Helping Students Examine Their Reasoning

It’s hard for students to think about any perspective but their own

By Scott Sterling

The more rigorous college and career readiness standards, on which most states are embarking, universally call for students to have a deeper interaction with knowledge. It’s not enough to simply remember things—they have to be able to use new knowledge effectively in order to achieve goals, such as making strong arguments and choosing the best course of action.

The ability to examine the reasoning of themselves and others is challenging for a kid. They tend to take things at face value because a child’s brain is wired for knowledge accumulation first. Therefore, if someone makes a claim, it’s very hard for them to try to dispute that claim. Likewise, when they make claims, it’s very hard to consider the idea that they might be wrong. But the skills are necessary nonetheless.

In an example of a strategy in the traditional classroom, examining reasoning might come in a unit about propaganda or advertising. In both areas, claim disputes are fairly simple and don’t have anything to do with their own reasoning. Instead, let’s take a new approach.

If the goal is to examine reasoning, it should be the student who is predominantly making the claims, not some faceless ad executive. Systematically, students should move through an examination of their reasoning like this:

  • Produce and defend a claim: Take a stand
  • Determine the strength of any supporting evidence: Can you back up what you’ve said?
  • Identify the reasoning behind their claim: Why do you think how you think?
  • Uncover errors in content or in their reasoning: Be able to say when something doesn’t add up

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The last one presents the most trouble for students. You can model an approach to the last step by saying the claim needs further study—not that they were necessarily wrong or that they owe someone an apology. Politicians do this all the time.

A more actionable classroom activity is having students debate among themselves. Assign a topic as controversial as you think is appropriate. The students formulate the appropriate claim for each side, do some research for supporting evidence, figure out why people think the way they do about the topic, and figure out if there is a stronger case to be had.

This activity accomplishes many objectives. First, it gives students practice in a systematic approach to examining reasoning. Second, it divorces students from dogmatically taking one side of an issue, showing them that it’s possible to argue both sides. Finally, it can be made as simple or as complicated as time allows—even as simple as a formative assessment.

What other reasoning strategies do you employ in your classroom? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

For a lot more learning strategies and analysis on the topic of reasoning, check out the latest book in the Essentials for Achieving Rigor series, Examining Reasoning, now available at the Learning Sciences bookstore.