Building a critical reasoning course: getting started with the external constraints.

My Fall semester is rapidly approaching and I am still in the throes of preparing to teach a course I have never taught before. The course is called "Logic and Critical Reasoning." Here's the catalog description of the course:

Basic concepts of logic; goals and standards of both deductive and inductive reasoning; techniques of argument analysis and assessment; evaluation of evidence; language and definition; fallacies.

The course involves some amount of symbolic logic (and truth-tables and that good stuff) but also a lot of attention to argumentation "in the wild", in the written and spoken word. My department usually teaches multiple sections of the course each semester, but it's not the case that we all march in lockstep with identical textbooks, syllabi, and assignments.

The downside of academic freedom, when applied to teaching a course like this, is that you have to figure out your own plan.

Nonetheless, since critical reasoning is the kind of thing I think we need more of in the world, I'm excited about having the opportunity to teach the course. And, at Tom Levenson's suggestion, I'm going to blog the process of planning the course. Perhaps you all will have some suggestions for me as I work through it.

Part of why my department offers multiple sections of "Logic and Critical Reasoning" is that it fulfills a lower-division general education (G.E.) requirement. In other words, there's substantial student demand for courses that fulfill this requirement.

For this course to fulfill the G.E. requirement, of course, it has to meet certain pedagogical goals or "learning objectives". So, where I need to start in planning this course is with the written-and-approved-by-committee learning objectives and content requirements:

Course Goals and Student Learning Objectives
“Logic and Critical Reasoning” is designed to meet the G.E. learning objectives for Area A3.

Critical thinking courses help students learn to recognize, analyze, evaluate, and engage in effective reasoning.

Students will demonstrate, orally and in writing, proficiency in the course goals. Development of the following competencies will result in dispositions or habits of intellectual autonomy, appreciation of different worldviews, courage and perseverance in inquiry, and commitment to employ analytical reasoning. Students should be able to:

  1. distinguish between reasoning (e.g., explanation, argument) and other types of discourse (e.g., description, assertion);
  2. identify, analyze, and evaluate different types of reasoning;
  3. find and state crucial unstated assumptions in reasoning;
  4. evaluate factual claims or statements used in reasoning, and evaluate the sources of evidence for such claims;
  5. demonstrate an understanding of what constitutes plagiarism;
  6. evaluate information and its sources critically and incorporate selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system;
  7. locate, retrieve, organize, analyze, synthesize, and communicate information of relevance to the subject matter of the course in an effective and efficient manner; and
  8. reflect on past successes, failures, and alternative strategies.


  • Students will analyze, evaluate, and construct their own arguments or position papers about issues of diversity such as gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
  • Reasoning about other issues appropriate to the subject matter of the course shall also be presented, analyzed, evaluated, and constructed.
  • All critical thinking classes should teach formal and informal methods for determining the validity of deductive reasoning and the strength of inductive reasoning, including a consideration of common fallacies in inductive and deductive reasoning. ... “Formal methods for determining the validity of deductive arguments” refers to techniques that focus on patterns of reasoning rather than content. While all deductive arguments claim to be valid, not all of them are valid. Students should know what formal methods are available for determining which are which. Such methods include, but are not limited to, the use of Venn’s diagrams for determining validity of categorical reasoning, the methods of truth tables, truth trees, and formal deduction for reasoning which depends on truth functional structure, and analogous methods for evaluating reasoning which may be valid due to quantificational form. These methods are explained in standard logic texts. We would also like to make clear that the request for evidence that formal methods are being taught is not a request that any particular technique be taught, but that some method of assessing formal validity be included in course content.
  • Courses shall require the use of qualitative reasoning skills in oral and written assignments. Substantial writing assignments are to be integrated with critical thinking instruction. Writing will lead to the production of argumentative essays, with a minimum of 3000 words required. Students shall receive frequent evaluations from the instructor. Evaluative comments must be substantive, addressing the quality and form of writing.

This way of describing the course, I reckon, is not the best way to convince my students that it's a course they're going to want to be taking. My big task, therefore, is to plan course material and assignments that accomplish these goals while also striking the students as interesting, relevant, and plausibly do-able. In addition, I want to plan assignments that give the students enough practice and feedback but that don't overwhelm me with grading. (The budget is still in very bad shape, so I have no expectation that there will be money to hire a grader.)

I have some ideas percolating here, which I will blog about soon. One of them is to use the blogosphere as a source of arguments (and things-that-look-like-arguments-but-aren't) for analysis. I'm thinking, though, that I'll need to set some good ground rules in advance.

Do these learning objectives and content requirements seem to you to call out for particular types of homework assignments or mini-lecture? If you had to skin this particular pedagogical cat, where would you start?

19 responses so far

  • Jac says:

    How exciting! Blogosphere approach great idea. My experience is outside the US system, so could you tell me number of hours/weeks teaching on the course. My first thought was some aspect of climate change, as blog accounts, graphical interpretations and opinions on this topic vary enormously on factual content (often none), interpretation of data appeal to emotions ... . Some are humorous, as well, which helps.

    Sorry if this is wildly off your mark. Hope you have fun.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      The course will meet twice a week for 75 minutes at a time. I am bound and determined *not* to be lecturing for that amount of time!

  • JRQ says:

    Not that I have any experience teaching this area, but I would envision an assignment where they have to detect rhetorical fallacies in written or spoken arguments "from the wild", show what's wrong with them by applying formal methods, and explain what additional pieces (e.g., additional premises) would have to granted to convert the fallacious argument into a valid one. Also, identify situations where the logical form of the argument is valid, but there is something subtly wrong with the premises, such as an unstated assumption or false dilemma, that causes the conclusion to be false.

  • Physicalist says:

    For what it's worth, I use Salmon's book. I like it in part because it touches on philosophy of science. (And it has some good, real-world examples.)

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      That's the text we'll be using too. (Book orders had to be in ages ago, so I had to choose a book before I planned the details of the class, but I liked this one for the very reasons you mention. I'd like it even better if the price tag were lower.)

  • WiseWoman says:

    While doing the truth tables and deductive reasoning, use good old Lewis Carroll's Syllogisms:

    They are amusing enough still to keep people awake!

  • Dorothea Salo says:

    I hope very much you've talked with a librarian about your syllabus. We're all ABOUT critically evaluating information. We may be able to shave some time off your class prep!

  • ecologist says:

    This sounds like a great course. I once taught something similar (to grad students), some years ago, and it was a lot of fun. Please do keep letting us know what you do and how it works. This stuff is important!

    A couple of quick suggestions. First, I like showing students Toulmin's approach to argument analysis, which I have applied to some examples in conservation biology/policy. Second, the verification/falsification distinction is important, but if you want to impress how important it might be, you can do worse than showing the episode "Knowledge or Certainty" from Jacob Bronowski's TV series Ascent of Man. I have never seen such a silent class --- in a good way.

    I look forward to hearing more as you develop the class.

  • ed. policy says:

    I've taken symbolic logic, not informal logic. I teach political theory, not informal logic! But I've been reading a lot of material in behavioral economics and what a field it is for fallacious thinking that's been applied to the policy.

    Game theory is also a good place to look.

    It ends up being a nice critique of rationality that when we all behave rationally in an individual sense, but we live in a collective, we end up with a social situation in which we do worse as a group. So in a sense you end up giving a nice critique of the course even as you support rational argumentation.

    It's pretty easy to find prisoner's dilemma and tragedy of the commons material to photocopy or read on line. And behavioral economics has been dealt with in readable fashion by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, by George Akerlof, and by John Cassidy among others. Quite readable texts that get at many of the thoughts and behaviors that have led to pretty awful social outcomes.

    Good luck with the class!

  • --bill says:

    My partner has been teaching the philosophy critical reasoning course for many years, and these are some of my thoughts resulting from conversations with her.

    When planning the course, think seriously about your audience. This is a general education course, so many students will expect it to be fairly easy (and some will be resentful if it's not), almost all students will put this class at the bottom of their priority list, and many students will be aiming to pass with a C.

    Students like truth tables, because they are rote. They don't like having to take apart arguments, 'cause that involves close reading, at which they are not very skilled.

    Be careful in choices of arguments from blogs and elsewhere, on two counts. First, a controversial topic can produce heated discussions that get away from analyzing the argument in question. My partner once took two newspaper articles on abortion, one pro one con, and asked the class to analyze the arguments. The class devolved into moral haranguing, and there was very little analysis done. If the goal is to analyze the arguments presented, non-controversial topics can fare better. Second, the text you use and your lectures will present certain ways to analyze arguments. If a blog post or newspaper article or whatever doesn't follow that format, students will be confused. Make sure everything you present can be analyzed using the techniques that have been covered in class or in the textbook.

    My partner has had many moments of frustration and many moments of joy from critical reasoning; I hope your experience is fruitful.

  • Dan says:

    Hi Janet- Just a quick note to tell you that I'm excited to read along as you're developing this course. I'm just starting my first semester teaching at a liberal arts college, and am in the process of putting together the first course of my own. I'm looking forward to seeing your thought processes as you go through some of the same things that I'm grappling with.

  • Peter Zimmerman says:

    I simply don't understand why the first line under C is this mandate:

    "Students will analyze, evaluate, and construct their own arguments or position papers about issues of diversity such as gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation."

    There are many other topics, and for a logic course to push something as in our face as "diversity" in just this way seems dangerous (to the Prof). Whatever would you do if somebody constructed a serious argument against diversity? Give it a good grade or conclude that the student's reasoning had become deficient.

    Are you not going to cover formal logic, predicate logic for example, as Pat Suppes used to teach it at the red-tile-roof school up the road? The course description hints at it, but then I come back to the diversity assignment which is rather antithetical in spirit.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I agree with Peter Zimmerman above. If your goal is to get students to foreground their unstated biases or challenge their implicit assumptions, it might be more fruitful to have them critique the left-wing nostrums that they have been spoon-fed in every other liberal arts course on campus.

    On a less ideological note, I hope that you will include a module on cognitive biases and how these affect moment-to-moment judgments as well as "big picture" beliefs.

  • david says:

    For next time why not write and sell your own text? I've always been a little of the opinion of Thomas Carlyle who cut his books into two parts down the spine so they would be easier to handle. Quite liberating. But at ninety bucks, no. The ninety dollar textbook, hard to justify, not unusual I know. Hopefully it has very good stuff in it and should include a student CD and a free manual for the teacher. If they can do it, you can do it.

    I suggest prescribing the students a structure for their argumentative writing, one which also could be used for oral, and the structure I would choose for them to use would be a modified, as you wish, Quintilian which would suit a logical approach better than the standard seriatim points, usually 1, 2, 3 they are prone to use, and the students could follow each other's purpose.

    "Evaluative comments must be substantive, addressing the quality and form of writing." I've seen this use of 'substantive' before, by a particular blogger. It has serious problems. Who decides what is substantive and how do they do it? Can you tell the students so that they can do it knowing what you are going to think is 'substantive'? I doubt it, and if not is that fair? Why not, more simply, "Evaluative comments must address the quality and form of writing."

    I think the course will be emotionally disturbing, and you should warn the students in advance and tell them how to cope, one of the most valuable things you can teach them, and which you will further show with your own conduct throughout the course.

    One thing among others that will be disturbing is that no one thinks solely by logic, or even mainly by logic. Equalities don't exist outside of people's constructive mind and in abstract math. All nature is made of unique individuals, just look close enough. We may call them equal for convenience, or may not. But the mind knows better and that truly, 'this entity is more or less similar to that entity.' Logic is an aid. It seems to me that Logic begins as if talking about substantives (nouns) and ends with talking about adjectives, not dogs but dogness.

    There is always a struggle, a contest in courses as to who adjusts to whom, teacher to students, or vice versa, and how much. In beginning a new course, that dynamic might should remain flexible and open, because it is at least a three-way, teacher, students, text. You will have some ideas in reserve of course.

    My experience is that a student remains deep in his or her youth, but will not say so. So a Barbie and Ken dilemma would be good, treated lightly. Urban legends would be good, the stolen kidney, the cooked woman at the tanning spa, more. What to eat in a diet would be good.

    Contrary to the comments above, I think a US Supreme Court decision, with dissents, would be excellent toward the end of the course, at which time you should have an idea of which to pick based on the students' development.

    Good luck and I hope you enjoy your students and course very much.

  • david says:

    dogish not dogness

  • Grant says:

    Great to hear that you're doing this. If your writing is anything to go by, I imagine it'll be a great course. (I can imagine a textbook from you!) There's a course like that at Otago University that I blogged about a while ago (here). It had the odd distinction of being the only course that students could take for any degree course. I wish I could offer detailed suggestions for your course but I'm not the best source, but here's my general encouragement! 🙂

    This will be of no real use to you, but for what it's worth, an interview with one of the lecturers of the Otago course said that in the past they used the moon landing hoax conspiracy as one source of material.

  • Tybo says:

    If you haven't already, remember that some graduate and professional entry exams (I'm thinking mainly the GRE) have the "critique the argument" section. Drawing from those examples would serve for a few exercises, at least, as well as having an explicit future payoff for some students. I think you could at least get a few (very) short essays out of that sort of thing.

    Oh, and the examples in those exams tend to be fairly milquetoast, rather than controversial and distracting - probably a good thing.

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