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Mapping a course for better critical thinking

 
By Scott Tappa
 
When Dona Warren joined the Department of Philosophy at UW-Stevens Point in 1995, she was tapped to teach a critical thinking course. She was familiar with the topic from graduate school, but was unimpressed with the textbook she had used. When Warren sought guidance from her adviser, he grabbed a random sample textbook from his shelf and handed it over.
 
“He said, ‘Here, try this one,’” Warren says. “I opened it and saw an argument map. I instantly knew what the map was, and that this is what I wanted to do.”
 
Twenty years later Warren, now a professor of philosophy and assistant dean for curriculum and student affairs in the College of Letters and Science, is a full-fledged argument mapping evangelist, spreading the word about its benefits all over campus.
 
Argument mapping is a way of graphically representing the logical structure of an argument, illustrating its conclusions, premises, subconclusions, inferential relationships and what ideas work to support each other. This differs from arguments presented in prose, which uses words like ‘therefore’ and ‘because’ but does not display those relationships in the way an argument map does.
 
“What I’ve discovered is it’s often a challenge for the average reader to correctly identify the structure of an argument when presented in prose, even arguments of a relatively simple structure,” says Warren. “That can be devastating because if someone doesn’t understand how an argument works, it makes it almost impossible to evaluate that argument appropriately – what questions to ask, what to look for.”
 
The importance of evaluating arguments or other units of reasoning is not limited to the classroom. Any communication designed to convince someone of something – letters to the editor, blogs, editorials, sales pitches – can be better understood using argument mapping. Argument mapping can be effectively taught, particularly when instructors are aware of challenges that learners routinely face.
 
“The biggest struggle is correctly discerning relationships between ideas,” says Warren. “It is awfully easy for individual students to get confused about which ideas support which, even when using ‘therefore’ and ‘because.’ When students flip inferential relationships they are misunderstanding the reasoning; if they are engaged in a larger conversation, that’s going to handicap them, which is why I think this needs to be explicitly taught.”
 
During the summer Warren worked with faculty from across campus on ways to incorporate argument mapping into classes. The group includes Vera Klekovkina of World Languages and Literatures, Director of General Education Nancy LoPatin-Lummis of History, Wade Mahon of English and Cade Spaulding of Communication. “Any discipline that requires students to grasp and present reasoning can use argument mapping,” says Warren. “That’s pretty much all disciplines.”
 
Also during the summer the group met with Timo ter Berg, CEO of Critical Thinking Skills, who visited campus to discuss Rationale, an online application that enables users to structure their thinking and writing by creating argument maps and exporting them as text. Warren says several faculty members have made plans to incorporate Rationale into their teaching.
 
Another resource for better understanding and using argument mapping is Warren’s new YouTube channel devoted to the subject. Viewable at www.youtube.com/channel/UC_37QhbKCrh-dzJBEfKWKVw, Warren’s channel is designed to serve as an introduction to argument mapping. Next up is a project that would encourage the use of argument mapping in select courses of the General Education Program.
 
“I am elated about that,” she says. “I’m not unaware of the challenges of doing this. Part of it is the intellectual challenge – what’s the least students need to know that would still be useful to them while merging that with content in different fields? Then, how can faculty be supported for incorporating that into classrooms? This could be a unifying approach to critical thinking.”

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