Get more than what you can pay for: Free on-line CT texts

(Report from Brigham Bartol.)

One simple way of avoiding the struggle to get exactly what you want from a textbook that will be a big expense for your students is to skip the publisher altogether and post content online. There are several online sources for critical thinking, from webpages to handbooks to blogs. There are a few authors, however, who take web-based critical thinking material even further by providing entire textbooks online for free. So far we’ve included two of these books in our analysis – Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” and Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual”.  Swoyer’s and a few others were discussed here two years ago.

Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” provides a very clear and straightforward but still thorough introduction to the basic elements of reasoning, with special attention to scientific reasoning and what Woods dubs “real-world” applications. One of the benefits of an online text is that the author is free to organize chapters in a more accessible way than printed texts allow – Woods’ text comes in four folders for four different sections, which could be read through as a whole or taken separately. The book makes great use of hyperlinks to other chapters and outside sources, so that if students ever become lost they can more easily navigate technical terms and references. Perhaps the most useful thing about Woods’ text, which gives it an advantage over others, is that it is constantly being updated and edited. Uploading his publicly accessible text to Google Drive, Woods makes weekly edits to the documents, ensuring that they are always up to date.

The text does a good job of covering both deduction and induction, but the chapter on “real-world” reasoning is particularly useful for critical thinking. In this section Woods teaches the reader how to analyze, interpret, classify, diagram, and evaluate arguments, making extensive use of exercises so that the reader is constantly engaging in the practices they are reading about. Woods’ examples are often drawn from real-life sources, or common arguments that many readers might encounter. One section which stands out as unique is devoted to ‘reasoning substitutes’ – common strategies used to avoid giving reasons, shift the burden of proof, or offer up false reasons. Woods describes how to recognize these tactics and deal with them appropriately. This sort of accessible and practical approach to everyday problems in reasoning and argument is not always included in reasoning texts, but seems essential to any good critical thinking course.

Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual” is available in full as a pdf file. As in Woods’ text, hyperlinks make navigating the contents of the book much easier than in a traditional printed text. A User’s Manual pays detailed attention to psychology, focusing on perception, memory, and emotion. It devotes one of its chapters to heuristics and biases, and another to problems in reasoning which arise in social contexts. At 640 pages, Swoyer’s text is a detailed and thorough look into critical thinking, and should especially be considered as a source by anyone developing a critical thinking course which focuses on the psychological aspects of reasoning.

Online texts maintain both authorial integrity and accessibility. With a subject like critical thinking, which is so important across all disciplines, it’s vital to have open and accessible texts which are also relevant and accurate. Both Woods and Swoyer seem to have achieved this goal, and we hope that more authors will turn to the internet as a way of spreading educational material.