Effects of Student Engagement in Extracurricular Activities in Developing Critical Thinking Skills of Russian STEM Students

Irina Shcheglova
HSE University

The development of critical thinking skills of students enrolled in Engineering and Computer Science is crucial for the Russian academic context. First of all, there is growing labour market demand in highly qualified STEM graduates (Schwab, Sala i Martin, 2016; Marginson, 2017; ManpowerGroup, 2018; Loyalka et al., 2018). Second, traditionally, technical disciplines are considered to be priority fields which receive the majority of publicly supported places for the academically stronger students that is why approximately one third of students are enrolled in STEM (Education in numbers, 2018). The premise of critical thinking described decades ago by psychologists (Halpern, 2003), philosophers (Ennis, 1989; Dewey, 1910) and educators (Bloom, 1956) is based on the same idea ─ to let students figure out solutions to problems. This skill is especially essential for STEM fields as they are involved in innovative processes, making discoveries and boosting economic growth.
There is a large body of research which studies students’ involvement in a variety of extracurricular activities (Zhao, Kuh 2004; Brint, Cantwell 2010; Wilson et al. 2014). However, these studies tend to have different outcomes: some research indicates positive academic outcomes, while others show negative or mixed results (Pascarella, Seifert and Blaich 2009; Wilson et al. 2014). For example, participation in political and creative organizations increases gains in academic achievements, while participation in sport and religious organizations does not show any significant effect (Baker, 2008). Through analysis of 6,000 student responses to the 2006 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), Brint and Cantwell (2010) found that student participation in extracurricular activities such as physical exercise and volunteering is associated with higher levels of academic conscientiousness and related to their willingness to raise their standards for academic performance, revise papers, help classmates, and understand course materials. Other researchers believe that combination of academic and extracurricular engagement allows students to hone their cognitive and affective growth (Terenzini et al., 1995; Huang, Chang, 2004). It was found that students' class-related and out-of-class experiences both made positive, statistically significant contributions to freshman year-end critical thinking scores controlling for pre-college characteristics (Terenzini et al., 1995). Later Strauss and Terenzini (2007), using data from 4198 engineering students on 39 US campuses, confirmed the unique contributions of their classroom and out-of-class experiences to the development of design and analytical skills. However, their model which includes pre-college characteristics, students classroom and out-of-class experiences, explained a rather modest percentage of the variance in their self-reported design and analytical skills (adjusted R2 = 0.201 for the whole model, pre-college characteristics=0.071, classroom experiences=0.088, out-of-class experiences=0.030, p<0.001).
It is worth noting that the majority of studies on the student engagement and the development of higher order thinking skills used self-reported data to assess the level of students’ critical thinking skills. As researchers point out self-reported data do not lack of validity biases such as social desirability, perception of questions and scales, fallibility of human memory (Schacter, 1999; Porter, 2013). Besides, there has been a limited amount of research which includes population of other countries except the USA. Taking into account limitations of previous studies and sparse information in this field in other countries, the main contribution of the current study is bridging a gap of knowledge by using a strong methodology, valid data collected in a country other than the USA taking into account a local context.
From a practical point of view, the results have important implications for how universities currently organize and structure students' learning experiences. The research findings should encourage administrators, faculty and policy makers to extend and support extracurricular opportunities for students.
The study reported here uses a longitudinal pretest-posttest design to estimate the influence of students’ extracurricular engagement on critical thinking and allows us to control for a wide array of confounding variables such as gender, socioeconomic status, family characteristics etc.
The sample consists of a nationally representative sample of undergraduate students pursuing their degree in Electrical Engineering (EE) and Computer Science (CS) at 34 randomly selected universities in Russia which allows as generalizing results to the whole population of Russian universities offering undergraduate engineering and computer science programs. The initial data collection occurred in 2015 and included freshmen and junior students. In 2016-2017 academic year, these students turned to sophomores and seniors and participated in the study again.
A hierarchical (it’s also called blocked) multiple regression will be conducted with the critical thinking skills score as the dependent variable. The results suggest that there is a statistically significant difference between the underlying distributions of gains in critical thinking skills of students who were involved in extracurricular activities, and those who were not.
A premise of this work is that engaging in activities beyond the classroom but related to academic curriculum would increase the students’ human and social capital to the normative importance that university places on higher education beyond the Bachelor’s degree. Engagement in extracurricular activities offered by universities fosters the students’ ability to make sense of the material they learned, set connections between prior and new knowledge, and practice skills so they will stick with them.