Using Outlines to Teach Critical Thinking

Most of us spend our years of doctoral and post-doctoral training learning how to do research in our fields. Many of us serve as teaching assistants during this time, and some of us have the primary responsibility for a class. Still, when we begin faculty positions, we often feel ill prepared to take on teaching multiple classes a year. And if we are asked to teach a writing-intensive (WI) class, we may feel an added sense of bewilderment.

In the years that I have been teaching WI courses at the University of Missouri, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me be a more effective teacher. First, it is important to be clear about your goals and to include learning strategies that enable students to achieve that goal. This seems like it should be straightforward, but when I served on our Campus Writing Board, I realized that different instructors had different goals for the class, and most of us hadn’t consciously reflected on those. In this page, I will discuss one of my goals and ways to design assignments to help students achieve it.

Critical Thinking in Writing Intensive Courses

While there are, no doubt, many more possibilities, I noticed two common goals (which do not need to be mutually exclusive) amongst WI instructors. They are:

  • using writing to teach “critical thinking” and
  • teaching writing in the style that is used in a particular discipline.

My course is designed to be the first of two WI courses taken in our department, and it focuses on the critical thinking goal. The second of our WI classes still pushes students to use writing to think, but it incorporates more of the style of writing that students will use in jobs in our discipline.

An important question for my class is what do we mean by critical thinking? I have found this term to be a bit slippery. One definition breaks critical thinking into three kinds of thought: reasoning, making judgments, and problem solving (Willingham, 2007). Perhaps, however, it is easier to say what critical thinking is not: Critical thinking is not rote memorization of a set of facts. While it is fundamentally important to gain a basic knowledge of the concepts that form the assumptions in one’s field, students need to learn to interpret these facts. That is, they need to learn that there is not just a single conclusion that can be drawn, and that is why we have competing theories and debates about how to explain the facts that we observe. Students need to gain confidence in their ability to analyze the data of a field and to reach their own conclusions. I believe that is where the WI framework really shines. [For more on these frameworks, you can access the WI Guidelines for MU.]

My WI class focuses on how children learn language. A big picture question in this class, broadly speaking, is whether our genes or an interaction between genes and the environment is the major determinant of the way children learn language and of the structure of language. At the start of the semester, my students think that I am going to tell them the correct answer to this question. They think that they can learn the facts – what children learn at which ages, for example – and arrive at the correct answer. By having to evaluate these positions via writing assignments, students reach their own conclusions as to what they think the strongest data is and which position is best supported. Through our class discussions, they begin to see that they can reach different conclusions than their classmates and that more than one position might logically explain our current data.

To encourage students to think critically about research, I assign a literature review in my class, and I break it into manageable pieces for the students before the final product of an 8 – 10 page paper that makes use of a minimum of 8 empirical articles from peer-reviewed journals (no Wikipedia or websites allowed). A component that I have found essential to learning how to develop a logical argument is a very detailed outline. The goal of the literature review is to encourage critical thinking about a topic and develop an argument that requires students to use data to reach their own conclusions about a question. An outline helps them to structure an argument and find holes in their thinking.

Teaching the Outline

What better way to help students develop arguments than by starting with an outline? After all, the students have been writing outlines since grade school. But over the years, I have learned that without clear instruction, students use outlines more to summarize their reading than to develop a argument. In fact, I believe that there is no such thing as being too direct in guiding students to understand the structure of an argument – that is, to the place where critical thinking emerges.

In my class, I have always spent time explaining what an argument is. When I first added the outline as a formal assignment, we had the argument discussion and then I sent the students off with the instruction to write their outlines in order to develop their ideas in a logical and coherent form. What I found, however, was that despite my overview about what we mean by an argument, students treated the outline like a series of article reports. They would describe the purpose, method, and results of the first article as the first point of their outline. Then they would do the same for the second article as the second point of their outline, and so on. Students did not reflect on how the articles fit together, what the implications of the findings were, whether there were conflicts in the results. In other words, they did not develop an argument or engage in critical thinking. They did not reason about or evaluate the articles they read, make decisions about the strengths and weaknesses of the methods, or try to assess which theory could best account for the complete set of data. Rather, they simply described each article and, in essence, stapled the descriptions of each together to form their outline. This might work if I just wanted them to memorize the findings of each article or write an annotated bibliography, but it did not lead to the type of critical thinking and synthesis I was expecting.

Over time, I have learned that the more time I spend explaining the outline, the more successful the final literature review is. We now cover what is meant by an argument by developing an example of an outline during our lecture time in class. To launch this discussion, I use a PowerPoint that goes over some basic ideas like argumentation, structure, and plagiarism. However, I do more than simply read the PowerPoint slides. Here is a list of the steps that work for me:

  1. First, we discuss what is meant by a “point” in an argument. We make the points the headers in our example outlines.
  2. Next, we explore what kind of evidence would support or refute each point and place that under the appropriate header. This is where we try to get away from the students’ article-by-article approach. I point out explicitly that the data under any given header comes from more than one article. I show them that data from a single article can appear under more than one header. We also identify aspects of an article that don’t fall under any header because, although they were relevant to the article, not everything in every article will be relevant to a student’s question.
  3. Finally, we let the cold, hard truth sink in that not every article a student reads will end up being relevant to their question. Students have a hard time letting go, because if they did the work of reading an article, they want the credit for it, but they can see that an article may just lead down a dead end and not advance their developing argument.
  4. This is tangential to my focus on argument development, but we always end with “The Plagiarism Talk” so that before they get started, the students understand that not only words, but ideas, can be copied.

If your goal is teaching students to use writing as a path toward critical thinking given theoretically murky subject matter, starting with a detailed outline gives them a leg up. It lets them focus on what they will say – the structure and logic of the argument – before they worry about how they will say it. Outlines aren’t quick and easy; in my class, they are usually about four to five pages long for a literature review that will be about eight pages. By requiring this initial step as an assignment, however, students are pushed to engage in critical thinking from the outset.

Works Cited

Willingham, D.T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? American Educator, 31, 8-19.