Critical Thinking (NEW)

© The Author, 2010; Last Modified July 8, 2010

Edward Nelson
CSU Fresno

Notes on Instructional Materials for Teaching Critical Thinking

Critical thinking in this class refers to the ability to answer why and how questions such as why do people commit crimes and why do people vote the way they do. We focus on using the scientific approach to answer such questions. Critical thinking also refers to the ability to develop organized and logical arguments and to test hypotheses using the scientific approach. At CSU Fresno critical thinking is a GE requirement. It’s offered in a number of departments and students can take their choice. In Sociology it’s also a requirement for the major. I teach it in my department with an emphasis on teaching with data. The papers in the course always revolve around the analysis of data.

In my course there are five main sections:

  • Scientific approach,
  • Argumentation,
  • Causal arguments,
  • Analysis of quantitative data and
  • Fallacies of reasoning.

I’m attaching the following files:

Papers.  There are two papers in the course both of which are completed in the section on analysis of quantitative data.  The second builds on the first paper and introduces new topics in the analysis of data.  Both papers use public opinion data from various sources.

The first paper starts by asking students to explore some topic such as abortion, homosexuality, or voting.  It typically asks students to run a frequency distribution for a variable that describes how respondents feel about abortion or homosexuality or how they voted in a particular election.  This variable becomes the dependent variable for their paper.  Then the paper turns to a discussion of possible independent variables.  Once they have the idea of dependent and independent variables clear then they select particular independent variables to crosstabulate with their dependent variable. The only statistics that students use in the first paper are frequencies and two-variable crosstabs with percentages. 

The second paper is a continuation of the first paper.  In recent years the second paper has focused on religion and their dependent variable.  Religion includes both religiosity (i.e., how religious they are) and religious preference (i.e., what religion they are).  The second paper includes two-variable tables with religious variables as the independent variables.  In addition to percentages, in the second paper the students use Chi Square and, in fall 2010, measures of association.  Towards the end of the second paper, the idea of elaboration is introduced where students add a third variable into their analysis as a control variable.  This allows us to discuss such ideas as spuriousness.  There is a link in the exercise section above to a short discussion that I use in my classes.

Using a statistical package means that the students don’t have to worry about how to compute the statistics.  Moreover, they learn a little about the use of statistical packages on their computer.  I use SPSS for the statistical analysis but you could substitute any statistical package you like to use.

Each year I have a different focus for the papers.  Over the last few years we have focused on:

  • Proposition 8 in California which was the 2008 ballot initiative to amend the California State Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage,
  • voting focusing on the 2004 presidential election,
  • opinion on various moral issues including abortion, legalization of marijuana, willingness to allow a person to take their own life when they are very sick and sexuality including homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The papers ask the students to test their causal claims using the following steps:

  • state hypotheses,
  • develop argument to support argument,
  • construct dummy table showing what the data ought to look like if the hypothesis is true,
  • get the actual table from SPSS and
  • interpret the data including indicating whether the data supported the hypothesis.

The papers are named paper 1 and paper 2 and indicate the year of the class and the focus of the paper.  The name of each assignment starts with CT for “critical thinking” and then indicates whether it is paper 1 or paper 2.  The file name concludes with the topic of the paper and the semester I used the assignment. There are five sets of papers. The topics for the each set are as follows:

  • Spring, 2006 – The first paper focuses on moral issues such as legalization of marijuana, willingness to allow a person to take their own life when they are very sick and sexuality including how respondents felt about adults and teenagers having sexual relations before marriage. The second paper focuses on religion and sexuality focusing on both sexual behavior (number of sexual partners and frequency of sexual relations) and attitudes about sexual behavior (how respondents feel about adults and teenagers having sexual relations before marriage).
  • Fall, 2006 – The first paper focuses on abortion. The second paper focuses on religion and sexuality including both sexual behavior (viewing an X rated movie and having had sex with someone other than spouse while married) and attitudes toward sexual behavior (how respondents feel about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex and respondents feel about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than marriage partner).
  • Fall, 2008 – The first paper focuses on voting in the 2004 presidential election. The second paper focuses on religion and voting in the same election.
  • Fall, 2009 – The first paper focuses on how respondents voted on Proposition 8 (same-sex marriage ballot initiative) in the 2008 California election. The second paper focuses on religion and voting on Proposition 8.
  • Fall, 2010 – The first paper focuses on how respondents feel about homosexuality. The second paper focuses on religion and attitudes toward homosexuality. The papers use a very large survey of religions that will allow us to identify particular religions (e.g., Mormons, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Hindus) and have a large enough sample to compare religions.

Data.  The data come from various sources including:

  • the Field Poll (September, 2008)
  • the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s survey called the Religious Landscape Survey (summer, 2007) and
  • the General Social Survey (in one subset I combined two consecutive years to create a larger sample).

In each instance I created an instructional subset from the larger survey. I selected a smaller set of variables, modified the variable and value labels and the missing values, recoded some variables, created some new variables from the original set of variables and generally made it easier for the students to use the data set.  The SPSS data files are named to indicate the source of the data.  Note that in the Field Poll data set there are two versions – one has been modified and one has not.  The modified version takes the undecideds out of the analysis by including them as a missing value.  The one that has not been modified keeps the undecideds in the analysis.  The two papers use different versions.

The Field Poll on Proposition 8 is currently embargoed and is unavailable for non-CSU faculty and students. However, it will be available for unrestricted use in November, 2010 and will be added to this website then.

Use of the Data.  You are free to use the assignments and data sets as they are or to modify them in any way you wish.   All I ask is that you acknowledge the source and let me know how you have modified them and whether they worked for you.  Please feel free to contact me by phone (559-278-2275) or email me at