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2011 November 26

Criteria for reasoning

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:37
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In her post Evaluating Thinking: Why These Criteria?, Mylène describes the criteria she provides her students for what makes a good reasoning process.  She started with a list from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Accuracy
  • Significance
  • Relevance
  • Logic
  • Fairness
  • Breadth
  • Depth

and modified it to fit better with her class and her students (an intro physics course for people training to be technicians, so students from the middle of the distribution in terms of intelligence and prior education).  Her modified list is about the same length but more specific to physical models:

  1. clarity
  2. precision
  3. internal consistency
  4. connection to our model
  5. connection to our experience/intuition
  6. seamless chain of cause and effect
  7. consideration of other equally valid perspectives
  8. credible sources

She describes her reasons for selecting this particular list of concepts to teach to her students, and I recommend reading her blog post for the detailed and thoughtful process she used.  I’m interested in coming up with a similar list of concepts for the different group of students that I teach: grad students and seniors in engineering programs at an R1 university.

The students I’m dealing with have a much higher level of education (selected from the top 1/8th of the high school population, then further selected by sticking with an engineering major for at least 3 years) and probably a higher average intelligence.  I don’t get as much of the “magical thinking, begging of questions, and conclusions that don’t follow from their premises” that has driven her to tackle this educational problem.

I do, however, see a lot of bad writing that suffers from these problems.  I present to my students the “4Cs” of technical writing:

The 4 Cs are arranged as a cross, because clarity and correctness are often in opposition to each other, as are conciseness and completeness.  Good technical writing requires finding the right balance of these opposing ideals for the audience and purpose of any particular document.

Note that the first two points on Mylène’s list correspond to one of the major axes of the 4Cs, the clarity-correctness axis.  Her remaining points mainly address ways to assess correctness when the “right answer” is not known, though “consideration of other equally valid perspectives” gives at least a nod to completeness.

The “conciseness” goal often gives students the most trouble, but is not addressed in her list.  There are two parts to it:

  • Clear, direct sentences. Too often, students imagine that academic writing requires vague, passive constructions full of inflated diction and complex sentence structures.  Bad academic writing is used as the model.  This obfuscation (deliberate or accidental) is generally a writing problem and not a reasoning problem, though consistent use of vague phrasing may indicate an underlying lack of comprehension.
  • Putting in just what is relevant. Often students do a dump of all their notes on a subject, most of which is irrelevant to the audience and the paper that they are writing. I would have suggested to Mylène that she needs to restore “relevance” to her list, but I suspect that it is covered somewhat more specifically by her points 4 and 5: “connection to our model” and “connection to our experience/intuition”.  What may be missing is “connection to the problem we are trying to solve”.

Completeness is sometimes a problem also, mainly because students tend to write to their faculty adviser or teacher (generally the worst choice of audience, among the many possible).  Because the faculty member knows more than they do about the problem (usually), students leave out the statement of the problem, its significance, and work done on the problem by others in the past.  It is not unusual to send a student away from an advancement to candidacy exam or even a thesis defense telling them that they have a nice bit of research (proposed or done), but that Chapter 1 is missing and they need to write it before they can move forward. Faculty advisers are often too close to the research to see the absence of the background information and explanation of significance, so it is essential for thesis committee members to look for this hole.

For senior design reports and theses, I usually get the lack of problem statement and background corrected by draft 3 or 4,which is one of the benefits to having the instructor for the course which focuses on students finishing their research and the presentation of it not be the faculty member who has been supervising the research.

I suspect that defining the problem and explaining its importance is missing from the exercises that Mylène gives her students, as they are generally working on well-defined problems posed for them, and not coming up with new research topics or design problems that need to be justified. I’m sure that she can come up with ideas that are relevant to technician-trainees for practicing this skill, perhaps tying in it with her “technical reading”  training (see, for example, her post Reading Comprehension Techniques: Review).

The “seamless chain of cause and effect” should not be a huge problem for my students, but they often have a hard time getting their understanding into readable form.  Choppy writing that throws together ideas without explicitly connecting them is common.  I usually refer students to Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Thomas Huckin and Leslie Olsen (see my post Getting an A on a paper in school, for example). The chapters on focus and flow, particularly the explanation of the heuristic of connecting sentences with “old information→new information”, are among the best I’ve seen for explaining to students how to avoid choppy writing.  I think that in many cases the apparent lack of a “seamless chain of cause and effect” is not an underlying problem with reasoning, but an inability to connect ideas in writing.  (Though that perception may be a result of differences between my students and hers.)  In any case, it is probably more productive for me to concentrate on getting students to present their reasoning more clearly, rather than on trying to fix underlying problems in reasoning that may not even exist. (If the underlying reasoning is the problem, then fixing the flow in the writing should make it more apparent.)

This post ends at an awkward point:  I’ve looked over Mylène’s list and identified places where it does not quite meet the pedagogical needs of my students, but I’ve not come up with my own list.  I suspect I need 4: one for each of the 4 Cs, but I’ll leave that as an idea for a later post.


  1. Putting in just what is relevant … excellent point! I have been going over this with my English students about how they often “over quote” in their papers and also don’t provide enough context for said quotes.

    On the bright side, though, taking the time to explain where they need to improve has resulted in some improvement …

    Comment by Tom Panarese — 2011 November 26 @ 18:08 | Reply

  2. Found this comparison of our students quite accurate (on average) and intriguing. Why do people find it so hard to express causality in writing? I’m looking forward to reading more about what you come up with.

    The infographic of the 4 C’s is a great tool. Does it come from the textbook you mentioned or is it original? I’ll use it in class if you’re willing. The way it exposes trade-offs in technical writing is succinct.

    Re: Relevance — you called it. I did in fact add it back in, early in the process; I haven’t gotten to that part in the story yet, but will soon.

    Re: significance, the students demanded that one. I’m glad I left it out at first. Tthe students are writing/presenting answers to questions they asked in class. I keep a big list of them and add to it every day. Students can then choose from the list of unanswered questions when preparing their presentations. Two weeks later when someone submits an answer, we end up having fruitful discussions about “why were we asking this in the first place?” This is helping students start to notice that the context in which the question is asked is part of making sense of the answer. They asked me to modify the question list to keep track of why the question arose. In the next round of writing, we’ll see what difference that makes.

    As for conciseness, that’s getting assessed indirectly. I often leave feedback about it on their “submissions to the model” as well as on their QA plans (the same technical reading assignment you refer to above), so they know that I value conciseness. They’re starting to use the QA plans and our shared model to evaluate and problem-solve, so they’re starting to value it in their own writing too. And, presentations often take place on Friday afternoons, so the students are starting to value it in each others’ writing/speaking. I’ve also been having students assess each others’ writing and submit their assessments to me. I write feedback on their assessments, return them to the assessor for a second draft, then pass them on to the assessee. This has been a useful window into my students’ thought process. They suffer from the same overblown, over-corrected writing that you describe when they submit papers, but have absolutely no patience for it when they read, and will blow the whistle on writing they deem pretentious without prompting. In fact, they will be more likely to get false positives, accusing most technical writing of being unnecessarily obscure — I have the opposite problem of helping them realize that there are times when they need to improve their reading comprehension level, not (just) improve the author’s writing. I suspect that this is another difference in the cultures of our institutions.

    Finally, you raise an interesting point about the chain of cause and effect. After many written and spoken presentations and conversations, I am beginning to think that most of my students have a shaky or missing concept of causality. We’ve had major breakthroughs this semester as students came around the idea that the cause of a resistor having a certain voltage across it is not “because the voltage divider rule says so.” Many of my second year students were genuinely shocked to learn that transistor cutoff is not caused by the transistor acting like an open (for the curious, cutoff is a transistor acting (roughly) like an open; the two are equivalent by definition). I was just as shocked to realize how they were wrestling with this. Even after analyzing good and bad examples, it was difficult for my students to distinguish between “why I think this” and “why it happens.” It is not at all obvious to them that things don’t cause themselves; we’re working on shifting away from attributing all natural phenomena to the “natural tendency” of things, and toward a view that includes mechanism of action.

    I’m glad to know that you suspect your students only of having trouble expressing it on paper; if it’s possible to get to 4th year engineering without a solid grasp on causality, I’d be worried. But I’m starting to think that my students’ troubles with causality are alarmingly common. It might help explain a few things about our democracies.

    Comment by Mylène — 2011 November 27 @ 11:54 | Reply

    • The 4 Cs graphic is original with me. I don’t know if the selection of the 4 Cs is original, though—I may have picked it up somewhere in the past 25 years and not remember the source.

      I don’t know when I’ll get around to a more detailed post on these topics—I’ve got about 100 draft posts started and it will take a while to clear some of the backlog, even if I decide simply to throw half of them away as no longer interesting to me.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 November 27 @ 12:27 | Reply

      • I just did a Google Books search for
        concise complete correct clear

        Lots of writing manuals use those terms together, going back at least as far as 1920 (Opdyke’s The English of Commerce), some adding other “C” words (“courteous”, “concrete”, “consistent”).

        One of my favorite finds:
        “This is a common trouble with engineering literature, and yet engineers above any other class ought to be masters of correct, clear, and concise expression.” {Concrete engineering; for engineers, architects and contractors: Volume 4 – Page 305 (1909)}

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 November 27 @ 22:39 | Reply

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