My first impression as I started to work with Reason in the Balance (2nd edition) was excitement at the wealth of instructor resources. Just the introduction to the Instructor’s Manual provides a wealth of strategies for managing and designing the class.

I have also been pleased to find the Powerpoint slides, and the quizzes, which are immense help especially for the first time one uses the book.  Given how often new instructors are given critical thinking courses to teach, these aids can be invaluable. Even a veteran like myself can be aided in making the best use of an unfamiliar book.

I am still enjoying these resources: I am happily using and reworking many of the powerpoint slides — it saves a great deal of time and energy.  So far, my biggest disappointment is that I have been looking for something I can’t find.  The second chapter has an exercise that refers to a video the instructor will show — so the students may apply the analysis just taught.  It seems like a great activity for class, and I was looking forward to it.  I expected given all the resources that some suggestions would be provided, but found none.

So, I was torn between trying to come up with something myself, and risking not finding anything that works, or using a less dynamic exercise. But after 20 minutes I did find a fun example: 

Normally I avoid sports examples like the plague but I thought the students would enjoy it, and indeed they did. It was good to go beyond my comfort zone and into arenas more familiar to some of them. We used it to apply the 5 guiding questions for inquiry set forth by Bailin and Battersby. It works remarkably well given that one can really only hear one side of the discussion, and the volume is extremely inconsistent.  I wish the authors had provided an appropriate clip — or two!


Getting started with Bailin & Battersby

I knew that Bailin and Battersby would provide good exercises and I anticipate (still only one class in) that their book will really engage students. The instructor manual turns out to pay a lot of attention to how to involve students, and the other resources are even better than I’d hoped: the slides provide opportunities for discussion and don’t simply repeat what’s in the textbook; plus Bailin and Battersby provide quizzes, which solves the huge problem of coming up with examples that mirror the style and difficulty of the textbook.

I really like the focus on inquiry in the first chapter too. It connects students’ own decision making with institutional research and epistemological norms.

I’m focussing on two skills today — the second class. The first is featured in a slide in the instructor materials but doesn’t get so much attention in the textbook, unfortunately. This is the question of identifying an issue (or controversy or question) and distinguishing it from a topic and a thesis. At the first-year level I think this is extremely valuable for students.  It will be obvious for some, but I have known students in later years who didn’t understand the difference between a topic and a thesis, so this discussion should assist with that obstacle to later learning.

Second, I’m focussing on identifying opportunities for inquiry. This is the subject of one of the exercises in the text, and it’s fairly straightforward to test.

I did notice that this book, as most good ones, demands students provide explanations for their identifications.  This is a basic academic skill, and it too deserves to be taught at the first-year level.  There is further discussion of explanation later in the book, but 51zbMkX0c+L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_students need an account of what they are supposed to do. In“>Biggs’s language, they need “alignment,” to be taught how to do what will be the basis for their evaluation.  So I’ve added a slide about the nature of explanation — using familiar language to make a case identifiable or applying a concept in detail to show how it characterizes an example. Of course, there is a large philosophical literature on explanation, but controversy hasn’t stopped critical thinking educators before. Nor do I think it should. I tend to think that bringing such debates into pedagogical context helps put such philosophy of science or philosophy of language controversies into a context that clarifies the scope and significance of those technical discussions.

I have another, more pointed criticism of this chapter.  The philosophical discussions of the nature and value of inquiry make a number of distinctions: nature, value, and features in particular.  These are all used to characterize inquiry without an explanation of what distinguishes and connects these different perspectives on the task. Partly as a result, I found the associated exercises useless. While I will do a little lecturing on the epistemological discussion that they parse in this vague way I do so only because I expect it to prime students for some of the lessons later in the book and because it connects their discussion with Gilbert’s book. I wish they had been clearer about these fundamental ideas and how they want students (and instructors) to apply them.

Homework: To grade or not to grade

Grading homework has undeniable value. Students need feedback on their work to learn and the more personal and individuated the more they are likely to benefit. But the turnaround time for grading can make it frustrating for everyone. The class has already moved on to the next topic or so by the time students receive graded feedback, and so both students and instructors end up juggling multiple cognitive skills in a way that seems to interfere with learning, and the progress of the course.check-mark-1292787_960_720

So this term I’m not grading any homework. I’ve done this before in a fallacies class, just go through the answers in class. Previously, I simply kept it on the honour system, but it was a small enough class at around 20 that we could have good discussion. This time with 90 1st-year students I will give them credit for simply completing their homework: 1 mark for completion when they arrive in class ready to take it up, and partial marks for partial efforts. Not done or done late? No credit. Students can miss one — due to illness or whatever — and still get a perfect grade: They will have 11 opportunities to earn 10 marks.

I developed this structure in part because of advice I received from a friend who teaches the very large intro psych class: keep them busy in class. That applies to class rather than homework, of course, because in a large class it’s especially easy for student to disengage.

But it reminded me how valuable simply attempting the exercises can be — especially at a first-year level with students from all across the campus, many away from home for the first time, most who will never take another philosophy class. Engaging such a range of students who are just discovering post-secondary education is a big challenge.

All argumentation and critical thinking classes depend greatly on practice, like any other skills-based course such as a performance or lab course, and keeping students engaged can be as valuable as detailed feedback. This may be especially true at the introductory level where they have more to gain from simply working through the problems. In learning the proper answers in class they still have the opportunity to learn from their errors, to start their descent on that Dunning-Kruger curve.Dunning Kruger Chart


It may be too that being responsible for evaluating the correctness of their own answers will give students an authority that they appreciate. Of course I know that people have a difficult time recognizing our own errors, but that is a skill students can develop during the course.There will be opportunities for students to get detailed feedback and coaching too, but they must seek it out.

Perhaps students will collaborate in their learning? The in-class exercises will encourage that. Are they likely to plagiarize their homework? To copy from each other? Unfortunately, I expect it from time-to-time, and will direct my graduate assistants to be on the lookout. However, the students’ greater loss should they cheat in copying homework will be in their lost opportunity to learn from their real mistakes; and that will hurt them when it comes to the tests, which are worth a great deal more in terms of grades. Those who go through that may learn something distinct too, about how learning can’t be short-cut, that they have over-estimated their own competence; but they will still in other ways be behind the others.