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Teaching Rigorous and Reflective Thinking

By Derek D. Turner, Connecticut College

Before we can enlist faculty across the disciplines to teach critical thinking, we must decide exactly what we mean by the term.

The first characteristic of an ideal critical thinker, we might say, is that he or she has excellent pattern recognition skills. The critical thinker sees that two arguments are both disjunctive syllogisms, in much the same way that most people in our culture can see, without thinking much about it, that two cars are both Toyotas.

The second characteristic that distinguishes the critical thinker is vocabulary. Imagine how awful it would be if we lacked the vocabulary that would enable us to think and converse clearly about some important part of our lives, such as our emotions. People whose vocabularies did not include words like "anger," "envy," and "compassion" would have difficulty reflecting on their feelings and talking about their emotional states with others. But many people are in exactly this situation with regard to reasoning. It is impossible to think and converse about thinking without the help of terms such as "inductive," "deductive," and "valid," and the concepts expressed by those terms.

Third, and most important of all, becoming a rigorous and reflective thinker means adopting a certain ethical stance: habitual skepticism with respect to one's own views, a charitable attitude toward the views of others, and a recognition that getting to the bottom of things together always matters more than winning a dispute. Critical thinking is responsible thinking.

Although the standard informal logic course is an important part of any college curriculum, all three of these elements of critical thinking—pattern recognition, vocabulary, and the ethical stance—can be taught outside of 100-level philosophy courses. Let's see how. What follows are two suggestions for using critical thinking in your own classes.

Teaching critical thinking through writing assignments

It is notoriously difficult to get students to revise papers in earnest, and reading their revisions can be a painful experience. Who wants to read two papers—the first draft and a revised version—side by side, scanning the edges of the page to see what changes the student has made? Too many students will make the bare minimum changes necessary to show that they have "addressed" the instructor's marginal comments, without really taking those comments to heart.

Instead of asking students to revise their papers, why not ask them to write replies to questions about their arguments? Here's how it works: Rather than making lots of marginal comments, type up five or six questions about each student's paper. Write numbers in the margins to indicate which question refers to which part of the text. Grade the papers as you ordinarily would, and then give the students another week to submit a set of replies to your questions. Give these answers a second grade that is completely independent of the initial paper grade. Let students know that these are two separate assignments, and that they cannot improve their initial paper grades by giving good answers to your questions. This guarantees that they will have plenty of incentive to work hard on the original paper. The two grades should be weighted equally, so as to send the message that taking responsibility for what you write is just as important as writing a good paper in the first place. The set of replies to questions should run to about the same length as the original paper, but the length of each reply will depend on the nature of each question.

When you hand the original papers back, let students know that you are looking for them to use their own judgment to determine how to reply to the questions. They may want to concede that they made a mistake, change their minds, or even try to explain how you misinterpreted their original work. There are many good ways of taking responsibility for one's thoughts. The idea is to set up a written dialogue between you and each member of the class. Students appreciate receiving individualized questions and are eager to engage in intellectual correspondence. Don't ask students about their writing; instead, ask them about their reasoning.

This "replies to objections" assignment virtually eliminates the threat of plagiarism. No one wants to write replies to questions about somebody else's paper.

This may sound like a lot of work, but typing questions does not take much more time than writing marginal comments, and reading the students' replies to the questions is thoroughly enjoyable. Moreover, much of the work that we would otherwise put into commenting on papers is wasted, because many of the comments go undigested. This assignment requires students to take the instructor's comments seriously.

You can also tailor the questions to each student's needs and abilities. If students have trouble putting a logical argument together, you can ask them to define technical terms, to explain which of several possible claims is the one they really want to defend, and so on. You can use the questions to challenge more advanced students to do some extra reading on the topic, or to think about more sophisticated counter-arguments that have not been discussed in class.

This assignment gives you an opportunity to model certain aspects of critical thinking: you can ask students about patterns in their reasoning, use logical vocabulary to talk about their work, present their arguments in premise-conclusion form before posing a question, and show through your questions what it means to adhere to the principle of charitable interpretation.

From peer editing to joint inquiry

Here's another approach to using writing assignments to enhance critical thinking. One thing that students seem to enjoy even less than revising their papers is peer editing. Even the best-intentioned peer editing assignments place students in socially awkward situations. What is supposed to happen when a weaker writer swaps papers with a stronger writer? The weaker writer will probably not be much help to the stronger writer, while the stronger writer will worry about how to criticize the other's paper in a way that does not sound like a put down. The last thing that any teacher should want to do is to create an association between writing (which students should enjoy!) and socially unpleasant situations.

Instead of asking students to edit each other's papers, why not have them swap papers and raise questions about each other's arguments? Then give each student an opportunity to write replies to the questions, as in the previous assignment.

This works best if you instruct the peer commentators to begin by giving a brief summary of the other person's main argument. Have them identify the thesis of the argument and the main reasons that the author gives for accepting that thesis. Tell them that they are not, under any circumstances, to say anything about the quality of the other student's writing, or even to assess the quality of the paper. Require the peer commentators to adhere to the principle of charity: where there is some doubt about how to interpret another's argument, it is better to portray that argument in a more, rather than a less, reasonable light.

Requiring students to write replies to questions they receive from another member of the class sets up a situation in which students are reasoning with each other, rather than worrying about how to fulfill the requirements of the assignment without offending anyone.

References & Resources

There are plenty of good critical thinking textbooks out there. One of the best is Critical Thinking, 7th edition, by Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, McGraw-Hill, 2003; another is A Practical Study of Argument, 5th edition, by Trudy Govier, Wadsworth, 2001.

For a lively and readable introduction to the empirical research on human irrationality, see Stuart Vyse, Believing in Magic, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Two other entertaining (and good quality) books on critical thinking are Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, Ballantine Books, 1997, and Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, How To Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments (3rd edition, Hackett Publications, 2001) is an inexpensive little book full of tips for writing argumentative papers and could be used in any course that has a significant writing component.

Those who are more interested in critical thinking in scientific contexts might wish to look at Ronald Giere’s Understanding Scientific Reasoning, 4th edition, Wadsworth, 1996.

Another helpful resources is the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (

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