Saturday, March 28, 2009

No Computer Program Required: Even Pencil-And-Paper Argument Mapping Improves Critical Thinking Skills

Harrell, Maralee. Teaching Philosophy, Dec2008, Vol. 31 Issue 4, p351-374, 24p

The author explains that after she "stumbled across" Tim van Gelder's argument mapping software Reason!Able, she became intrigued as to how little she truly understood her own arguments she made while teaching philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. According to the author, "I found, to my surprise, that I did not understand these arguments as well as I thought I had, and that the mapping was forcing me to analyze and synthesize in a way that I had never done before." The author explains how, especially in philosophy, arguments are not linear, and by applying argument mapping techniques it is possible to analyze different areas of the argument that one may not have seen previously and identify area that are not as well developed.

The author notes several rules to be used in the development of argument maps. First, look for premise and conclusion indicators. Examples include "since, because, for, given that; and some
common conclusion indicators are: therefore, thus, so, hence." Second, rewrite statements as individual sentences. Third, make sure to include all premises and conclusions; leave nothing to be implied. Lastly, "clearly indicate the difference between premises that need to be combined in order to support a conclusion, and premises that are each separate reasons to believe a conclusion."

The author, after incorporating argument mapping via paper-and-pencil diagrams, saw a marked improvement in her students critical thinking abilities and analysis skills. In order to further test the validity of the method, argument mapping techniques were taught in 5 out of 9 introductory philosophy courses at Carnegie Mellon, whereas those methods were not taught in the remaining 4. The goal was twofold: "The first is that all of our students, no matter how they are taught, are gaining argument analysis skills by taking our introductory course. This is important to know if we are then going to inquire which students gained more. This hypothesis implies that, on average, all students in introductory philosophy will exhibit significant improvement on argument analysis tasks over the course of the semester. The second hypothesis is that the ability to construct argument maps that accurately reflect the text they are analyzing is a considerable aid for improving students’ argument analysis skills (more of an aid that being able to represent an argument some other way). This second hypothesis implies that students who are able to construct argument diagrams and use them during argument analysis tasks should perform better on these tasks than students who do not have this ability." Although some students did use computer software, most used the paper-and-pencil method.

The first hypothesis was confirmed: all students in the study, whether they used argument mapping or not, increased to some degree their argument analysis abilities by virtue of being in the class. The second hypothesis was confirmed as well: students who used argument mapping techniques, did in fact, improve their argument analysis abilities to a greater degree then those that did not employ the technique.

The author concludes by stating that although many tools are available to conduct argument mapping, the method itself is effective no matter what tool is used. In fact, various tools were used during the study at the discretion of the student and instructor. "In our course, instructors and students are free to use any kind of medium they prefer to build argument maps. Some instructors use computer software, while others use the chalk board or overhead slides; similarly some students use one of a variety of drawing programs, while others use just pencils and paper. Our results show that the argument mapping skill, no matter how the maps are produced, is an important part of the gains in argument analysis abilities our students achieve. While on average all of the students in each of the lectures improved their abilities on these tasks over the course of the semester, the most dramatic improvements were made by the students who were able to construct argument maps." Thus, the visual representation of the argument itself was more important than the tool used to develop that image.

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