Dr. Steve Taylor

Phone: (309) 438 - 8772

Contact Me

 

Critical Thinking

This web page is devoted to helping students develop better critical thinking skills, which has been identified as one of the primary foundations for courses offer by the College of Business at ISU.

I have prepared a short video primer that can be accessed by clicking here. Students are STRONGLY ENCOURAGED to review prior to submitting written work in my courses.

Thinking involves both producing and evaluating ideas.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Let's begin with the concept of "thinking." Thinking, for purposes of this course, involves purposeful mental activity. Ruggiero (2002) states that thinking is sometimes regarded as two harmonious processes. One process involves the production of ideas (creative thinking), which is accomplished by the widening of one's focus and looking at a myriad of possibilities. The other process is the evaluation of ideas (critical thinking) which one accomplishes by narrowing their focus, sorting out ideas, and identifying the most reasonable ideas. Thus, critical thinking can be defined as "...a set of conceptual tools with associated intellectual skills and strategies useful for making reasonable decisions about what to do or believe (Rudinow and Barry 2004, p. 9). A more formal definition can be found at the Center for Critical Thinking.

Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

Many of you will remember when members of Heaven's Gate committed mass suicide in 1997. Let's take a look at the position of Heaven's Gate as an organization on suicide by clicking here. Many people who read this position would not be persuaded to adopt this viewpoint. However, 39 people killed themselves based on this argument! Whether or not these 39 people were "reasonable" is arguable. However, it IS true that perfectly "reasonable" people sometimes come to hold unreasonable beliefs (e.g., Elvis is still alive, man never really landed on the moon, or aliens walk among us).

Thus, a greater understanding of how we come to believe what we believe and how we interpret information in the process of purposeful thinking is a useful skill, and arguably a responsibility of educated individuals. Rudinow and Barry (2004) extend this position even further by arguing that the importance of critical thinking is paramount because it is related to personal autonomy. They envision autonomy in this case to involve self-regulation or self-directing. Critical thinking is consequently empowering  because it makes one less vulnerable to and dependent upon the dictates, directions, and influence of others. In essence, it allows us a structure to form our own beliefs.

What Is Critical Thinking Basically Trying to Accomplish?

We are fortunate in that a great deal of academic work has emerged to help us all develop better critical thinking skills. One particularly useful source of information is the Center for Critical Thinking. Here you will find a wealth of information, including a brief history of critical thinking, a set of recommended readings to gain further insights into the concept, a glossary of critical thinking terms.

We suggest that a useful staring point is to have student peruse three short discussions from the Center for Critical Thinking.  First, the elements of critical thinking are identified which will assist students in helping understand their own skills from a critical thinking perspective. Second, the valuable intellectual traits or standards that emerge from adoption of a critical thinking perspective are articulated and will help students better understand the indicators of a critical thinker. Finally, a summary of typical grading standards based on these principles can be found by clicking here.

So, How Do We Do It (i.e., Critical Thinking)? Argumentation and the Elements of Reasoning

Seech (2005) states that there can be many uses for language. For example, sometimes we wish to simply convey information. Sometimes we wish to persuade someone of something (i.e., reasons for believing). A third reason for language might be to explain something (i.e., why or how). In business, we attempt to provide "correct" and "persuasive" reasoning. Correct reasoning first involves an argument. So, there are two important elements involved in addressing critical thinking in this course. The first element is argument identification, and the second element is argument evaluation.

Argument Identification: First, we must understand the purpose and basic elements of an argument in order to "think critically" (Machina 2000, p. 37). An argument is defined as "...any giving of reasons, evidence, or support for the claim that something is true."

When someone presents an argument for something, the evidence, reasons or support are directed toward establishing the truth of some conclusion. Thus, "the conclusion of an argument is the point that the rest of the argument is supposed to show to be correct or true. Brown and Keeley (2001) state that one can think of the basic structure of an argument to be, "This because of that." This refers to the conclusion; that refers to to the supporting premises. Key indicator words of a conclusion might include:

but proves that
consequently shows that
hence so
indicates that suggests that
in fact the most obvious explanation
in short the point I'm trying to make
it follows that therefore
it is highly probable that the truth of the matter is
it should be clear that thus
points to the conclusion that we may deduce that

 

A final thought concerning conclusions is in order before progressing to a discussion of the supporting premises. Many, if not most, conclusions in business writing are not obviously stated. They must be inferred, i.e., they are derived from reasoning. This is often very difficult for students for several reasons. First, they often ignore the title of the article and any subtitle (these often relate the key point(s) the author is trying to make). Second, students tend to approach summarization by a process of word reduction. That is, they start deleting words from the article as a method of summarization. However,  this method is extremely poor when conclusions must be inferred.

Unsupported claims or conclusions are called opinions. Opinions (in a formal sense) are not very useful in business practice. That is, the absence of evidence means that there is no argument, only an opinion. In business, we demand conclusions supported by evidence. Each reason, piece of evidence, and each bit of data used in an argument in support of the conclusion is called a premise. Key indicator words of a premise might include:

also for the reason that
as a result of in addition
because of the fact that in view of
first, ..., second is supported by
for researchers found that
for example since the evidence is
for one thing  


So, arguments are the mechanism to persuade others to accept our conclusions based on the premises we provide in support of our conclusions. One of the skills we will practice this semester is identifying the arguments, conclusions, and premises of progressively longer and more difficult articles. Please click here for an excellent (and short) primer on recognizing arguments.

We have developed an example for your consideration in hopes of making this concept clearer. Please click here for a great presentation of the two arguments for and against space exploration. After you have read this article, please click here for how one would distill this presentation down to its conclusions and premises, and how one would apply the critical thinking wheel to this example. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.

Argument Evaluation: Second, how does one evaluate, or conversely, recognize and/or build a "reasonable" argument? Here we introduce a more formal mechanism to develop your own conclusions. One useful mechanism is to use the Elements of Reasoning in the figure of a wheel below. Students often find this wheel useful in crafting their own arguments as well as evaluating the arguments of others. Definitions for each of the terms in this wheel can be found by clicking here.

Now, let's evaluate a classic “pro-lifeargument as an example.

  1. Every fetus is a person.

  2. Every person has a right to life.
  3. Therefore, every fetus has a right to life.
  4. For all A and B, if B has a right to life, then A’s
    intentionally ending B’s life is always morally wrong.

  5. Abortion involves a mother’s intentionally ending the life of a fetus. 
  6. Therefore, abortion is always morally wrong.
The application of the critical thinking wheel mandates the following types of questions and answers:

What are the (likely) goals and objectives of the author of this argument? The answer is probably primarily to sway people from having an abortion, and secondarily to support pro-life legislation.

What is the question at hand? The problem at hand concerns when life begins, and whether it is ever permissible to intentionally end a life.

What information is available (the empirical domain of inquiry)? None is offered in this basic argument.

What are the inferences to be made from this argument? This is primarily a question of logic, i.e., "Since this, therefore that." There is a logic apparent in the presentation, even if one chooses not to agree with that logic. Since a formal discussion of logic and premise evaluation is beyond this course, we will constrain ourselves to identifying the absence or presence of a good "flow" in logic.

How about the relevant concepts? Anything that could be misinterpreted represents a concept. In this case, terms like "fetus," "right to life," "abortion," "intentionality," and "morally wrong" would all qualify as relevant concepts.

What assumptions underlie this argument? The basis for this morals-based argument can generally be tied to a religious underpinning (e.g., god exists and matters to the events of man).

Which implications and consequences emerge from accepting this argument? For example, if you buy into this argument, then you must also not support the death penalty, regardless of the crime.

What are the relevant points of view? The relevant points of view include mothers making  this choice, their families, society, religious organizations, political organizations, etc.

Now that we have identified the arguments in the exercises above, we will now revisit some of these exercises to evaluate the identified arguments using the critical thinking wheel. We will both model how to use the critical thinking wheel to analyze an argument, as well as practice using the wheel on arguments both in class and as a homework exercise. Please click here for some useful tools related to better understanding the reasoning and logic underlying arguments. Feel free to see us with any questions or comments related to these tools.

Previous classes have asked for exemplars to consider prior to conducting actual argument analyses. We have provided two such examples for your consideration. First, please click here for an evaluation of the argument by the Heaven's Gate group concerning suicide. Second, please click here for an evaluation of a Baptist web site articulating the argument that "God hates fags."

Finally, please click here for an example of a student paper submitted during the Fall 2004 semester that illustrates a pretty fair effort at conducting a critical thinking analysis of an academic article related to group behaviors.

Writing & Critical Thinking

A perusal of the critical thinking literature will identify recommendations to use the elements of reasoning by beginning anywhere on the circle as a starting point. However, our experience suggests that students new to critical thinking find such strategies confusing. We therefore recommend that you initially follow the format presented in the graphic below in your thinking BEFORE you start writing to help you organize your approach to critical thinking exercises.

Critical thinking is a learned skill that one acquires through a lifetime of practice. We will begin your own pursuit of critical thinking skills by practicing over the course of the semester applying the identified elements of reasoning in evaluating the arguments of others. We will also apply these same standards in evaluating our own work as part of this class. Washington State University's Critical Thinking Project has developed an excellent critical thinking rubric that will be useful for this purpose. Please note that we will use some form of this type of rubric will be used (either implicitely or explicitely) as the  basis for evaluation of all subsequent work in mu courses.

index1gif

Bibliography

Browne, M. Neil and Stuart Keeley (2001), Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Machina, Kent (2000), The Foundations Book, 2nd Edition. Pearson Custom Publishing, Illinois State University.

Rudinow, Joel and Vincent E. Barry (2004), Invitation to Critical Thinking. Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Ruggiero, Vincent Ryan (2002), Becoming a Critical Thinker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Seech, Zachary (2005), Open Minds and Everyday Reasoning, 2nd Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.