Teaching Critical Thinking

Advancing Arguments

Specific expectations for advancing arguments vary from discipline to discipline (compare a report of a biology experiment, a critique of a sculpture, and a market analysis). However, the following activities and assignments illustrate ways to help students in many fields learn how to formulate positions and support them.


ACTIVITIES & ASSIGNMENTS

Please note : ( L) Can be done in large section courses

Formulating Claims

State a topic relevant to the course; ask each student to write a single sentence expressing his or her position on the topic. (e.g., Topic: “genetically modified foods.” Position: “Genetically modified foods should be banned.”) Have students read their claims to the class or in groups, then have one of the listeners ask a question to clarify the claim or define a term in it. (e.g., “Banned where?”) The next listener should ask a different question, and so on until all questions needed to clarify the claim have been raised. Emphasize that the purpose of questions is to aid formulation of claims, not to agree or disagree with them. This activity can be done in large sections by having students work in pairs. ( L)

Outlining Cases

After students have taken positions on a controversial topic, ask them to outline cases in support of their positions. Have students present their outlines to the class or partners. Others should provide feedback designed to help students strengthen their arguments. ( L)

Essay Exams

When giving essay exams, ask one or more questions that require students to present an original argument (as compared to recreating arguments already discussed in the course).

For instance, an essay question in a course for health professionals might be, “Present an argument in support of one of the following claims: (a) The mind-body movement in health care reflects a blame-the-victim mentality. OR (b) The mind-body movement in health care empowers people. Support your argument with examples drawn from your experience working with patients.”

Burden of Proof

When giving instructions for writing or speaking assignments, provide an outline of the burden of proof students must meet in order to create a complete argument. Grade assignments at least partially on how well students meet each element of the burden of proof. An example appears below:

Assignment:

Write an essay on “One of the Most Influential Works of Art of the 20th century.”

Burden of Proof:

  1. Define the term “work of art” and support your definition.
  2. Define criteria that a work of art must meet to be “one of the most influential”; support your criteria.
  3. Select a particular work ("X"); describe it and, if necessary, establish that it is a work of art based on your definition.
  4. Show how X meets each of your criteria for “one of the most influential.”

Both Sides Now

Explain that two-sided arguments advance a case for a position, but also present and respond to likely objections to the position. Knowledgeable audiences often expect to hear two-sided arguments. They may discount one-sided arguments as overly simple and a poor reflection on advocates, who apparently are ignorant of other points of view or are unwilling to acknowledge them. The following activities help prepare students to write two-sided arguments:

When assigning students to present one-sided arguments in papers or speeches, ask them to submit a list of likely objections to their arguments.

In combination with the above activity, have the class or groups of students read or listen to each other’s papers or speeches. Ask each reader or listener to write one objection to a part of the case or to identify one issue that should have been addressed in the case but was not. To see how well writers or speakers anticipated objections, compare their lists of anticipated objections to those of readers or listeners.

Issue Analysis

When the class studies a controversial topic, explain that “issues” refer to key points of disagreement regarding a topic; effective cases on any side of the topic must address these issues. Then ask students to write an issue analysis of the topic: What are the issues? What are the alternative points of view on each issue? If wished, ask students to complete a worksheet like the one below.

Topic:
Issue: Competing Positions
1.
2.
3.
etc.
1.
2.
3.
etc.

Note: It’s useful to state the topic as a question. Have students state issues as questions, too, then identify the competing answers to each (e.g., Topic: “Would school vouchers improve the quality of education in the U.S.?” Issue: “Would vouchers improve access to good schools for poor children?” Positions: “Yes. Low-income parents could use the money to send their children to good schools.” “No. The amount of many proposed vouchers would not be enough to cover the costs of tuition at other schools.”)

This exercise is well suited for work by groups of students. It can also be done in large section classes by using a projection system to display selected students’ issues. ( L)

Debates that Deliver

Classroom debates are a popular way to teach critical thinking skills. However, such debates can amount to little more than a series of unrelated speeches in which each side barely acknowledges the other’s arguments. The following tips can improve the quality of classroom debates:

To require teams to examine both sides of a topic, tell them you will randomly select which side of the topic each team will represent just before the debate.

To improve the quality of affirmative cases (i.e., those arguing in favor of a resolution) and negative critiques, discuss the burden of proof (see "Burden of Proof" activity) that affirmative cases must meet.

Explain the concept of “clash” to students (in competitive debate it refers to the degree to which opposing teams address each other’s arguments, as compared to talking past each other). To increase clash in classroom debates, try any of the following:

To require teams to examine both sides of a topic, tell them you will randomly select which side of the topic each team will represent just before the debate.

To improve the quality of affirmative cases (i.e., those arguing in favor of a resolution) and negative critiques, discuss the burden of proof (see "Burden of Proof" activity) that affirmative cases must meet.

Explain the concept of “clash” to students (in competitive debate it refers to the degree to which opposing teams address each other’s arguments, as compared to talking past each other). To increase clash in classroom debates, try any of the following: Award some points to teams based on the overall level of clash in the debate.

Require each speaker after the first to begin his or her presentation by summarizing the arguments of the preceding speaker.

Inform teams that any claim that goes unchallenged will automatically be “won” by the side that presented it.