Critical Thinking Instruction in Humanities Reduces Belief in Pseudoscience

Teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course reduces student beliefs in “pseudoscience” -- such as believing in the underwater civilization of Atlantis. Image credit: Jerrye and Roy Klotz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Click for more information.

A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers finds that teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course significantly reduces student beliefs in “pseudoscience” that is unsupported by facts.

“Given the national discussion of ‘fake news,’ it’s clear that critical thinking – and classes that teach critical thinking – are more important than ever,” says Anne McLaughlin, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“Fundamentally, we wanted to assess how intentional you have to be when teaching students critical thinking,” says Alicia McGill, an assistant professor of history at NC State and co-author of the paper. “We also wanted to explore how humanities classes can play a role and whether one can assess the extent to which critical thinking instruction actually results in improved critical thinking by students.

“This may be especially timely, because humanities courses give students tools they can use to assess qualitative data and sort through political rhetoric,” McGill says. “Humanities also offer us historical and cultural perspective that allow us to put current events into context.”

For this study, the researchers worked with 117 students in three different classes. Fifty-nine students were enrolled in a psychology research methods course, which taught statistics and study design, but did not specifically address critical thinking. The other 58 students were enrolled in one of two courses on historical frauds and mysteries – one of which included honors students, many of whom were majors in science, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

The psychology class served as a control group. The two history courses incorporated instruction explicitly designed to cultivate critical thinking skills. For example, students in the history courses were taught how to identify logical fallacies – statements that violate logical arguments, such as non sequiturs.

At the beginning of the semester, students in all three courses took a baseline assessment of their beliefs in pseudoscientific claims. The assessment used a scale from 1 (“I don’t believe at all.”) to 7 (“I strongly believe.”).

Some of the topics in the assessment, such as belief in Atlantis, were later addressed in the “historical frauds” course. Other topics, such as the belief that 9/11 was an “inside job,” were never addressed in the course. This allowed the researchers to determine the extent to which changes in student beliefs stemmed from specific facts discussed in class, versus changes in a student’s critical thinking skills.

At the end of the semester, students took the pseudoscience assessment again.

The control group students did not change their beliefs – but students in both history courses had lower beliefs in pseudoscience by the end of the semester.

Students in the history course for honors students decreased the most in their pseudoscientific beliefs; on average, student beliefs dropped an entire point on the belief scale for topics covered in class, and by 0.5 points on topics not covered in class. There were similar, but less pronounced, changes in the non-honors course.

“The change we see in these students is important, because beliefs are notoriously hard to change,” says McLaughlin. “And seeing students apply critical thinking skills to areas not covered in class is particularly significant and heartening.”

“It’s also important to note that these results stem from taking only one class,” McGill says. “Consistent efforts to teach critical thinking across multiple classes may well have more pronounced effects.

“This drives home the importance of teaching critical thinking, and the essential role that humanities can play in that process,” McGill says. “This is something that NC State is actively promoting as part of a universitywide focus on critical thinking development.”

The paper, “Explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in a history course,” was published March 20 in the journal Science & Education.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in a history course”

Authors: Anne Collins McLaughlin and Alicia E. McGill, North Carolina State University

Published: March 20, Science & Education

DOI: 10.1007/s11191-017-9878-2

Abstract: Critical thinking skills are often assessed via student beliefs in non-scientific ways of thinking, (e.g, pseudoscience). Courses aimed at reducing such beliefs have been studied in the STEM fields with the most successful focusing on skeptical thinking.  However, critical thinking is not unique to the sciences; it is crucial in the humanities and to historical thinking and analysis. We investigated the effects of a history course on epistemically unwarranted beliefs in two class sections. Beliefs were measured pre- and post-semester. Beliefs declined for history students compared to a control class and the effect was strongest for the honors section. This study provides evidence that a humanities education engenders critical thinking. Further, there may be individual differences in ability or preparedness in developing such skills, suggesting different foci for critical thinking coursework.

9 responses on “Critical Thinking Instruction in Humanities Reduces Belief in Pseudoscience

  1. Eleni says:

    far back as i can remember i have always believed the existence of extraterrestrial entities.This critical thinking is very important for information given to public via documentaries on internet since 2011. Determining a hoax v/s real is decided by viewer.
    experiences on the other hand are much more difficult to determine. Critical thinking is
    only way get facts and perspective.

  2. kenneth brandt says:

    Where can I find some of the materials that you used with your students; especially the logical fallacies piece. Would be useful for my undergraduate astronomy class.

    1. Alicia McGill says:

      Thanks for your interest in our article and the materials I used in my “frauds” class, Kenneth!

      Here is some information about the materials I used to teach critical thinking.
      — Students learned about and used general tools like Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit (http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/pmo/eng/Sagan-Baloney.pdf and https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/03/baloney-detection-kit-carl-sagan/) and Kenneth Feder’s Quick Start Guide (from his text, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology) to analyze and unpack various claims about the past. These two guides provide a series of questions to ask about a claim and suggestions of ways to evaluate the validity of claims: e.g. What is someone’s motive? Does the perpetrator encourage debate about the claim and/or evidence? What is the expertise of the person making the claim? Apply Occam’s Razor to the claim. Sagan’s and Feder’s guidelines were first applied in a Website analysis activity and then students were asked to continue using these tools throughout the semester.
      — I taught students about logical fallacies using The Book of Bad Arguments: https://bookofbadarguments.com/ — it’s a really fun resource!

      Best, Alicia

  3. Scott Weber says:

    Is there anyway to see the baseline assessment survey the students took in all three courses? Perhaps, with permission, I could use it for my biology students during our “Scientific Inquiry” unit in the fall. Thank you.

    1. Alicia McGill says:

      Thank you for your interest in our study, Scott. The baseline assessment survey is in the appendix of the article (“Explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in a history course,” March 2017, in Science & Education). It’s public so you are welcome to use it.

  4. Paula says:

    I was raised by a bigott catholic mother and it had its effects till late into my life. However i took part in many MOOC courses and a brand new vision has taken me to new heights. I can’t be grateful enough for learning and sciences the way according to which i now view the world. I’m 65 and am too grateful for not living in lies and fictions!

  5. Chris says:

    There are several points to make here. The specific instruction in the two history courses biased the results and the conclusions may not be accurate. The “control” was not really a control, but merely another course. A much better design would have been to compare the same history course (another section) taught in the same or a prior semester. There is nothing magic about providing instruction in a history course over any other course on critical thinking. Emphasis on critical thinking can effect change in any discipline.

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