Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Argument Maps Improve Critical Thinking

Charles R. Twardy
Revised draft for publication in Teaching Philosophy
School of Computer Science and Software Engineering
Monash University, Australia

When Charles R. Twardy, a professor at Monash University, first heard about Tim van Gelder's Reason!Able argument mapping software, Twardy was quite skeptical about the effectiveness of the methodology. Rumors circulated that the new software had the ability to drastically increase the quality of critical thinking by van Gelder's students. Twardy contacted van Gelder and the two professors agreed that Twardy should visit van Gelder's university and teach one of his classes to see if students' critical thinking skills really do improve with the Reason!Able software (argument mapping) or whether the students benefit from the "founder effect."

The Reason!Able software for argument mapping amazed Twardy. He saw a significant improvement in the abilities of his students to think critically about arguments after taking a course on the Reason!Able software and the argument mapping methodology. Twardy concluded that "Computer-based argument mapping greatly enhances student critical thinking, more than tripling absolute gains made by other methods." (The gains, or scores, Twardy is referring to are those from the California Critical Thinking Skills Test)

The most significant advantage that argument mapping provides students is the ability to show precisely how students make errors in their reasoning, making it much easier for them to fix their errors. Specifically, argument maps help us to understand how arguments are structured. Typically, we do not make the distinction between two claims forming part of a single reason or whether they are parts of separate reasons. Prose does not force students to know the structure of arguments. Even if you understand an argument, you may not understand the argument's structure.

The second benefit to argument mapping is the methodology's versatility. Argument mapping is a general skill that can be applied to all kinds of arguments.

The major negative to Reason!Able and argument mapping is that users really need a class and significant practice to master the skill. Almost anyone who is asked to map a two-paragraph argument fails to do so correctly. Twardy argues that "practice is clearly important; argument mapping without practice would not much improve critical thinking."

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