An initiative to develop critical thinking is what a group hopes to achieve among its varsity peers.
CRITICAL thinking is a hot phrase that is thrown about a lot, especially in the direction of students.
So it is refreshing when a critical thinking initiative is created by students for students, as is the case with The Pencil Box (TPB).
“I started this project as a means to get students thinking again,” says founder Esther Ling, who heads the team.
“There is a gap when it comes to education — somehow grades are valued more than learning. In the rush to be the student with the highest marks, model answers will get you there — critical and creative thinking gets pushed out.”
The 23-year old, who is finishing her studies in electrical power engineering at Curtin University, Sarawak Malaysia (Curtin Sarawak), believes this gap has reprecussions beyond the classroom.
“When a nation’s university students are not concerned for, or aware about education at its basic level — which is to develop people with values and the ability to think — then basic problem solving and response to current issues remain at surface level.”
“The truth of the matter is that everyone thinks. We all think, but on different levels,” explains Nelson David Bassey, a mechanical engineering student at INTI International University.
He cites Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Students Do to illustrate his point.
“In his book, Bain says that there are three types of learners: surface, strategic and deep learners. Surface learners are those who do as little as possible to get by. Strategic learners aim for top grades rather than true understanding. It is the deep learners who leave college with a real, rich education. This cannot be achieved without critical thinking.
“Education at its best cannot be achieved by thinking inside the box; neither can it be achieved by thinking outside the box.
“It can only be achieved by awakening the intellect to the study of the box itself: Why is there a box? How can it be reinvented?” asks Bassey.
Tang Lu Wee adds that critical thinking improves problem-solving skills.
“The more you think critically about problems, the more likely you can come up with new and more effective and efficient ways to solve a problem.
“Students who apply critical thinking to their assignments and projects have an edge over those who don’t because they’ll be able to attack the problem in ways their peers might not be able to.
“Beyond college, graduates can use the critical thinking skills that they’ve developed in their university years solving classroom problems to now solve real world problems,” adds Tang.
“If you’re a student and reading this, you might be wondering what you can do to improve your critical thinking skills.
“It all comes down to practice,” says Bernice Lim Sen Sen, who is studying engineering also at Curtin Sarawak.
“In computer programming, we have something called a ‘dry run’ where the programmer takes the code and works out the solution by going through the code line by line.
“Over time, the programmer becomes more fluent and speedy at reading and analysing codes. It is the same with critical thinking. When dealing with homework or day-to-day issues, forcing oneself to become more aware of why something happened the way it did, and how one thing is connected to another goes a long way in helping to become better at critical thinking.”
Writing and role playing have been two things that have personally helped her, the 23-year-old adds.
“Creative and analytical writing trains the mind to organise thoughts, build arguments and view issues from from different angles.
“Meanwhile, role playing in online forums has the added benefit of allowing the writer to immerse in (usually unpredictable) situations that one would not otherwise experience.
“It was also something that helped train my wit and adaptability — both traits that improve critical thinking.” says Lim.
Established last year, TPB is currently a web-based operation.
“We have a free newsletter that is sent out to our subscribers on a fortnightly basis.
“In addition to that, we publish articles on our website,” says Savier Kong, who is the project’s university advocate.
It is his job to spread the word of the project at his campus, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus, where he is currently studying chemical engineering.
“I am now also marketing this programme to other universities and scouting out collaboration opportunities with third party organisations.”
Ling, Bassey, Tang and Lim all publish articles on a rotation basis, covering themes that are related to education like self-development, leadership and creative learning.
Recent blogposts include How to Avoid Last Minute Cramming, How to Learn When You Hit a Mental Roadblock and Working Alone vs Working in Groups, all aimed at helping fellow students cope at university.
The project also accepts submission pieces from guest writers and is collaborating with other websites such as ReMag and Malaysia Students to cross-publish articles.
A series on student internship experiences is also in the works, Ling says.
“I think for most students doing an internship is their first taste of working, so seeing how what they study at university applies (or doesn’t) and how they overcome challenges as they learn on the job, all that will make a great sharing experience for other students.”
Ling hopes to see her project grow in years to come, crediting her team for their consistent hard work.
“Bassey runs leadership workshops, Tang started an entrepreneurship community, Lim is planning a coding project for secondary schools and Kong continues to amaze me with his ideas to expand our reach,” adds Ling.
The long-term goal, she says is to establish TPB, first in Malaysia, as a thought-leader among university students, championing self-development, leadership and creative learning.
For more information, visit http://www.jclathepencilbox.org/