Learning to analyze and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and points of view

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Authors: Patricia Armstrong, Vanderbilt University; Sonja Moyer, US Army Command and General Staff College; Katherine Stanton, Princeton University

The critical evaluation of ideas, arguments, and points of view is important for the development of students as autonomous thinkers (1, 2). It is only through this critical evaluation that students can distinguish among competing claims for truth and determine which arguments and points of views they can trust and those of which they should be skeptical. This work lays the foundation for students’ progressing to staking their own claims in an intellectually rigorous fashion. Learning how to analyze and critically evaluate arguments thus helps them to develop a sound framework to test their own arguments and advance their own points of view.Objective 11 reflects an important component of the educational process – training students in the habits of thought in our disciplines. IDEA research has found that it is related to Objectives #6 through #10 and Objective #12, which all address activities at the upper levels of cognitive taxonomies, activities requiring application and frequent synthesis and evaluation of ideas and events (3). Active processing is critical to our students’ long-term retention of ideas and concepts and their ability to transfer those ideas and concepts to other contexts (4).

There is a link between this objective and developing deeper understandings of the self and the world. By encouraging our students to adopt a critical framework, we prepare them not only to engage in scholarly conversation and debate in our disciplines, but also to be engaged citizens in a democratic society. As Patricia King points out,

a student who appreciates why people approach controversial issues in her discipline from different perspectives is more likely to see and appreciate the reasons people approach social controversies from different perspectives. By the same token, a student who evaluates knowledge claims in his major by reference to the strength of the evidence in support of conflicting hypotheses would also be more inclined to evaluate contradictory claims about current moral issues by reference to the weight of available evidence (5, p. 23).

The ability to weigh alternatives, make decisions, and evaluate contradictory evidence is crucial to scholastic endeavors and adult life more generally—to personal happiness, professional success, and civic engagement.

To achieve this and related objectives, instruction must incorporate intellectual challenge and activity; opportunities for creative or original work; finding and using information and translating that information into coherent communication; and opportunities to produce original work rather than simply recalling information. This is supported by IDEA research finding that instructors stressing this objective frequently stimulate students to intellectual effort (#8), introduce stimulating ideas about the subject (#13), ask students to share ideas (#16), and assign work that requires original or creative thinking (#19). For additional information about this objective, see IDEA Paper #37 Helping Your Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills.[PDF]

Helpful Hints

Teaching students “how to think” may begin by alerting them to the kinds of questions and problems that interest scholars or professionals in your field. So you may consider organizing your courses around such questions and problems to stimulate your students’ intellectual interest. Rather than simply presenting information, be explicit with your students about how you approach such questions, defining critical thinking in your field and modeling disciplinary ways of thought. Engage students in activities that require sophisticated thinking and design assessments that call on students to demonstrate thinking skills. Below, we provide specific ideas for how to teach students to analyze and critically evaluate ideas and assess their abilities to do so. These activities and assessments require students to identify assumptions, weigh competing evidence, make decisions, imagine alternatives, and build arguments.

John Bean writes that once professors decide to focus on developing critical thinking skills, “much of their classroom preparation time shifts from planning and preparing lectures to planning and preparing critical thinking problems for students to wrestle with” (6, p. 122). Below, we suggest a series of what he might call “critical thinking tasks” that give students practice—and the opportunity to receive feedback on—analyzing and critically evaluating ideas, arguments, and points of view.

  • In humanities and social science courses, keep the reading load manageable and model for students how to read critically and to evaluate arguments in your field (see IDEA Paper #40 Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips [PDF]).
  • In math, sciences, and engineering courses, encourage students participating in study groups not only to share ideas for solving problems but also to provide reasons for the problem solving ideas they advance.
  • Have students respond to an editorial in a newspaper or to a review essay in a scholarly journal. For that response, ask students to identify unstated assumptions, biases, and points of views and show how they undermine the argument the author is making.
  • Teach students to use a pro and con grid to analyze ideas and points of view (7, see pages 168-171).
  • Take time in science and engineering classes to explore the ethical considerations of research questions and experimental design.
  • In organized class debates, ask students to argue for a point of view counter to their own.
  • Give students “ill-structured problems” in class to work through. Such problems have no known answer or solution and cannot be solved with formal rules of logic or mathematical formulas. Ask students to come up with multiple solutions for each problem and rank the viability of each solution.
  • Teach students the “believing and doubting game” (Elbow, cited in 6, p.142), which asks them to be both sympathetic and skeptical readers.
  • Help students develop strategies for systematically gathering data according to methodologies in your discipline, assessing the quality and relevance of the data, evaluating sources, and interpreting the data (5, p. 24).
  • Encourage students to enter into dialogue with the sources they read; encourage them to ask questions, give assent, or protest in the margins of what they read.
  • Train students to identify the author’s audience and purpose when they read.
  • Encourage students to engage their critical reasoning skills outside of the classroom (5, p. 24).

Assessment Issues

To teach critical evaluation, we must define critical thinking in general and in the discipline, model habits of disciplinary thought, engage students in activities that require sophisticated thinking, and design assessments that call on students to demonstrate thinking skills. Instructional assignments and activities that promote critical thinking have to do more than present information and ask for recall. Rather, they must ask students to demonstrate their thinking, including their analysis and critical evaluation of ideas, arguments, and points of view. These assignments ask students to do more than reproduce what they know; they ask them to produce new knowledge.

Angelo and Cross (7) offer many techniques for assessing critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, and related skills. Echoing and expanding on their ideas, we make the following suggestions:

  • Design a writing assignment that asks students to test a critic’s ideas (or an everyday assumption) against a primary text or texts.
  • Ask students to apply a theory they’ve learned in a social science class by designing an experiment to test the theory. Have them carry out the experiment and document the results.
  • Design a writing assignment that prompts students to position themselves within a scholarly or real-life debate.
  • Ask students to review a scientific paper, assessing the evidence the authors use and how they use it.
  • Allow students to choose a current political issue relevant to a community to which they are attached. Have them research both major parties’ point of view on this issue and critically analyze them. As a writing assignment or project, ask students to agree with one major party’s stand on this issue and justify their choice.
  • Have students use a double-entry journal for reflection and self-assessment of this learning objective, using guided questioning. The journal helps faculty to assess the affective domain, and helps students through possible “road blocks” in the process of learning to analyze and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and points of view. It also reinforces that this process is ongoing, not just an assignment for a class. Sample guided questions include: What happened (when you analyzed and critically evaluated ideas, arguments, and points of view)? What was your reaction as you went through this process? What did you learn about yourself? How can you apply what you learned to your education or your life?
  • Construct a rubric (i.e. scoring guide) to provide guidelines for critical analysis and evaluation so students know what to expect when they are assessed. The criteria and standards for this rubric may include the Elements of Reasoning and Intellectual Standards in Paul and Elder’s Critical Thinking (8).

References and Resources

  1. Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing critical thinkers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Bloom, B. (Ed.). (1984). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Book 1, Cognitive Domain (2nd ed.). New York, Longman. See pp. 120-121, 162-163, 185-187.
  4. Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the science of learning to the university and beyond. Change, 35 (4).
  5. King, P. (2000). Learning to make reflective judgments. In Baxter-Magolda, M. B. Ed.), “Teaching to promote intellectual and personal maturity.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 82. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Angelo, T., & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  8. Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2002). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. Instructor’s Manual. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

  • IDEA Item #8 “Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #13 “Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject,” Michael Theall
  • IDEA Item #16 “Asked students to share ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds and viewpoints differ from their own,” Jeff King
  • IDEA Item #19 “Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original or creative thinking,” Cynthia Desrochers

Additional Resources