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​University Takes the (Quality) Initiative

Faculty group looks to improve critical thinking instruction

The General Education Program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point provides the framework of a liberal education, equipping students with the knowledge and skills to facilitate intellectual and personal growth, pursue advanced studies, and improve the world in which they live. One of the primary outcomes of the GEP is that students will demonstrate critical thinking, quantitative and communication skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing global society.

A worthy learning outcome to be sure. But how is critical thinking taught? And how can the university teach it better? Tackling these issues is the aim of a universitywide Quality Initiative that involves a number of faculty from the college, including professor of history Nancy LoPatin-Lummis, professor of English Wade Mahon, associate professor of French Vera Klekovkina, and Dona Warren, professor of philosophy and assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science. A Quality Initiative represents the work an institution will undertake in support of its continued accreditation.

“The reason we’re doing this is not so much that there is a serious defect in our teaching, but it’s a way of responding to a very reasonable call from the Higher Learning Commission to continually improve ourselves as a way of maintaining our accreditation,” says Warren.

A focus on critical thinking already had some momentum on campus, stemming from a grant received and implemented last summer. It is a fundamental learning outcome, and is a skill that can be meaningfully discussed across disciplines on a variety of levels.

And yet, Warren says, many instructors presuppose that their students have critical thinking skills instead of teaching those skills explicitly. “That’s not to say they don’t do things that are intentionally designed to improve their ability,” says Warren. “But it’s like writing – I have my students write, but I don’t think about myself as teaching writing. That’s not my expertise.

“What this Quality Initiative is designed to do is to help interested faculty master a way to teach a relatively manageable set of skills, and give them the tools to do that in a way that is somewhat similar across disciplines.”

A key part of the Initiative is the use of argument mapping to provide this common framework that can then be enriched by subject-specific content and expansion. 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.

“I think you can teach critical thinking more efficiently with some sort of graphical representation of arguments, there are good evidence-based reasons to teach it explicitly this way,” says Warren. “The point is to get as many people as possible on the same page so that when people teach critical thinking explicitly, they’re doing it in ways students can perceive to be similar.

“One problem we often face is that students, to the extent they get critical thinking instruction at all, encounter terminological differences that can make it difficult for them to see connections between disciplines and deepen their skills. They are starting from scratch each time.”

Warren says she does not expect the use of argument mapping in all GEP to be mandated across campus, it is strictly voluntary. She and her colleagues are simply looking for a critical mass of interested faculty.
For more on Warren’s work with argument mapping, visit www.uwsp.edu/cols/Pages/Newsletters/Argument-Mapping.aspx.

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