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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Pedagogies for critical thinking: Innovation and outcomes in African higher education

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Photo: A meeting on society and security, Nairobi, Kenya. African Peacebuilding Network/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Principal Investigator: Tristan McCowan. Lead Organisation: University College London

Co-investigators: Andrew Tolmie; Rebecca Schendel; Caine Rolleston

New understanding of the ways in which higher education contributes to economic and human development has strengthened the justification for investment in higher education in lower-income contexts in recent years. This, in turn, has prompted a wave of reform and revitalisation efforts within African higher education systems. One of the primary assumptions motivating such reforms is that higher education encourages the ability to think critically about problems and to use evidence when making decisions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the assumption that students improve their critical thinking skills as a result of university study may not be valid in many African contexts.

Concern about the capacity of graduates from African universities to demonstrate 'high skills', such as critical thinking, has prompted a growing recognition of the need for pedagogical change within many African higher education institutions. A problem for higher education policy in the region, however, is that this renewed interest in the importance of teaching and learning is supported by limited empirical evidence, as there has been little analysis of the effectiveness of pedagogical practice within African universities. Although there is a substantial body of literature investigating the ways in which academic experiences at university can positively influence the development of student critical thinking skills, much of the current evidence rests on research conducted in other cultural contexts, particularly the USA, UK, Australia and, to a limited extent, East Asia. There are, therefore, concerns about how applicable such findings may be to African university contexts.

This project aims to expand the existing evidence base around how pedagogical practices affect the development of critical thinking at African higher education institutions by investigating the impact of locally-generated pedagogical interventions on student critical thinking ability in Kenya, Ghana and Botswana. The study follows a mixed methods design, comprising a longitudinal study of student outcomes and a qualitative investigation of how institutions are able to encourage processes of pedagogical change. In each country context, our institutional sample will consist of six faculties: three which have been purposively selected due to their attempts at pedagogical reform, and three 'matched' faculties which have similar characteristics to the intervention faculties but have not yet attempted any pedagogical interventions.

Within each faculty, a random sample of 100 incoming students will complete a critical thinking assessment (adapted for use in the study contexts) at the beginning of their first year and again at the end of their second year at university. Gains in assessment scores will be compared between faculties, in order to investigate whether students enrolled in the intervention faculties demonstrate more progress than students enrolled in faculties which have not attempted any pedagogical reform.

Additional analysis will investigate which pedagogical practices have the strongest impact on improvements in critical thinking ability. Parallel to the longitudinal study, in-depth qualitative case studies will be conducted within the 'intervention' Faculties, in order to gain insight into the intervention implementation process. The results of the project will provide potentially generalisable evidence of the effectiveness of pedagogical interventions currently being implemented within African universities.

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Three groups of stakeholders will benefit directly from this research: national and international policy makers and donors supporting higher education reform; administrators working at higher education institutions in the region; and researchers at African universities. The research will also indirectly benefit undergraduate students and support broader development efforts in the region.

As outlined in our Case for Support, there is interest across Sub-Saharan Africa in improving teaching and learning within institutions of higher education. The results of this study will provide insights into the kinds of interventions that impact significantly on student critical thinking ability while elucidating the contextual factors that help institutions manage processes of pedagogical change. The outputs of this study will therefore inform reform efforts in the region, by supporting stakeholders at the institutional, national and supranational levels. Most directly, the results will be useful to administrators at the participating institutions, as well as the home institutions of our in-country team leads, as they will gain access to contextually relevant data that can be used to improve and support teaching and learning strategies. There are likely to be spill-over effects into other institutions, both locally and in neighbouring countries, through the involvement of participating institutions in regional higher education policy bodies, such as the Inter-University Council for East Africa. T

he results of the study will also benefit national policy-makers who are working to implement higher education reform. Results of the study will also inform the funding decisions made by multilateral and bilateral agencies supporting higher education in Africa - such as the World Bank, DFID, USAID, AusAID and SIDA - by providing them with robust evidence of which interventions have a positive impact on academic quality in the region. Pan-African organisations that support African universities will also benefit from the findings when working to support member institutions to develop and improve their teaching and learning strategies. We intend to organise stakeholder seminars and dissemination workshops within the three country contexts (outlined in detail in the Pathways to Impact document) in order to maintain strong links with these key stakeholders throughout the life of the project.

In addition to the potential impacts of the study results, the research process will also contribute to capacity building in the region. Three members of the core team are local researchers from Kenya, Ghana and Botswana, with two of the three acting as directors of research at their institutions. Their involvement in all phases of the study is likely to increase and improve local research efforts in this area, particularly given the study's use of a new methodology for the region.

Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries of any reforms based on the study results will be the undergraduate students studying at African institutions, as the use of evidence from the study should help university lecturers to construct the kinds of academic experiences which support deep student learning, a change process which will be of significant benefit to students across the region. Beyond individual stakeholders, the study results will also contribute indirectly to economic and human development in the region. Although higher education has been found to positively impact development in a range of ways, most of the pathways to impact assume that graduates will leave university with the 'high skills' that are necessary for participation in the global knowledge economy. This study will offer important new knowledge about how universities in Africa can encourage the development of such skills in their student populations, thereby contributing to the development potential of Africa's higher education institutions.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Humanities and Social Sciences
Fund Start Date: 
April 1st, 2015
Fund End Date: 
March 31st, 2018
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: