When I took intro to logic in college, I didn't catch on very quickly. In fact, I flunked the midterm. As we were going over it in class, however, everything fell into place. All I needed was one more practice sheet. But there was no way my prof could grade all the homework I needed to understand the material--he was overworked already. I aced the final and ended up with a C for the course--no indication of my final competencies.
When I began teaching critical thinking, I vowed not to let this happen to any of my students. That's why I developed a computer-assisted, work-to-competency curriculum.
Critical thinking can be roughly analyzed into various skills:
- Identifying arguments
- Dissecting arguments into premises, conclusions, and subconclusions
- Taxonomizing arguments as deductive or inductive
- Assessing the cogency of arguments
- Identifying informal fallacies
- Assessing the validity of categorical and propositional arguments
- Critically reviewing definitions and analyzing concepts
- Applying these competencies so as to construct and assess position papers
These skills are discussed at length in Critical Thinking, which comes bundled with the CT Software, and Self-Defense: A Student Guide to Writing Position Papers, all on a CD-ROM. Both texts are in PDF format, for easy access on screen using Acrobat Reader. They are also available in paperback. These substantive texts have a conversational style, many examples, hands-on directions, and lots of humor. One student emailed me admitting that he got hooked on his roommate's copy of Critical Thinking: "I must say, this textbook is the closest any school book has come to being an 'edge of the seater'."
The CT Software has a total of 15 modules, designed to develop and assess each of the critical thinking skills listed above. CT has approximately 4,000 exercises that it uses to create, correct, and grade practice sessions and exams. All practice, homework, and exams can now be done on computer. CT also keeps track of incorrectly answered exercises and provides immediate feedback on them.
CT's exercises are real-life examples, from editorials and op-ed letters, for instance. It is reliable, easy to use, attractive, and installs in moments off the CD on either Windows or Macs (so there is no need to be online to use it).
Prof. Patrick Grim, of SUNY at Stony Brook, called CT "the best intro to logic software around. I think the exercises are wonderful...so good, so many, and so deep."
With such reader-friendly texts, virtually unlimited practice sessions and exams, and immediate feedback at their disposal, students can hone their critical thinking skills at their own pace in light of their individual needs, talents, and schedules.
Gone are the days of having students' grades determined by their one-time attempts at two or three exams. Instead, I've been using Critical Thinking in a work-to-competency approach.
After each portion of the curriculum is discussed in class, students do practice exercises, using the corresponding CT Software module, until they reach a score of at least 50% on a session of at least 20 exercises. A printout of this score is the student's "ticket" to begin taking exams on that module in our Critical Thinking Computer Lab.
The CT Lab is monitored by student Lab Assistants who previously aced the course. They not only collect exam scores and make sure students do their own work, they also tutor the students. I can thereby provide 300 students each semester with over 30 hours of peer tutoring and testing services per week, and I could accommodate many times more.
Students must achieve an exam score of at least 60% on each module by its assigned deadline. Exams can be retaken as often as necessary to do so. If the students reach minimum competency by the deadline, they can keep taking exams to improve their scores for the rest of the term. The Exam Mode in the CT Software keeps track of incorrectly answered questions, which are then made available in Review mode, so students can learn from their mistakes. CT also creates and grades cumulative exams of whatever size and contents desired.
With this self-mastery approach, students always know where they can improve their skills so as to improve their course grades. Non-traditional students, distance learners, and students with reading disabilities are also greatly facilitated by the accessibility of Critical Thinking and the CT Software. And even though I've increased my enrollments sixfold, I am now able to lecture less and address individual questions more during class periods.
For critical thinking courses like mine, with large enrollments, it isn't feasible to have writing assignments of critical reviews or position papers, despite the fact that critically defending a position on an issue and demonstrating its rationality over competing views is the culminating exercise and goal of critical thinking. That's where Self-Defense: A Student Guide to Writing Position Papers is so helpful.
Self-Defense is great for synthesizing all the skills studied in Critical Thinking and honed using the CT Software. Its analysis of position papers is the basis of exercises and exams involving the "Anatomy of a Position Paper."
Using various short position papers, we identify the parts of a position paper in each paragraph, taking special note of the various ways of organizing position papers, as they are discussed in Self-Defense. These short position papers are from our local newspapers, numerous periodicals, and the Web. These "Anatomy" projects are done as a class, in groups, as homework, and as part of a take-home final assignment. Doing the "Anatomy of a Position Paper" is the next best thing to writing one!
And what do students say about Critical Thinking at Winona State?
"The fact that we could take practice tests at home whenever we wanted really helped! Also, being able to take tests over & over again made sure we were walking away from this course actually learning something."
"The format of this class is BY FAR the best I've ever seen: the class work, out of class tests (relieving test anxiety), the ability to retake exams and learn WHY something is right or wrong, and not just whether it's right or wrong."
"Easy to use software, very helpful in understanding the text."
"I think the computer assistance is a very helpful tool & I don't believe I would have done as well as I did without it."
"I found being able to retake exams to achieve my highest potential gave me an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and kept me from getting discouraged."
"I liked the way the tests were taken, because it forced you to really try and pass every test rather than just taking what you get and trying to make up for it, and I liked that we could retake tests later as our understanding of them got better."
"The computer software helps a great deal because you get immediate feedback so you know what you're doing wrong and can fix it or review the book again to learn it again."
"Having the chance to simulate an infinite number of tests at home is an excellent tool for assessing what has been mastered and what one needs to work on."
"The CT Software was a good way to actually apply the material learned in class & the exams made sure that you knew the material. It wasn't all luck. Plus, it was a lot less stressful & I was able to learn more by going back to see which problems I got wrong."
"I definitely appreciate the chance to retake the tests on the computer as many times as we want after getting 60% by the deadline! Having the CT Software to practice @ home makes this class MUCH more comprehendible! Thanks!"
Do students prefer Critical Thinking?
Only 1 student in the 216 surveyed [at Winona State University] would have preferred the traditional approach of working exercises in a textbook rather than doing practice exercises using the CT Software.
Only 6 students out of the 216 would have preferred taking three in-class exams, with no immediate reviews or retakes, rather than taking exams with immediate reviews and retakes using the CT Software.
72% preferred the informal style of the Critical Thinking texts to a more formal style of a traditional introductory logic text.
What's the best format for teaching Critical Thinking?
Based on the research, my many years' experience, and student survey results, I must say that a hybrid approach is the most effective means of enhancing students' critical thinking skills. A hybrid course incorporates the best aspects of the traditional classroom and of technology. It includes class meetings, for review and discussions of course material and for practicing exercises as a class, a group, or individually. It also includes regularly assigned practice exercises, to ensure time on task. And it includes computer assistance, for unlimited access to practice exercises and exams. Peer tutoring is also a very helpful addition to a hybrid critical thinking course. All of these elements are overwhelmingly preferred by students, as was partially illustrated above:
Only 1 in the 216 students surveyed would have preferred no regularly assigned practice exercises using the CT Software as homework.
Only 5 students out of the 216 would abandon the peer-tutoring service provided.
96% of the students still prefer an in-class meeting for a review of the texts' contents, instead of having students be solely responsible for understanding the text and using class time only for working exercises and answering specific student questions.
Class meetings are quite important for many students, indicated by the fact that 31% thought attendance should be required.
Only 18% of the students would have preferred no class meeting at all and that the course be made into an independent study, with all exams still taken under secure conditions in the Critical Thinking Lab.
Similarly, only 18% of those surveyed said they would have preferred the option of purchasing the CD-only version of Critical Thinking. So, a tech savvy as students have become, the majority of them still prefer hardcopy texts rather then merely reading the texts on-screen. Perhaps more students would prefer the new CD-only now as of version 3.0, in which the etexts can be personalized with highlighting and comments.
It would seem, then, that approximately 18% of my students would prefer a more distance-learning format. Research indicates, however, that it takes a very dedicated, mature, and self-disciplined student to thrive using such a format to learn critical thinking skills. With the enhanced freedom of this independent study of Critical Thinking would come increased responsibilities, which students need to be not only willing, but also extremely able to accept.
This is just one of many, many ways Critical Thinking can be used.
Things have certainly changed since the days when I took intro to logic--more freedom, more responsibility, more learning, and more fun!
Do you have any questions? For example...
- How can I use CT, given my resources?
- How can I set up a Critical Thinking Testing Lab?
- How can I set up a Critical Thinking Peer-Tutoring Program?
- How can I persuade my Dean to fund a Critical Thinking Program?
- How can I coordinate multiple sections and faculty using Critical Thinking?
- How can I persuade my university to make Critical Thinking a required course?
If you have ANY questions about how Critical Thinking, the CT Software, and the Self-Defense guide would fit into your curriculum or your university's general education program, please email me at the address below. Just click and ask!
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