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“Drill and Kill”:
Absences and the Absence of Critical Thinking

May 17, 2011

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

One of our top teachers, Senior Lecturer Erin Wilgenbusch, brought to my attention an issue she has dealt with all semester in our introduction to mass media class, whose enrollment approaches 400.

“My greatest frustration this semester was the students' apparent lack of critical thinking skills,” she observes. “First, they can't seem to make the correlation between classroom attendance and good grades. I think that is the nature of introductory-level courses that host literally hundreds of students at one time. It's easy not to show up because you feel like only another face in the crowd.

“Given today's budget climate, I don't see that situation resolving itself by creating smaller sections any time soon. However, lack of attendance indicates students' lack of critical thinking skills because they can't make the connection between attendance and achievement.”

Wilgenbusch was surprised at how students became frustrated when they couldn't find the exact wording of an exam question in their assigned text. “When I explained to them that they needed to infer meaning based on what they'd learned from lecture and discussion, they were completely confused.

“They all seemed to have what I like to call a ‘Drill and Kill’ mentality. In other words, they will memorize (drill) boldface words, key names, places and dates and then regurgitate (kill) them for the test. However, anything that requires them to think and apply the ideas that we've studied makes them frustrated to the point of anger.”

She is quick to add that she doesn’t find this to be as much of a problem in higher-level classes and believes that high schools may be instilling “drill-and-kill” into their pupils before they arrive on campus.

But it is still our problem, and it may be associated with how we describe this intro course in the catalog:

Communication models and their application to the mass media; the mass communication process; organization, characteristics and responsibilities of the mass media; media-related professional operations.

Those outcomes lend themselves to multiple-choice questions. Perhaps if the catalog description emphasized application and analyses, we could expect more critical thinking from first-year students.

In the end, this is an assessment issue. In our course outcomes, we can de-emphasize familiarity with media operations and stress critically thinking about them in the digital age.

Is lack of critical thinking an issue in your intro classes?

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