Promoting Critical Thinking Skills and Transformative Learning Opportunities for Future Hospitality Managers - Tin Oo Thin

Vol. 14, No. 2

ISSN: 1546-2676



return to KON home page
to print, please use this version
browse other KON publications

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 14, No. 2.

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004.

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information, see our Call for Papers & Guidelines for Authors.



Promoting Critical Thinking Skills and Transformative Learning Opportunities for Future Hospitality Managers

Tin Oo Thin

Tin Oo Thin is a former doctoral student in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences Education & Studies and the Department of Hotel, Restaurant & Institution Management at Iowa State University. She is originally from Myanmar and now living in Canada.



This article explores the possibility of guiding student's critical thinking abilities in a hospitality management class to encompass the opportunity for transformative learning. It is suggested that the case studies provided ethical inquiry based on a critical reflection of the assumptions, biases, beliefs, and values involved in their decision making. Prospective managers were encouraged to combine a moral and a financial element in their later business practices.

Today, because of the hyper-competitive job market, students are concerned about being adequately prepared as career professionals. The U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999) reported that "individuals want to know what specific skills they will need to acquire to obtain their first job, to qualify for and succeed in their intended career, to gain a promotion, or to continue functioning effectively in their current job in a changing environment" (p. 37). Students demand that learning experiences in the classroom enable them to get desired employment and to progress quickly up the career ladder.

To help meet these expectations, near the end of their academic careers, students in the Iowa State University hospitality management program were given case studies to analyze and asked to propose appropriate solutions for problems in these situations. Problem solving is considered to be one of the most important competencies for prospective managers (Baum, 1991; Enz, Renaghan, & Geller, 1993; Partlow & Gregoire, 1993; Su, Miller, & Shanklin, 1997). Because critical thinking was seen as a skill that might complement problem-solving skills, research was conducted to determine what, if any, critical thinking skills these students already used.

Critical thinking abilities enable managers to make decisions in the long-term best interests of their businesses and stakeholders. But education is incomplete if it only aims to establish competence in a specialized area of knowledge and does not include a social/moral aspect. Lynch (2003) has written that good critical thinking is not value neutral; it involves both attitudes and values. Implementation of a social/moral aspect in the preparation of managers in the classroom combines knowledge about the subject matter and business ethics. For consumer groups and society at large, research has shown that good ethics is good business (Joyner & Payne, 2002, p. 1).

This article proposes expansion of case study courses using problem-solving techniques to include a clearly defined emphasis on critical thinking skills. Secondly, it argues that more emphasis be put on business ethics as part of the course objectives. Thus the course emphasizes both financial and moral aspects of business. It provides an opportunity for a transformation in students’ thinking to include ethical responsibility.

A Case Study Classroom

Research (Thin, 2001) was conducted on a class to determine elements of the critical thinking process displayed by students using problem solving to make decisions related to case studies in hospitality management. Specific critical thinking skills had not been taught in this class. For this research, critical thinking was defined as reasonable reflection about what we believe and do (Ennis, 1985, 1987, 1991). The class consisted of 13 students (7 females, 6 males) between the ages of 21-24 except for two males who were over 25. The hospitality-related work experience of the class members ranged from 9 months to 11 years. The course was for upper-level, pre-professional students preparing to work in the lodging, foodservice, or tourism industry. The course focused on the discussion and analysis of 16 case studies that related to topics such as employee recruitment, employee selection, conflict management, leadership styles, performance analysis, employee evaluation, and promotion within hotel, restaurant, and foodservice organizations.

Data were collected from five sources: a demographic questionnaire, transcripts of videos of students' interactions in the classroom, individual transcripts of interviews with students and the instructor, written work of the students (examinations, quizzes, and written assignments), and field notes of two class observers (the researcher and a research assistant). The content analysis process involved the constant comparison of the data on three aspects of critical thinking: information/ knowledge (formal subject-matter knowledge and background knowledge or other relevant information), critical spirit (dispositions, attitudes, habits of mind, and character traits), and reason assessment (abilities and skills to assess reasons, claims, and arguments) (Siegel, 1988).

Information/knowledge. Students used various sources of evidence such as case study information, subject matter knowledge, work experience, and personal experience in reaching conclusions related to the problems presented in the case studies (Thin, 2001). Context of the situation and the pressure of time in making decisions also were considered in making their decisions. One student’s response provided evidence that students relied heavily on what they had learned from previous experiences, especially work experience, to help them solve problems:

. . . maybe something that happened to me in my work place or [I was an] eye witness . . . in another work place or [it happened to] one of my friends. (p. 58) 

Differences in amount and kinds of work experiences resulted in differences in intensity of involvement of the students in the discussions. Some students were very proud of their work experiences and seemed to think their answers had more credence than other answers. Some students also believed the amount of work experience influenced the credibility of and confidence in the student's input. The following quotes illustrated this:

Some students talk more because they have more work experience [in certain areas of the industry] and some don’t because they don’t have enough work experience.  (p. 56)

We all have our own experiences and a lot of times the experiences are the same, but the outcomes are different so that influences how we explain our responses or express our viewpoints. Like the situation I described in the class yesterday, about where I cut off somebody else from the party because of the alcohol. If somebody else … kept serving them alcohol, the outcome would have been different. You would have more guests …out of hand and would have more unhappy guests, and of course you could have endangered those people who had too much to drink [and others]. (pp. 88, 89)

[Guests] needed to check out right away, and the front desk clerk said he would mail them their bills. Certain people in the class said they would never mail a bill, that it's rude. Well, I worked in a hotel for 4 1/2 years. . . . It's doing everything for that guest and to make the stay pleasant, and 99% of the time they were very glad that you were able to mail them their bill. . . . I know one individual that was very out-spoken [about how to handle the situation] has never worked in a hotel, so that’s part of [the reason she said what she did]. (p. 88)

The case study itself, the context of the situation, was the major factor considered by students in making their decisions. Where the problem originated, who was involved, as well as what actually happened were the beginning points of most discussion. Two sets of quotes showed this point:

I did read the case a couple of times [to] just kind of look at different things. . . . There wasn’t [just] one problem. There were many problems, and you have to consider all of them. (p. 49)

If the property is older compared to a new one, one may be computerized and the older one may not be, so there’s going to have to be different things that you have to do. (p. 59)

According to the students, decisions in the hospitality work environment often have to be made on the spot. The following student’s answer revealed that subject matter knowledge learned in class has to be recalled immediately:

I think when you are actually put in . . . [a] situation, you have to make snap decisions, so you don’t have a lot of time to analyze like we are doing [in the classroom]. But I think everything we learned will come back, and [we] will apply it. (p. 60)

Students felt that the more quickly they dealt with the problem, the more likely they could avoid the consequences of a more serious problem developing; however, what they decided needed to be the best decision. One student’s response illustrated this point:

Once you have identified the conflict, try to get the upset guest away from it as soon as possible. If non-smokers were seated in a smoking section and decide they can’t handle it, move them immediately. If you attend to their problems right away, they will remember how the situation was handled and forget about the problems by the end of the meal. (p. 59)

But students revealed a willingness to spend more time thinking about long-term consequences, if they were not under the pressure of time. The following example shows students knew that most decisions would have consequences for some time:

If there is [a] conflict between employees, . . . [it] might take me a long time to figure [it] out . . . I can’t just make a snap decision, and say this is gonna be cured. . . . These people [are] gonna be here every day. . . . I will make the best decision and [a] snap decision if there is a problem in the establishment [needing it], but for something more long-term, I think [I will take longer]. (p. 60)

And students knew where to get additional information if needed. When asked in the individual interviews how to keep up with changes, students acknowledged they needed to read newspapers, newsletters from corporate headquarters, magazines, periodicals, trade journals; listen and watch news; talk with industry people and legislators; and listen to customers, co-workers, and employees. They also suggested keeping up with new laws related to health, safety, and changes in social situations; working as interns; being involved in professional clubs and associations; and attending seminars, information sessions, and continuing education classes. However, they made little use of relevant print and other sources available to them (for example, current research in professional journals, interviews with experts, and the Internet) for making decisions in this class. Credibility of the sources also did not seem to be questioned.

To really learn from past experiences, a manager will take time for reflection. Being willing to assess individual viewpoints different from one’s own would illustrate the extent of critical spirit. Reflection done with a critical spirit will reap benefits.

Critical spirit. A thinker with a critical spirit has these characteristics—independence of mind, open-mindedness, wholeheartedness, intellectual responsibility, and respect for others [empathy] (Oxman-Michelli, 1992). The critical spirit component of the critical thinking process was demonstrated in students' empathy and open-mindedness. They listened, showed compassion and concern, put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the case studies, took turns in the discussions, looked at both sides of an issue, admitted their limitations and mistakes in front of others, and asked for additional information and clarification from each other. The following students’ responses (Thin, 2001) revealed this:

I think [the supervisor] really needs to listen and try to understand [newly promoted employee's] ideas. (p. 63)

An attitude that reflects concern and compassion will help decrease turnover and increase morale. (p. 63)

As a prospective manager, I should keep an open mind. People like [the managers in the case] who don’t care to listen to another viewpoint, or think their way [is] the right way are the reason . . . a lot of people quit their jobs and . . . customers don’t come back. (p. 64)

I think people learn a lot because you hear other students' opinions on how a problem should be solved. . . . Maybe you didn't think about that, or maybe . . . I thought about it, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that, and maybe they have thought about that. (p. 89)

Some case studies contained problems involving ethical aspects. Students recognized that personal ethics were important but were not always sure how they should deal with differences in personal ethics, e.g., among managers or between managers and employees. During classroom dialogue, students rarely questioned assumptions, beliefs, values, or personal ethics different from their own even though they were a relatively homogeneous group. They seldom resolved any case through arriving at consensus, but seemed to endorse an individualistic approach to decision making. Ethical decisions would be made differently according to whether they made the decision on their own, they were pressured by a colleague or a superior, their jobs were on the line, or the company and other people would be hurt. However, students generally declared they would never do unethical things for their personal gain.

Reason assessment. Students had little difficulty identifying the problems in a case study, analyzing information related to the case study, and generating alternative solutions or decisions of what they would do in that particular situation. Different decisions or points of view were rarely questioned and discussed further. The discussion usually ended with an individualistic approach. This student does not give a rationale for the decision made, but says it is a judgment call:

It’s like a judgment call. Choose what you think can achieve the best results. . . . It is all based on your own personal values and beliefs and that is not gonna be the same for everybody. I value something more than somebody else does. Then I am gonna pick a different role than somebody else chooses. (p. 66)

In summary, this group of students used the critical thinking process as illustrated by their use of case study informaton, subject matter knowledge, work experience, and personal experience. Students practiced some self-reflection. They determined some possible consequences for their decisions and actions. Students justified (gave reasons for) their decisions, but other students did not challenge their decisions or their reasons for the decision. Often, they only gave their justifications and defended their decision if the instructor asked them to do so. Assessing the credibility of justifications (given reasons) was seldom evident. 

Proposed Changes

The management course described above provides a background for the students as prospective managers to solve job-related problems and to more clearly experience the process of critical thinking and move on to opportunities for transformative learning (Thin, 2001). The students in the management course were responsible thinkers who considered the consequences and long-term effects of their decisions. Students provided solutions for the problems in the case studies and gave reasons for their decisions when asked. They were willing to put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the case studies. These characteristics all add up to an excellent background for critical thinking and transformative learning. Because they were in their last two years of the hospitality management program, these students had the advantage of subject-matter knowledge and work experience to aid them in their decision making. But because the course emphasized the decision, not the process of how the decision was made, some students did not make a clear connection between the course and real-life experiences. One student voiced this concern:

You do it the way you need to do it to get it right, to get it figured out. . . . Nobody uses the book in industry. They [do] their own thing. . . . You don’t use the cookbook to cook. You close the cookbook. . . . [To make the] potato salad you do your own little thing the way you like it or . . . you always made it so the customer seems to like it . . . you don’t measure [every ingredient perfectly] in the real world, you just throw it in there. . . . That’s why I think a lot of employers that hire students out of college look for more experience than they do book [learning]. . . . Books are not a major part of our industry. Getting the diploma, getting out there, and getting experience . . . that’s the key to being really successful. . . . Books help, school helps a lot, it’s not just experience . . . but a lot of the stuff that goes on in clubs, hotels, restaurants, it’s not like detailed book stuff. . . . Its completely different. . . . You try to implement that book idea of solving the problem, it ain’t gonna work. (pp. 87, 88)

The first change in the revised course would feature the practice of using credible sources such as verifiable facts, experts in the subject matter, and sound documented research to justify the decision. Accurate and helpful feedback and sharing of appropriate, accurate, and up-to-date sources are important in this critical thinking process.

Second, students would be encouraged to transfer what has been learned in solving one problem and applying it to solving other problems. Time will be allotted to critical reflection on their decision making process. After discussing a number of case studies in class and sharing their learning experiences in relation to them, the students would periodically be given a new case study to solve in class individually or in a small group. They would be given a limited amount of time. They would have to present their reasoning leading to the decision using credible sources. They would identify skills that they had used in solving earlier case studies.

Third, the learning environment would foster opportunities for transformative learning. Mezirow defines transformative learning as a process of exploring, assessing, and working to change limiting frames of reference and habits of mind (cited in Kasl & Elias, 2000, p. 233). Transformative learning takes place when students elaborate old or learn new frames of reference as well as transform old or learn new habits of mind. The case studies would stress ethical aspects of the problem. Paine (2003) listed several motivating factors for the concern for ethics and values: “high ethical standards are correlated with better financial performance,” can “protect a company’s reputation for integrity and social responsibility,” and can promote a “world-class organization” (p. 4).

In addition to critical reflection about case studies, students also need to use critical reflection to facilitate a clearer understanding of themselves. Critical thinkers must know themselves—who they are, what they believe, and why. These prospective managers made decisions based on “gut instinct” as they viewed themselves having to make a decision within a limited time frame with only preliminary information. The following response from a student described this:

I’m in a situation, [and] it calls for an immediate decision. Usually I just depend on my gut instinct. [If] you have a little bit of length of time to make a decision, . . . I still go with my instinct, but . . . I would use additional resources or textbooks or . . . secondary information. (Thin, 2001, p. 61)

Exploring “gut instinct” on an individual or group basis could shed light on who they are, what they believe and why. By relying on spur-of-the-moment thinking and gut instinct, students viewed intuition and insight as complementary to critical thinking (Walters, 1990). These quick responses could reveal their personal values.

We all have in our minds what we think is right or wrong, so I’d probably use that, because someone else might think in a different way. . . . There is [a] little voice inside everybody . . . intuition is very personal and internal.  (Thin, 2001, p. 61)

As students reflect on what they do and think, they can start to discover their own authentic voice as managers. In dialogue about possible actions to take in their case studies, students could be asked to reflect on what each of their proposals tells them about their underlying beliefs, values, biases, and personal ethics. For example, what values are highlighted in this statement from a student?

I wouldn’t do it if it’s going to hurt somebody or . . . the company, or . . . [the] reputation of the company. . . . But if it was maybe to benefit . . . me that nobody finds out, maybe nothing big, its not going to affect anything like the business or the people. But, if it is just something smaller and just affects only me, then maybe [I would do it]. (p. 68)

These beliefs, values, biases, and personal ethics were derived from their assumptions that were influenced by their upbringings, work and personal experiences, and educational backgrounds. This student’s response highlighted this point:

Opinions are just what I think and what I believe is the best way. You get [values and beliefs] from the way you grow up, the way your life was with your parents and siblings, relationships you have with people. Add things as you go along. (p. 66)

An idea for teachers who wish to provide opportunities for critical thinking and transformative learning is to help students know themselves by recognizing and assessing the assumption(s) they make when they interpret the problem or propose a certain action. Brookfield (1987) recommends a non-patronizing way of exploring students’ assumptions by asking for detailed accounts about students’ specific experiences rather than asking them to identify the general values and beliefs they hold. Some examples of questioning follow. “Thinking over the past week, was there an action you took that you felt particularly good about? Tell us about it. What does that incident tell you about your values?” As students compare incidents among themselves, are there some general values endorsed by all? Trust?  Respect? Fairness? Civic responsibility? Others? What and who are the focal points of these values? Themselves as managers, the organization, employees, customers or clients, or some combination?

Some educators have been able to use the technique of role-play in helping students learn about themselves as managers. The following quote showed that these students seemed ready to do this:

I try to put myself in the case . . . like if I was the manager, what will I do?  Or if I was the employee, what will I do? (Thin, 2001, p. 64)

Students could role play managers and employees in a case such as laying off (firing) employees, resisting bribes from vendors, committing an illegal act such as serving liquor to a minor, handling inside theft, or keeping irregular inventory records. Asking questions of those who played the parts to learn each person's perceptions and feelings can provide additional information about the critical thinking process. The dialogue after the role play would include identification of the ethical principles used in making a decision. The role-play discussion could start with problem identification and then the dialogue could be guided toward the questions, “Why should managers be making ethical decisions?” or “Should corporate social responsibility be promoted and practiced by the organization?” “Why or why not?” “What are the basic principles on which ethical decisions should be made?” The ethical philosophy of the organization or the top management plays a role here also. Students could be asked to analyze and justify an organization’s policy and a manager’s action in a particular situation. The dialogue would emphasize the why of the action rather than the action itself.

Dialogues on ethical behavior would promote responsible thinking, that is, where every decision would be considered in the light of the effects on all involved. This is how one student described how students were practicing responsible thinking:

I tried to put myself in the position of . . . protagonist and be fair, equal, be in their place and decide what I will do. . . . If there is some disturbance between two employees, I try to get a clear picture of both of their sides and the events that led to the disturbances . . . [and] whether or not they know that it was [the] wrong thing to do. You can’t treat two employees [differently] who do the same thing. (p. 64)

Decisions would be open for critique from different points of view. Students in the course who had shown an openmindedness to new points of view could lead the way.

Brookfield (1995) suggests that recognizing the discrepancy between what is and what should be can be the catalyst for the critical journey of finding that what we believe no longer fits the situations we are in. One student’s response (Thin, 2001) revealed this:

I certainly would not offer [a] favor to anybody, and I am not going to accept [favors] from anybody. . . . A favor is to buy me off. . . . I would not accept anything for me personally.  If it’s something for the business, then I do not see it as a favor, [like if] it is a promotional effort [that I can use at my place of business]. (p. 68)

As the dialogue continues old frames of reference, e.g., profit motive, could be questioned, new habits of mind put forth, e.g., corporate social responsibility. The following questions could be asked: “What kind of legal, financial, or psychological decisions am I as a manager going to make?” “What kind of rights do I think customers or employees have?” “What are the underlying beliefs and values of my employees, my customers?” “How are their values (such as getting by, getting the most for their money), different from my values (such as work ethic, profit)?”

These types of ethical decisions are often the most difficult and therefore are given only cursory time in an educational program. But, they are often an important part of the on-the-job environment. Managers face a dichotomy when trying to be fair to customers and employees while maintaining quality and costs (for example, food, beverage, and labor) and making a profit. Although most of the decisions managers make will be governed by established organizational polices, they should be able to assess the rationale of those policies and if necessary be able to challenge them. In addition, the dialogue on ethical business practices, because of the much-publicized scandals involving Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart, could easily motivate students to include the study of ethics in their preparation for becoming managers. The following quote provided evidence that students were ready for this kind of dialogue:

It depends on the chances [of] you getting caught! . . . [and] how serious it is. . . . If I know I could get fired for it if someone finds out, I wouldn’t do it. . . . If they weren’t going to fire me or arrest [me], then I probably will do it just because I’d say that they told me to do it. . . . If it was my job on the line, I’m sure maybe I would . . . leave and get another job. (p. 69)

Transforming personal motives to social motives could be achieved by seeing the long-term relationship between the interests of all involved (customers, employees, shareholders, and the organization). Students know that their performance in the workplace will be measured by the financial objectives of the organization. However, teachers would be pleased if the dialogue reaches an “Aha!” moment for at least some students as they see that socially responsible practices and ethical decisions could result in facilitating the “bottom line” profit objective as well. A transformation could take place when students realize that their underlying assumptions, biases, beliefs, and values might not hold true for the current situation; when they change their way of looking at the situation; and when they find new ways to solve the problem. The ultimate goal is for the students to incorporate a new way of thinking into their perspective of looking at their work, life, and society.

Students who can combine the skills of problem solving, critical thinking, and openness to transformative learning are better prepared to negotiate the changing environments of today’s workplaces. They will be better able to find employment as a manager, succeed in that capacity, and go quickly up the career ladder. In addition as businesses increase in size and number, as well as become global, it becomes increasingly important to ask how these businesses affect society. Are business activities beneficial or harmful? Is the behavior of the managers consistent with basic ethical norms? The classroom described here can provide a safe environment for students to practice their newfound skills. Students would be introduced to a new way of thinking about a good corporate image for the business.


Baum, T. (1991). The U.S. and the U.K.: Comparing expectations of management trainees. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 32(2), 79-84. 

Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ennis, R. H. (1985). A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44-48.

Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. B. Baron & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice (pp. 9-26). New York: W. H. Freeman.

Ennis, R. H. (1991). Critical thinking: A streamlined conception. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Chicago, IL.

Enz, C., Renaghan, L., & Geller, A. (1993). Graduate-level education: A survey of stakeholders. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 34(4), 90-95.

Joyner, B. E., & Payne, D. (2002). Evolution and implementation: A study of values, business, ethics and corporate social responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 41, 297-311.

Kasl, E., & Elias, D. (2000). Creating new habits of mind in small groups. In J. Mezirow and Associates, Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 229-252). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lynch, R. A. (2003). Rethinking critical thinking: Values and attitudes. Retrieved November 1, 2003, from

Oxman-Michelli, W. (1992). Critical thinking as "critical spirit.." Upper Montclair, N.J.: Montclair State College, Institute for Critical Thinking. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 357 006)

Paine, L. S. (2003). Value shift: Why companies must merge social and financial imperatives to achieve superior performance. Chicago: McGraw-Hill.

Partlow, C., & Gregoire, M. (1993). Graduates’ assessment of quality in graduate hospitality education. Hospitality and Tourism Educator, 5(2), 53-56.

Siegel, H. (1988). Educating reason: Rationality, critical thinking, and education. NewYork: Routledge.

Su, A.Y., Miller, J., & Shanklin, C. (1997). An evaluation of accreditation curriculum standards for four-year undergraduate hospitality programs. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Education, 9(3), 75-79.

Thin, T. O. (2001). A qualitative inquiry into the critical thinking process of hospitality management students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (1999). Report on the American workforce. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. 

Walters, K. S. (1990). Critical thinking, rationality, and the vulcanization of students. Journal of Higher Education, 61, 448-467.

For further information about manuscripts:

buttonspaceVia E-Mail:

spaceDr. Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Executive Director

buttonspaceOn the Web:

spaceCall for Papers


previous articlePREVIOUS ARTICLE NEXT ARTICLEnext article




return to top of page