The Quickest and Easiest Way to Improve Your Critical Thinking

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It’s Not Your Fault: Texts Have Complex and Sometimes Random Structures

How many times have you set about to write your course notes or get ready for your exam and started on a big pile of papers with a tight deadline to go through all of them? Only to find that at the end of four hours of hard work you feel so overwhelmed by the volume of information and new concepts that you have no idea how you’ll be able to internalize any of it.

Don’t despair! Many of us go through exactly the same thing as it turns out that this type of cognitive load is something every human being is struggling with.  But more on this later. For now, just bear in mind that reading a paper is so demanding because our minds are trying to make sense of the central argument the author is making, as well as organize various reasons, claims or evidence the writer is using to support the main idea, all these while navigating through various parts of the text that do not belong to the argument structure at all.

Essentially a text based argument will often contain more sentences than just those making up the argument. There will be descriptions, observations, explanations and it’s your job to distinguish all the different elements of the argument from other types of material. And this is where argument maps can help. Rather than trying to put all these elements in a list, or worse, keeping them in your working memory, you can make use of an argument map that has a few advantages over the text based argument.

“Reading an argument can be very demanding because the elements we’re looking for such as reasons, claims, evidence can get lost within other parts of the text.”

Let’s discuss these reasons which make an argument map an excellent tool for improving critical thinking skills as well as helping with memory and improving grades.

So Why Should You Use Argument Maps for Improving Your Critical Thinking?

When we read a text we tend to follow the order pre-set by the author: we read the title, then paragraphs one, then two, three and so on. And this is exactly where the problem lies: no author or writer has to follow the typical structure of an argument- they don’t have to present the conclusion or central idea first, then the first reason together with its warrant and backing evidence, then the second reason and so on. Of course, it would be nice if they did.

“Using an argument map helps visualize the important ideas of the text in a structured manner.”

So it is your role to take these chunks of phrases and paragraphs and organize them in an order which makes sense for the argument. You will need to do this whether you decide to use an argument map or not, but converting such a text to an argument map can bring a much needed clarity, especially when you’re dealing with highly complex arguments that rely on numerous reasons and/ or sub conclusions to prove a point.

Here is what a typical Toulmin model argument would look like. I would argue that you should be able to take any paper and convert its ideas into this model and by doing so it would help your understanding, not to mention your memory:

Toulmin Model of Argumentation in an Argument Map
Toulmin Model of Argumentation in an Argument Map

If you want to read more about the mental processes you employ when engaged with visual representations, check out this study published by the University of Sussex arguing that visual representations work better for human understanding (compared to standalone texts) and that interaction with diagrams when learning or solving problems seems to deepen our cognition, although the mechanisms of how this happens are not yet fully understood.

Speaking of mental processes, let’s discuss cognitive load.

How Is Your Critical Thinking Influenced By Your Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load is defined as the mental weight that occurs as a result of using the working memory when you are engaged in learning or solving problems. As it turns out, working memory is limited to 3 to 5 chunks of information. So imagine you’re reading a paper that argues loneliness is more prevalent in young adults using the social media. To prove this point, the author uses more than 10 reasons, all distributed randomly throughout the text, intertwined with descriptions, explanations and trivia stories. So the main contributing reasons are not presented in an ordered structure. To make it even more entangled, not all the contributing reasons have backing evidence while some have more than just one piece of evidence.

How could you make sense of all this without any tools? Well, most of us can’t. Scientists at University of Wollongong in Australia found that an increased cognitive load will both delay and reduce the overall level of learning.

“Working memory is limited to 3 to 5 chunks of information. Make the most of it by re-assigning the argument elements from your memory to a structured tool you can engage with and which in change will deepen your learning process.”

So what can you do? You would definitely need to take notes and organize the material in a more logical manner. And as already proposed, using an argument map for doing so will take out the cognitive load from your mind and put it in a structured format in a tool you can engage with, deepening the learning process.

But why would you use argument maps and not some other tools, like plain old lists? Let’s take a look.

Do Argument Maps Help Your Critical Thinking?

Studies observing the influence of argument maps on critical thinking skills have so far shown a lot of promise. Here are a few of these:

  • Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz from the University of Melbourne found that students who participated in critical thinking courses which used argument mapping tools achieved significant gains in their critical thinking skills. In fact this study observed that the more the students used argument mapping in their course work, the greater their improvement in critical thinking was.
  • 3 other scientists from the same University of Melbourne- Tim van Gelder, Melanie Bissett and Geoff Cumming taught a critical thinking course through the use of argument mapping. At the end of the course they found significant improvements in their students’ critical thinking skills.
  • A study published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology compared the critical thinking skills of students who either used or did not use argument maps within a critical thinking course. The study found that those who did use argument mapping scored higher than those who didn’t.
  • The Monash University also found similar results, with argument mapping often precisely pinpointing where students were wrong, such as confusing helping premises for separate reasons, making it much easier for them to fix their errors.

So yes, argument maps do help your critical thinking (probably more than you think!) and research shows that they help significantly more than other traditional pen and paper annotations.

I believe that if you take the time to subscribe to Argumentful and  start using it in your assignments you should see results that will pay off. Ready. Set. Go!

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