society. Empirically, research shows that many diversity and collegiate experiences are associated with cognitive growth (Bowman, 2010a; Gurin et al., 2002; Loes et al., 2012); these experiences are usually interconnected and cumulative (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Excluding certain collegiate experiences would exaggerate the effect of diversity experiences on CT or spct, and vice versa. Second, examining the conditional effect of race is guided by the growing empirical evidence that [End Page 16] students from different racial backgrounds accrue different benefits from college learning (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) as well as from their interactions with diversity (Bowman, 2010a; Gurin et al., 2002). The same diversity or collegiate experience may not have the same impact for all students and may differ in the magnitude or even the direction of its impact for students from different racial backgrounds (Pascarella, 2006).

We use students’ self-reported data on CT for two reasons. First, due to the limited institutional databases and the high cost of experimental studies, student self-reported survey has become one of the most frequently used data sources in higher education (Herzog & Bowman, 2011). Although issues concerning validity may incur with self-reports, we consider that with caution (e.g., using background and precollege controls for spct, using factors rather than single survey items), self-reports are useful and cost-effective ways to examine students’ gains in CT, particularly for single-institution studies (Pike, 1995). Second, due to the complex nature of CT and the challenges of assessing this capacity, the existing research has not yielded conclusive findings regarding the effects of diversity or collegiate experiences (Bowman, 2010a). More research is warranted to examine this important student development outcome through various data-driven approaches.

Cognitive Disequilibrium and Critical Thinking

CT is a complex concept that is difficult to define or study (Facione, 1990). Among the numerous definitions, we side with the one proposed by an American Philosophical Association Delphi panel of forty-six experts: “We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. . . . The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider . . . and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit” (Facione, 1990, p. 3). That is, individuals who think critically understand the indeterminate and contextualized nature of knowledge and are able to examine the underlying presuppositions of arguments through skills such as interpreting, predicting, analyzing, and evaluating. These skills, however, are hard to acquire because it is human nature to accept phenomena that are aligned with our existing knowledge and to make judgments within our comfortable frame of reference (Langer, 1989). [End Page 17]

Scholars such as Piaget (1985) and Langer (1989) suggest that CT can be catalyzed when individuals experience cognitive disequilibrium, which refers to the discrepancy between new or unfamiliar information and the existing knowledge. Individuals are more likely to engage in active modes of thought when they encounter information that challenges their existing and comfortable modes of thought (Piaget, 1985). To resolve cognitive disequilibrium, individuals either passively retreat into their familiar and comfortable modes of thought and behaviors or actively engage in conscious, purposeful, and mindful thinking (Langer, 1989). Mindful thinking creates the opportunity to reflect on the existing knowledge and beliefs, to analyze and assess the connection and contradiction between the new and the existing information, to experiment with new ideas, and to make prudent judgments—that is, to become critical thinkers.

Diversity experiences, Cognitive Disequilibrium, and Critical Thinking

Gurin and her colleagues (2002) applied the Piagetian notion of cognitive disequilibrium to understand why and how diversity experiences foster the development of more complex forms of thought, such as the ability to think critically. Because engagement with diversity exposes students to unfamiliar materials or experiences they may otherwise reject or ignore, such unfamiliarity often surprises students. Cognitive disequilibrium thus provides students the opportunity to reflect on, analyze, and reevaluate their existing knowledge and beliefs—skills essential to thinking critically. For example, white students who grew up in white upper-middle-class neighborhoods and African American students from urban districts may have limited interactions with each other (Massey, Charles, Lundy, & Fischer, 2006). For these students, experiences with diversity in college (e.g., through diversity courses on race and class, racial awareness workshops, or interracial interactions in social settings) expose them to new and unfamiliar situations and provide them the opportunity to resolve the discrepancies and reconsider their existing conceptions. Although Gurin et al.’s theory centers primarily on racial diversity, their theory can be applied to all types of diversity experiences with which students have little knowledge or prior experience. For example, a student’s preconception about people from a working-class background may be contradicted by interacting with first-generation college students or by learning about class and society in diversity courses.

Empirical studies that examine the effect of diversity experiences on CT and spct have relied on cognitive disequilibrium theory. A recent meta-analysis of studies that examine the effects of diversity experiences on students’ cognitive growth (e.g., CT, spct, complex thinking, reasoning, etc.) suggests positive effects of these experiences, albeit small in magnitude (Bowman, 2010a). [End Page 18] Individual studies, however, yield substantial inconsistencies. For example, diversity courses are found to either enhance students’ spct or dispositions toward CT (Hurtado, 2001; Nelson Laird, 2005) or have no significant effect at all (Bowman, 2009). When factoring in students’ ethnic background, the link between diversity experiences and cognitive growth becomes more complex. Diversity experiences tend to have a positive effect on white students’ CT or spct but little or a negative effect on ethnic minority students (Antonio et al., 2004; Loes et al., 2012; Nelson Laird, 2005). For example, Antonio et al.’s (2004) study of 357 white students found that students exposed to ethnically diverse opinions during focus group discussions engaged in more complex CT during a writing assignment immediately afterward.

Collegiate experiences, Cognitive Disequilibrium, and Critical Thinking

The Piagetian notion of how CT can be triggered by cognitive disequilibrium has not been widely used in studies that examine the effects of curricular interventions or general college learning experiences. Two theories other than cognitive disequilibrium have assumed primary importance. First, studies that explore general college learning experiences often use Astin’s student involvement theory (Gellin, 2003; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Students gain more from college when they invest more physical and mental effort both qualitatively and quantitatively (Astin, 1993). Frequent and high-quality interactions with peers and faculty in educationally meaningful activities lead to productive learning gains. Using this theory, studies often examine the quantity of student involvement in activities that are conducive to cultivating CT, such as interacting with faculty, interacting with peers, and collaborating with students on group projects (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Second, studies that examine the effects of discipline-specific practices often use theories on social learning. Cognitive growth is facilitated when students interact with more capable individuals such as instructors or more advanced peers in a collaborative learning environment (Vygotsky, 1978). Undergraduate research programs that focus on small-group collaboration and the apprenticeship learning between faculty and students are found to positively affect students’ CT (Waite & Davis, 2006).

While acknowledging these theories in examining the impact of collegiate experiences on CT, we suggest that cognitive disequilibrium offers another way to understand how certain collegiate experiences contribute to CT. Cognitive disequilibrium can be triggered by a broad range of experiences that involve some degree of difference and novelty. For example, the intellectual challenge and stimulation associated with interacting with faculty or more academically [End Page 19] advanced peers usually facilitate cognitive disequilibrium. This is, arguably, why collegiate experiences such as interacting with faculty and participating in group projects and undergraduate research programs help students think critically (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Waite & Davis, 2006).

In sum, being challenged by cognitive disequilibrium, through diversity and collegiate experiences, in the classroom or elsewhere, provides the catalyst for CT development. This theoretical link—between cognitive disequilibrium (broadly defined) and CT—guides the conceptualization of our study.

Conceptual Framework

Figure 1. Conceptual framework of diversity and collegiate experiences that contribute to self-perceived gains in critical thinking.
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Figure 1.

Conceptual framework of diversity and collegiate experiences that contribute to self-perceived gains in critical thinking.

We developed the conceptual framework with three hypotheses by incorporating cognitive disequilibrium theory and Astin’s (1993) Inputs–Environment–Outcomes approach (see Figure 1). First, students’ demographic backgrounds and precollege academic abilities influence not only their spct upon college graduation but also the cognitive disequilibrium they experience in diversity and collegiate activities. We included race (white, Asian, and underrepresented ethnic minority [urm]), sex, family income, parental education, and precollege academic self-concept. We differentiated Asian as an overrepresented ethnic minority group in higher education because research indicates that Asian students tend to have greater differences than similarities compared with urm students, particularly in academic settings (Cole & Zhou, 2013; Massey et al., 2006; Spanierman, Neville, Liao, Hammer, & Wang, 2008). Precollege academic self-concept was used as the proxy to control for students’ self-perception of their academic abilities prior to entering college, a technique often used [End Page 20] in existing single-institution studies on spct (Nelson Laird, 2005; Stupnisky, Renaud, Daniels, Haynes, & Perry, 2008).

Second, diversity and collegiate experiences trigger cognitive disequilibrium, which in turn fosters spct. For diversity experiences, we included taking diversity courses, participating in racial awareness workshops, and interacting with diverse peers, all of which have shown to enhance students’ CT or spct (Bowman, 2010a, 2010b; Chang, Astin, & Kim, 2004; Loes et al., 2012; Nelson Laird, 2005). Collegiate experiences included interacting with faculty, participating in undergraduate research programs, and college major, all of which have also shown to influence students’ spct (King et al., 1990; Li et al., 1999; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Waite & Davis, 2006). Constrained by the single-institution sample, we examined the effect of major between humanities/social sciences and nonhumanities/non–social sciences without further breakdown.

Our third hypothesis was that involvement with diversity and collegiate experiences that foster spct takes place within a particular institutional context. Our way to capture the contextual influence of a single institution was through students’ perceptions of the institution. Because one of our research foci was the conditional effect of race, we used students’ satisfaction with campus racial harmony to capture their different perceptions, if any, of the institution’s racial context.

Methods

Funding, Site, and Data sources

The study we present in this article is one of multiple studies completed under a three-year project funded by a private foundation to examine the impact of diversity experiences on various cognitive and civic outcomes at American University of the West Coast (AUWC, a pseudonym). AUWC is a large, private research university (extensive research activity) with an undergraduate enrollment of close to twenty thousand students. During the time when the data were collected, the undergraduate population was 46.6 percent white/Caucasian, 22.9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 12.1 percent Latino, 5.4 percent African American, and 0.9 percent Native American/American Indian, with the remaining population identified as other and international.

We utilized four data sources: the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (cirp) 2004 The Freshmen Survey (tfs), the 2008 University Senior Survey (uss), student transcripts, and general education course syllabi. tfs collects extensive information that allows for a snapshot of what the incoming students are like before they experience college. With only a few exceptions, AUWC has participated in tfs every year since the 1970s. uss is an AUWC-designed, students’ self-reported survey on their academic and social experiences, as well as students’ self-assessment in [End Page 21] cognitive and civic gains accrued at AUWC. uss is periodically distributed, with a few changes each time to reflect the changing learning environment of AUWC or to meet the university’s self-assessment purposes. In collaboration with the Office of Students’ Affairs and the Office of Institutional Research, we added questions on the 2008 uss on students’ diversity experiences and on the various outcomes we aimed to examine in the three-year project, including spct. We also gained access to students’ transcripts from AUWC’s Office of Registration to find out what courses students had completed. Finally, we collected the general education course syllabi to determine whether a course could be considered a diversity course based on the criteria suggested by the university’s Diversity Committee.

Sample

The students in our study came from the cohort enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 2004 and were seniors in the spring of 2008. The final sample included 553 students, who completed both the 2004 tfs and the 2008 uss. Of the 553 students, twenty-seven were international or green card holders, and seventy-nine were multiracial. Due to the complex racial makeup among international students and the difficulty associated with interpreting results for multiracial students, we excluded these two groups in this study. Of the remaining 447 American students, 144 were ethnic minority students, including eighty-three Asians and sixty-one urm students.

Variables and Constructs

Based on the definition of CT (Facione, 1990) we introduced earlier, we defined spct via a composite of four items that asked students to rate their perceived changes in their abilities of thinking critically, placing problems in historical/cultural/philosophical perspectives, formulating and creating original ideas and solutions, and evaluating and choosing between different courses of action, compared with when they first enrolled at AUWC. We then used exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis as well as Cronbach’s internal reliability to gauge the model fit of the spct factor in relation to our data (see the appendix). For exploratory factor analysis, we used the number of eigenvalues greater than 1.0 as the indicator of the number of latent factors (Kaiser, 1958) and kept the items with a factor loading greater than 0.40 to conduct confirmatory factor analysis (cfa) (Kahn, 2006). For cfa, we used the Comparative Fit Index, the Root Mean Square Error of Approximation, and normed chi-square (χ2 divided by degree of freedom). We considered a value close to 0.95 or higher for the Comparative Fit Index and a value close to 0.06 or less for the Root Mean Square Error of [End Page 22] Approximation as supportive of a good fit of the spct factor in relation to our data (Hu & Bentler, 1999). Since our sample size was relatively large for cfa, we used normed chi-square to adjust the sensitivity of chi-square to sample size and considered a value of 3.0 or less as signifying a good model fit (Kline, 2005).

The coding and descriptive statistics of spct and all independent variables are presented in Table 1. In particular, academic self-concept, as a proxy to control for students’ precollege self-perceived CT, was a composite of their self-perceived academic ability, math ability, drive to achieve, and intellectual self-confidence. According to the cirp tfs development team, these four items were conceptually and statistically valid and reliable to capture students’ precollege academic self-concept (cirp, 2010, 2011). Diversity courses were identified based on the criteria suggested by AUWC’s Diversity Committee and then calculated by counting the number of diversity courses among the first forty courses a student had taken. We set the cutoff line at the first forty courses because an AUWC student needs to complete a minimum number of forty courses to graduate. We defined student–faculty interactions as a construct of eight items that measured students’ interactions with faculty within and outside of classrooms (see the appendix).

Analyses

Before examining how diversity and collegiate experiences predicted spct, we conducted analysis of variance (anova) and post hoc Scheffé tests to examine whether white, Asian, and urm students significantly differed in their socioeconomic background, experienced any of the diversity and collegiate experiences differently, or differed in the spct outcome. We then conducted ordinary least squares (ols) regressions for all students, white students, and ethnic minority students. We did not disaggregate ethnic minority students into Asian and urm due to the limited sample size but included being an urm student as a control variable. Multicollinearity diagnostics showed variance inflation factors far below the threshold of ten for all three ols regressions, indicating little collinear effect on regression estimates.

Among the 447 students, sixty-two (or 14 percent) missed information on one or more variables. Family income had forty-nine missing cases, while other variables had one to five missing cases, which posed less serious issues (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2006). We then conducted individual t-tests on all variables between students with missing and complete information on family income. No significant group difference was found in any t-test, suggesting that students missing information on family income were missing at random and the decisions on how to handle these missing cases were not critical (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2006). We then used the expectation–maximization algorithm to obtain [End Page 23]

Table 1. Coding and descriptive statistics for independent and dependent variables
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Table 1.

Coding and descriptive statistics for independent and dependent variables

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the variance–covariance matrix and ran additional ols regression analyses for all students, white students, and ethnic minority students based on the variance–covariance matrix (Truxillo, 2005). Compared with the regression results with missing cases, the results based on the variance–covariance matrix obtained similar significant coefficients, lower adjusted R-squared, and smaller standard errors. We decided to report and discuss the regression results based on the variance–covariance matrix.

Findings

The univariate analyses results presented in Table 1 show that white, Asian, and urm students at AUWC had different average levels of involvement in diversity and collegiate activities. However, the anova and post hoc Scheffé tests show no group differences in any diversity or collegiate experiences among white, Asian, and urm students, except for the number of diversity courses taken (see Table 2). Asian students were the least likely to take diversity courses, and urm students were the most likely to take diversity courses (F = 6.76, p < .01). In addition, although anova results show significant group differences on students’ satisfaction with campus racial harmony and participation in research projects, post hoc Scheffé tests uncovered no significant results, due to the conservative estimates of the Scheffé test that controls for sample size (303 white, 83 Asian, and 61 urm students). In terms of students’ background, anova and post hoc Scheffé test show that white students came from families with significantly higher income than Asian and urm students (F = 27.59, p < .0001). urm students had parents with significantly lower education attainment compared with white and Asian students (F = 29.49, p < .0001). White, Asian, and urm students did not differ in the spct outcome.

The regression model for all students explained 19 percent of the variance in spct (F = 9.21, p < .0001) (see Table 3). The significant diversity and collegiate experiences include interacting with faculty (β = .299, p < .0001), satisfaction with campus racial harmony (β = .191, p < .0001), participating in racial awareness workshops (β = .130, p < .01), taking diversity courses (β = .102, p < .05), interracial interaction (β = .092, p < .05), and studying the humanities or social sciences (β = .086, p < .05).

The regression model had a substantially different impact on white and ethnic minority students. The model explained 23 percent of the variance of ethnic minority students’ spct (F = 4.64, p < .0001). The significant diversity and collegiate experiences include interacting with faculty (β = .261, p < .001), satisfaction with campus racial harmony (β = .260, p < .001), and taking diversity courses (β = .157, p < .05). Family income (β = .216, p < .05) and precollege academic self-concept (β = .164, p < .05) also positively contributed to ethnic [End Page 25] minority students’ spct. The regression model did not indicate a significant difference of spct between Asian and urm students. For white students, the model explained 19 percent of the variance of spct (F = 7.48, p < .0001). Four diversity and collegiate experiences positively contributed to white students’ spct, including interacting with faculty (β = .298, p < .0001), participating in racial awareness workshops (β = .159, p < .01), satisfaction with campus racial harmony (β = .154, p < .01), and studying the humanities or social sciences (β = .123, p < .05).

Table 2. Group differences on socioeconomic background, diversity and collegiate experiences, and self-perceived gains in critical thinking among white, Asian, and underrepresented ethnic minority () students
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Table 2.

Group differences on socioeconomic background, diversity and collegiate experiences, and self-perceived gains in critical thinking among white, Asian, and underrepresented ethnic minority (urm) students

Limitations

Several limitations should be noted for this study. First, the study relied on data from a single institution, thus having limited generalizability to other four-year [End Page 26]

Table 3. Standardized coefficients of regression analyses predicting self-perceived gains in critical thinking
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Table 3.

Standardized coefficients of regression analyses predicting self-perceived gains in critical thinking

institutions, particularly institutions where ethnic minority student populations are modest. More than 40 percent of students at AUWC were ethnic minority students when data were collected. Second, because only 32 percent or 144 out of 447 students were ethnic minority students, we did not have a sufficient sample to conduct a more fine-grained analysis on the conditional effect of race by further disaggregating ethnic minority students. Third, similar to many college impact studies on CT (Li et al., 1999; Nelson Laird, 2005; Smith et al., 2002; Stupnisky et al., 2008; Waite & Davis, 2006), this study used spct—a measure [End Page 27] that is often less conservative or objective than actual tests of CT. Fourth, although the spct composite measured students’ perceived change of CT, we recognized the limitation that students might overestimate their growth due to social desirability. Yet factors that signify self-reported growth rather than single items can still be useful indicators of students’ CT development. Fifth, as diversity impact research continues to develop, delineating the effects of different types of diversity courses will likely occur more frequently, for example, through a typology that distinguishes the intended impact of a class focused on multicultural competency versus one focused on social inequity (Cole & Castellanos, 2012). Constrained by the sample in this study, we combined the various diversity courses together and examined their aggregated effect on spct.

Discussions

The findings show that certain diversity and collegiate experiences significantly contributed to spct; some were significant for both white and ethnic minority students, while others were only significant for one of the two groups. For both groups, more frequent interactions with faculty had the most significant and salient effect on increasing spct. The substantial influence of student–faculty interactions is consistent with existing college impact studies (Cole, 2007, 2008; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Frequent and positive interactions between students and their professors—whether in the classroom, in the laboratory, during office hours, outside of the classroom, or in other venues—significantly predict greater academic development. As more academically accomplished individuals, professors usually stimulate students’ cognitive disequilibrium and help them actively resolve such disequilibrium, which facilitates spct.

Students’ satisfaction with campus racial harmony was another experience significantly associated with increased spct for both white and ethnic minority students. This finding echoes the existing research that suggests the positive contribution of a harmonious campus racial environment to students’ educational and personal development (Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008). Many scholars contend that building a racially harmonious campus environment is an indispensible dimension in embracing campus diversity and a vital institutional imperative in facilitating students’ growth (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, & Allen, 1998; Tsui, 2000). Tsui (2000) studied four institutions with different levels of spct and found that when campus learning environments emphasized cooperative exploration of knowledge, divergent thinking, and an awareness of contemporary social and political issues, spct was enhanced. In our study, both white and ethnic minority students were at best satisfied with and at worst neutral about the campus racial climate. A harmonious campus racial environment (or at least one that is not hostile) encourages students to engage [End Page 28] with diversity in particular and with divergent thinking in general. Such active engagement not only triggers cognitive disequilibrium, which in turn fosters spct, but also helps students resolve the cognitive disequilibrium with greater willingness and courage.

Two diversity experiences—racial awareness workshops and diversity courses—exerted different effects on white and ethnic minority students’ spct. Participating in racial awareness workshops positively contributed to spct only for white students; taking more diversity courses positively contributed to spct only for ethnic minority students. The positive effect of racial awareness workshops on white students echoes the existing literature, while the positive effect of diversity courses on ethnic minority students contradicts the existing literature (Antonio et al., 2004; Gurin et al., 2002; Loes et al., 2012). Prior research examining the effect of racial awareness workshops and diversity courses typically measures these experiences with dummy variables (i.e., participated or not). However, what have often been ignored are the levels or frequency of participation in these diversity experiences as well as the variation of such frequency across racial groups. In our study, we measured students’ participation in racial awareness workshops with a dummy variable and found a result consistent with the existing literature. However, we measured students’ experiences with diversity courses by counting the total number of diversity courses taken. While there was no significant group difference in participating in racial awareness workshops, urm students took significantly more diversity courses than white and Asian students. Therefore, one racial awareness workshop sufficiently exposed white students to new information and fostered their spct through cognitive disequilibrium; however, enhancing ethnic minority students’ spct might require more than one diversity course, particularly for urm students. These findings raise two important avenues for future research: (a) the curvilinear effect of diversity courses or diversity experiences on students’ spct and (b) the differences of such curvilinear effects conditioned by students’ race and ethnicity. Although Bowman (2010b) suggests a curvilinear effect of diversity courses on civic outcomes (e.g., relativistic appreciation, comfort with diversity) for both white students and students of color, no study to our knowledge has examined the curvilinear effect of diversity courses or diversity experiences on white and ethnic minority students’ cognitive outcomes such as spct.

College major also exerted a different effect on spct for white and ethnic minority students. For white students, studying the humanities or social sciences was positively associated with spct; major, however, had no significant effect on ethnic minority students’ spct. The existing research on CT and spct does not provide useful guidance for interpreting this finding. Regardless of whether CT is considered a discipline-specific versus a general cognitive facility, studies that focus on the effect of college major do not typically examine the conditional [End Page 29] effect of race (e.g., King et al., 1990; Li et al., 1999). Moreover, studies that focus on CT or spct differences by racial groups usually do not examine the effect of college major (e.g., Loes et al., 2012). One explanation for our finding is that although white students of all majors might have similar involvement with the collegiate experiences examined in this study, those in the humanities or social sciences were more frequently exposed to issues surrounding diversity than students in science or engineering fields. This explanation, however, is inadequate in accounting for the lack of significance toward enhancing spct for ethnic minority students majoring in the humanities or social sciences. Future studies that consider CT as both a general and a discipline-specific cognitive facility, as we assume, should examine the interaction between race and major.

Conclusions and Implications

Our living and working environment is undergoing unprecedented demographic and economic changes. How well students adapt to these changes is in large part determined by their ability to reason and think in complex ways; how well our society handles these changes is in large part determined by the collective ability among its citizenry to think critically and act strategically. Higher education has for a long time been committed to fostering students’ CT; researchers have made earnest and steady efforts to study students’ CT development in various ways, including through self-reported gains or spct (Li et al., 1999; Nelson Laird, 2005; Smith et al., 2002; Stupnisky et al., 2008; Waite & Davis, 2006). At the same time, the accountability pressure has grown immense for individual institutions to assess and demonstrate students’ growth in important learning outcomes such as CT. Our study of students’ spct by using various data sources at a single institution, as well as existing studies that use similar methods, presents a useful and cost-effective approach for institutions to examine their students’ growth in CT and meet the assessment need.

The findings from our study suggest several important diversity and collegiate activities that institutions should consider for implementation. For example, institutions should nurture a harmonious and inclusive campus racial climate and in such a context facilitate more frequent interactions between faculty and students. Institutions can also easily weave diversity courses into the general education curriculum. Racial awareness workshops, the diversity program that has consistently shown in this and prior studies to contribute to white students’ learning gains, should receive continued institutional support. Overall, as shown in this study and the existing research, the complex nature of CT, coupled with the increasing racial and ethnic diversity on campus, makes it difficult to draw consistent conclusions about which diversity and collegiate experiences contribute to CT for which groups of students, calling for continued and more empirical research. [End Page 30]

Darnell Cole

Darnell Cole is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California with an emphasis on higher education and educational psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in higher education from Indiana University– Bloomington. His research interests include race and ethnicity, diversity, and college student development.

Ji Zhou

Ji Zhou is a Ph.D. candidate in urban education policy with a focus on higher education at the University of Southern California. She conducts research on how college impacts students from diverse cultural and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Her other research area focuses on policy and organizational change in Chinese higher education. She uses both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Appendix. Factor Analyses
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Appendix.

Factor Analyses

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2060
Print ISSN
0021-3667
Pages
15-34
Launched on MUSE
2014-03-11
Open Access
No
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