Your_College_Experience_9e_Ch05 - Preparing for SUCCESS...

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Unformatted text preview: Preparing for SUCCESS Preparing to STUDY Preparing for LIFE In this chapter you will explore Confessions of a COLLEGE STUDENT... ‘‘ ’’ AMANDA ZELL, 19 University of Sioux Falls the most important skill you’ll acquire in college is the ability and confidence to think for yourself. Courses in every discipline will encourage you to ask questions, to sort through competing information and ideas, to form well-reasoned opinions, and to defend them. A liberal college education teaches you to investigate all sides of an issue and all possible solutions to a problem before you reach a conclusion or decide on a plan of action. Indeed, the word liberal (from the Latin libero, meaning “to free”) has no political connotation in this context but represents the purpose of a college education: to liberate your mind from biases, superstitions, prejudices, and lack of knowledge so that you’ll be in a better position to seek answers to difficult questions. If you have just completed high school, you might be experiencing an awakening as you adjust to college. If you’re an older returning student, discovering that your instructors trust you to find valid answers could be both surprising and stressful. If a high school teacher asked, “What are the three branches of the U.S. government?” there was only one acceptable answer: “legislative, executive, and judicial.” A college instructor, on the other hand, might ask, “Under what circumstances might conflicts arise among the three branches of government, and what does this reveal about the democratic process?” There is no simple—or single—answer, and that’s the point of higher education. Questions that suggest complex answers engage you in the process of critical thinking. Most important questions don’t have simple answers, and satisfying answers can be elusive. To reach them, you will have to discover numerous ways to view important issues. You will need to become comfortable with uncertainty. And you must be willing to challenge assumptions and conclusions, even those presented by so-called experts. It is natural to find critical thinking difficult, to feel frustrated by answers that are seldom entirely wrong or right. Yet the complicated questions are usually the ones that are most worthy of study, and working out the answers can be both intellectually exciting and personally rewarding. In this chapter, we will explain how developing and applying your critical-thinking skills can make the search for truth a worthwhile and stimulating adventure. Let’s start with what critical thinking is not. By “critical,” we do not mean “negative” or “harsh.” Rather, the term refers to thoughtful consideration of the information, ideas, and arguments that you encounter. Critical thinking is the ability to think for yourself and to reliably and responsibly make the decisions that affect your life. As Richard Paul and Linda Elder of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking explain it, “critical thinking is that mode of thinking about any subject, content, or problem in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully . . . imposing intellectual standards upon [his or her thoughts].”1 They believe that much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and the quality of what we produce, make, or build depend precisely on the quality of our thought. Paul and Elder also caution that shoddy thinking is costly. How so? You probably know people who simply follow authority. They do not question, are not curious, and do not challenge people or groups who claim special knowledge or insight. These people do not usually think for themselves but rely on others to think for them. They might indulge in wishful, hopeful, and emotional thinking, assuming that what they believe is true simply because they wish it, hope it, or feel it to be true. As you might have noticed, such people tend not to have much control over their circumstances or to possess any real power in business or society. Critical thinkers, in contrast, investigate problems, ask questions, pose new answers that challenge the status quo, discover new information, question authorities and traditional beliefs, challenge received dogmas and doctrines, 1 Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008). make independent judgments, and develop creative solutions. When employers say they want workers who can find reliable information, analyze it, organize it, draw conclusions from it, and present it convincingly to others, they are seeking individuals who are critical thinkers. Whatever else you do in college, make it a point to develop and sharpen your critical-thinking skills. You won’t become an accomplished critical thinker overnight. But with practice, you can learn how to tell whether information is truthful and accurate. You can make better decisions, come up with fresh solutions to difficult problems, and communicate your ideas strategically and persuasively.2 In essence, critical thinking is a search for truth. In college and in life, you’ll be confronted by a mass of information and ideas. Much of what you read and hear will seem suspect, and a lot of it will be contradictory. (If you have ever talked back to a television commercial or doubted a politician’s campaign promises, you know this already.) How do you decide what to believe? Paul and Elder remind us that there may be more than one right answer to any given question. The task is to determine which of the “truths” you read or hear are the most plausible and then draw on them to develop ideas of your own. Difficult problems practically demand that you weigh options and think through consequences before you can reach an informed decision. Critical thinking also involves improving the way you think about a subject, statement, or idea. To do that, you’ll need to ask questions, consider several different points of view, and draw your own conclusions. The first step of thinking critically is to engage your curiosity. Instead of accepting statements and assertions at face value, question them. When you come across an idea or a “fact” that strikes you as interesting, confusing, or suspicious, ask yourself first what it means. Do you fully understand what is being said, or do you need to pause and think to make sense of the idea? Do you agree with the statement? Why or why not? Can the material be interpreted in more than one way? 2 Liz Brown, Critical Thinking (New York: Weigl Publishers, 2008), p. 4. Don’t stop there. Ask whether you can trust the person or institution making a particular claim, and ask whether they have provided enough evidence to back up an assertion (more on this later). Ask who might be likely to agree or disagree and why. Ask how a new concept relates to what you already know, where you might find more information about the subject, and what you could do with what you learn. Finally, ask yourself about the implications and consequences of accepting something as truth. Will you have to change your perspective or give up a long-held belief? Will it require you to do something differently? Will it be necessary to investigate the issue further? Do you anticipate having to try to bring other people around to a new way of thinking? Once you start asking questions, you’ll typically discover a slew of different possible answers competing for your attention. Don’t be too quick to latch onto one and move on. To be a critical thinker, you need to be fair and openminded, even if you don’t agree with certain ideas at first. Give them all a fair hearing, because your goal is to find the truth or the best action, not to confirm what you already believe. Often, you will recognize the existence of competing points of view on your own, perhaps because they’re held by people you know personally. You might discover them in what you read, watch, or listen to for pleasure. Reading assignments might deliberately expose you to conflicting arguments and theories about a subject, or you might encounter differences of opinion as you do research for a project. In class discussions, also, your instructors might often insist that more than one valid point of view exists: “So, for some types of students, you agree that bilingual education might be best? What types of students might not benefit?” Your instructors will expect you to explain in concrete terms any point you reject: “You think this essay is flawed. Well, what are your reasons?” They might challenge the authority of experts: “Dr. Fleming’s theory sounds impressive. But here are some facts he doesn’t account for . . ..” Your instructors will also sometimes reinforce your personal views and experiences: “So something like this happened to you once, and you felt exactly the same way. Can you tell us why?” The more ideas you entertain, the more sophisticated your own thinking will become. Ultimately, you will discover not only that is it okay to change your mind, but that a willingness to do so is the mark of a reasonable, educated person. Once you have considered different points of view, it’s up to you to reach your own conclusions, to craft a new idea based on what you’ve learned, or to make a decision about what you’ll do with the information you have. This process isn’t necessarily a matter of figuring out the best idea. Depending on the goals of the activity, it might be simply the one that you think is the most fun or the most practical, or it might be a new idea of your own creation. For a business decision, it might involve additional cost-benefit analysis to decide which computer equipment to purchase for your office. In a chemistry lab, it might be a matter of interpreting the results of an experiment. In a creative writing workshop, students might collaborate to select the most workable plot for a classmate’s short story. Or a social worker might conduct multiple interviews before recommending a counseling plan for a struggling family. Drawing conclusions involves looking at the outcome of your inquiry in a more demanding, critical way. If you are looking for solutions to a problem, which ones really seem most promising after you have conducted an exhaustive search for materials? Do some answers conflict with others? Which ones can be achieved? If you have found new evidence, what does that new evidence show? Do your original beliefs hold up? Do they need to be modified? Which notions should be abandoned? Most important, consider what you would need to do or say to persuade someone else that your ideas are valid. Thoughtful conclusions aren’t very useful if you can’t share them with others. A 1995 study by Professor Anuradha A. Gokhale at Western Illinois University, published in the Journal of Technology Education, found that students who participated in collaborative learning performed significantly better on a test requiring critical thinking than did students who studied individually. The study also found that the two groups did equally well on a test that required only memorization.3 3 Anuradha Gokhale, “Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking,” Journal of Technology Education, 1995, 7.1. Having more than one student involved in the learning process generates a greater number of ideas. People think more clearly when they are talking as well as listening (a very good reason to participate actively in your classes). Creative brainstorming and group discussion encourage original thought. These habits also teach participants to consider alternative points of view carefully and to express and defend their own ideas clearly. As a group negotiates ideas and learns to agree on the most reliable thoughts, it moves closer to a surer solution. Collaboration occurs not only face to face, but also over the Internet. Christopher P. Sessums, creator of an award-winning blog, writes: “Collaborative weblogs,” Sessums concludes, “promote the idea of learners as creators of knowledge, not merely consumers of information.”4 So do online discussion groups, wikis (which allow users to add, update, and otherwise improve material that others have posted), and, of course, face-toface collaboration. Whether in person or through electronic communication, teamwork improves your ability to think critically. As you leave college and enter the world of work, you will find that collaboration is essential in almost any career you pursue, not only with people in your work setting, but also with others around the globe. 4 Christopher Sessums, Eduspaces weblog, November 9, 2005. Available at: weblog/archive/2005/11. What does the word argument mean to you? If you’re like most people, the first image it conjures up might be an ugly fight you had with a friend, a yelling match you witnessed on the street, or a heated disagreement between family members. True, such unpleasant confrontations are arguments. But the word also refers to a calm, reasoned effort to persuade someone of the value of an idea. When you think of it this way, you’ll quickly recognize that arguments are central to academic study, work, and life in general. Scholarly articles, business memos, and requests for spending money all have something in common: The effective ones make a general claim, provide reasons to support it, and back up those reasons with evidence. That’s what argument is. As we have already seen, it’s important to consider multiple points of view, or arguments, in tackling new ideas and complex questions. But arguments are not all equally valid. Good critical thinking involves thinking creatively about the assumptions that might have been left out and scrutinizing the quality of the evidence that is used to support a claim. Whether examining an argument or communicating one, a good critical thinker is careful to ensure that ideas are presented in an understandable, logical way. Wired WINDOW All too often, our beliefs are based on gut feelings or on blind acceptance of something we’ve heard or read. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. If we made a habit of questioning absolutely everything, we would have trouble making it through the day. Yet some assumptions should be examined more thoughtfully, especially if they will influence an important decision or serve as the foundation for an argument. For an example, imagine that the mayor of the city where your school is located has announced that he wants to make a bid to host the Olympic Games. Many people on campus are excited at the prospect, but your friend Richard is less than thrilled. “The Olympic Games just about ruined my hometown,” Richard tells you. “Road signs all over Atlanta had to be changed so that visitors could find the game sites easily. Because the city couldn’t supply enough workers to complete the task on time, the organizers brought thousands of immigrants to town to help with the task, and some of them were illegal aliens. The Games are intended to foster national and international pride, but these immigrants could care less about that. They were there to earn money for their families. The Hispanic population nearly doubled once the Games were over. And if people understood how much political corruption went on behind the scenes, they would understand why the Olympic Games are not healthy for a host city.” Another friend, Sally, overhears your conversation, and she’s not buying Richard’s conclusions. “How do you know all of that is accurate?” she asks. “I just know it,” says Richard. Eager to get at the truth of the matter, Sally decides to look into other points of view. She does a quick web search and finds an article about the Atlanta Olympics in the American Historical Review, the journal of record for the history profession in the United States. Its author notes that “the Games provided an enormous engine for growth” and comments that the city’s “surging population is the most obvious marker of Atlanta’s post-Olympic transformation.” The article continues: “By the 1996 Games the metro population had reached three million, and today [is] 4,458,253. Winning the Olympic bid marked a turning point that put Atlanta on the world’s radar screen.”6 6 Mary G. Rolinson, visiting lecturer in the Georgia State University History Department, “Atlanta Before and After the Olympics.” Copyright © American Historical Association. Available at: Although Sally has found good information from a reputable source, you should be uncomfortable with the totally upbeat tone of the article. If you and Sally dig a little further, you might land on the website of the Utah Office of Tourism, which includes a report that was prepared when that state was investigating the potential impacts of hosting the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. According to the report, “Among the key legacies of the Atlanta Olympics was the regeneration of certain downtown districts that had fallen into urban decay.” The authors also note that “the Olympic-spurred development in [Atlanta] has provided a much-needed stimulus for revitalization.”7 Finding a second positive analysis would give you a compelling reason to believe that the Olympic Games are good for a city, but Richard might easily discover a report from the European Tour Operators Association, which concludes that visitors are likely to stay away from host countries during and following the Games, causing a significant long-term decline in revenue for hotels and other businesses that depend on tourism.8 Unfortunately, simply learning more about the benefits and costs of hosting the Olympics doesn’t yield any concrete answers. Even so, you, Richard, and Sally have uncovered assumptions and have developed a better understanding of the issue. That’s an important first step. The evidence that is offered as support for an argument can vary in quality. While Richard started with no proof other than his convictions (“I just know it”), Sally looked to expert opinion and research studies for answers to her question. Even so, one of her sources sounded overly positive, prompting a need to confirm the author’s claims with additional evidence from other sources. Like Sally, critical thinkers are careful to check that the evidence supporting an argument—whether someone else’s or their own—is of the highest possible quality. To do that, simply ask a few questions about the arguments as you consider them: What general idea am I being asked to accept? Are good and sufficient reasons given to support the overall claim? Are those reasons backed up with evidence in the form of facts, statistics, and quotations? Does the evidence support the conclusions? Is the argument based on logical reasoning, or does it appeal mainly to the emotions? 7 Utah Office of Tourism, Observations from Past Olympic Host Communities: Executive Summary. Available at: 8 “Olympics Have Negative Effect on Tourism,” July 10, 2008. Available at: Do I recognize any questionable assumptions? Can I think of any counterarguments? What facts can I muster as proof? What do I know about the person or organization making the argument? If, after you have evaluated the evidence used in support of a claim, you’re still not certain of its quality, it’s best to keep looking. Drawing on questionable evidence for an argument has a tendency to backfire. In most cases, a little persistence will help you find something better. (You can find tips on how to find and evaluate sources in Chapter 11, “Developing Library, Research, and Information Literacy Skills.”) A critical thinker has an attitude—an attitude of wanting to avoid nonsense, to find the truth and to discover the best action. It’s an attitude that rejects intuiting what is right in favor of requiring reasons. Instead of being defensive or emotional, critical thinkers aim to be logical. Although logical reasoning is essential to solving any problem, whether simple or complex, you need to go one step further to make sure that an argument hasn’t been compromised by faulty reasoning. Here are some of the most common missteps people make in their use of logic: Attacking the person. It’s perfectly acceptable to argue against other people’s positions or to attack their arguments. It is not okay, however, to go after their personalities. Any argument that resorts to personal attack (“Why should we believe a cheater?”) is unworthy of consideration. Begging. “Please, officer, don’t give me a ticket because if you do, I’ll lose my license, and I have five little children to feed and won’t be able to feed them if I can’t drive my truck.” None of the driver’s statements offer any evidence, in any legal sense, as to why she shouldn’t be given a ticket. Pleading might work, if the officer is feeling generous, but an appeal to facts and reason would be more effective: “I fed the meter, but it didn’t register the coins. Since the machine is broken, I’m sure you’ll agree that I don’t deserve a ticket.” Appealing to false authority. Citing authorities, such as experts in a field or the opinions of qualified researchers, can offer valuable support for an argument. But a claim based on the authority of someone whose expertise is questionable relies on the appearance of authority rather than real evidence. We see this all the time in advertising: Sports stars who are not doctors, dieticians, or nutritionists urge us to eat a certain brand of food, or famous actors and singers who are not dermatologists extol the medical benefits of a pricey remedy for acne. Jumping on a bandwagon. Sometimes we are more likely to believe something if a lot of other people believe it. Even the most widely accepted truths, however, can turn out to be wrong. There was a time when nearly everyone believed that the world was flat—until someone came up with evidence to the contrary. Assuming that something is true because it hasn’t been proven false. Go to a bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of books detailing close encounters with flying saucers and extraterrestrial beings. These books describe the person who had the close encounter as beyond reproach in integrity and sanity. Because critics could not disprove the claims of the witnesses, the events are said to have really occurred. Even in science, few things are ever proved completely false, but evidence can be discredited. Falling victim to false cause. Frequently, we make the assumption that just because one event followed another, the first event must have caused the second. This reasoning is the basis for many superstitions. The ancient Chinese once believed that they could make the sun reappear after an eclipse by striking a large gong, because they knew that the sun reappeared after a large gong had been struck on one such occasion. Most effects, however, are usually the result of a complex web of causes. Don’t be satisfied with easy before-and-after claims; they are rarely correct. Making hasty generalizations. If someone selected one green marble from a barrel containing a hundred marbles, you wouldn’t assume that the next marble would be green. After all, there are still ninety-nine marbles in the barrel, and you know nothing about the colors of those marbles. However, given fifty draws from the barrel, each of which produced a green marble after the barrel had been shaken thoroughly, you would be more willing to conclude that the next marble drawn would be green, too. Reaching a conclusion based on the opinion of one source is like figuring that all the marbles in the barrel are green after pulling out only one. Fallacies like these can slip into even the most careful reasoning. One false claim can derail an entire argument, so be on the lookout for weak logic in what you read and write. Never forget that accurate reasoning is a key factor for success in college and in life. As you practice the skills of critical thinking in college, they start to become a natural part of your life. Eventually, you will be able to think your way through many everyday situations, such as these: You try to reach a classmate on the phone to ask a question about tomorrow’s quiz. When you can’t reach her, you become so anxious that you can’t study or sleep. On the day an important paper is due, a heavy snowstorm rolls in. You brave the cold to get to class. When you arrive, no one—including the teacher—is there. You take a seat and wait. Now let’s transform you into a critical thinker and examine the possible outcomes: When you can’t reach a classmate on the phone to ask a question about tomorrow’s quiz, you review the material once more, then call one or more other classmates. Then you consider their views and those of your textbook and class. Instead of deciding on one point of view for each important topic, you decide to keep in mind all of those that make sense, leaving your final decision until you have the quiz in your hand. Before heading out to class in a big snowstorm, you check the college website and discover that classes have been canceled. You stay at home. If you hang onto the guidelines in this chapter, we can’t promise your classes will be easier, but they will certainly be more interesting. You will now know how to use critical thinking to figure things out instead of depending purely on how you feel or what you’ve heard. As you listen to a lecture, try to predict where it is heading and why. When other students raise issues, ask yourself whether they have enough information to justify what they have said. And when you raise your hand, remember that asking a sensible question can be more important than trying to find the elusive—and often nonexistent— “right answer.” Imagine a world in which physicians tried a new procedure on a patient before it had been tested, your history course was taught by someone who never studied history, and you put your total faith in a hair restorer just because the advertising said it would grow hair in two weeks. As a critical thinker, you would know better. Where to go FOR HELP... Chapter REVIEW... One-Minute PAPER... Applying What You’ve LEARNED... Building Your PORTFOLIO... ‘‘ ’’ ...
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This note was uploaded on 05/02/2010 for the course SCI/162 AAGR0OHNS2 taught by Professor Helencole during the Spring '10 term at University of Phoenix.

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