July 19, 2006

Idea: A “Critical Thinking” section on the SAT

The College Board, which administers the SAT test, periodically makes changes to the SAT format. Most recently, they eliminated the analogies section and added an essay section. Well, I have an idea for a change that I’m very excited about. It would have profound implications, I think, if the College Board added a “Critical Thinking” section to the SAT.

Critical Thinking skills are among the most important skills a person can have, but they aren’t taught very much in school. I’ve racked my brain trying to think how Critical Thinking could be made more important to students and educators. Making it an SAT category would go a long way.

Every university would want students that score high in that section. And it would fit perfectly in test prep courses, too, because the types of questions on the test would be easy to study for. Just learn the basic forms of valid arguments and common fallacies, and learn to identify them in context. And as an added bonus, if you study well enough to answer the Critical Thinking questions on the test, you can apply Critical Thinking to real life, too.

I’ve come up with a few examples to illustrate how I imagine the section. Different kinds of questions would test a student’s knowledge of basic argument and fallacy forms, and their ability to identify them. I’m not a test writer, and I’ve never taught Critical Thinking, so there may be problems with these examples from either perspective, but this is the basic idea:

1) If Tom is a cat, he is a mammal. Tom is a cat. Therefore, Tom is a mammal.

This statement follows the argument form:

a) modus ponens
b) modus tollens
c) straw man
d) begging the question
e) none of the above

2) In a double-blind study of 2000 men, 60% found Brand X medicine effective in alleviating their headaches.

This statement shows:

a) Brand X is effective because a majority of men’s headaches were alleviated when they used it.
b) Brand X is ineffective because 2000 people are not statistically significant
c) Brand X is effective because double-blind studies are always accurate
d) Brand X is ineffective because only men were tested
e) There is not enough information to know whether Brand X is effective

3) On the planet Syllo, there are Frebats and Lidgemonts. It is well known on Syllo that all Frebats are Twacklers. Betty lives on Syllo. Betty is a Twackler. Therefore, Betty is a Frebat.

The conclusion “Therefore, Betty is a Frebat” is logically sound.

a) True
b) False

4) The “false dilemma” fallacy is sometimes called:

a) the black or white fallacy
b) the bifurcation fallacy
c) the false dichotomy fallacy
d) all of the above
e) none of the above


The science section of the ACT exam has some critical thinking questions similar to this. Also, the GRE once contained questions of this nature in the Logical Reasoning section before the most recent reformatting.

I do remember having test questions like this somewhere, and I’m reasonably sure it was during high school…I can’t remember the context though.

1. e

2. e

3. false

4. heliphino

The problem with these questions (and with the standard questions that have been utilized on SAT, ACT, etc.) is that they presume that every person would arrive at the very same answer. Moreover, the respondent would not have the opportunity to explain the reasoning behind the response. As a college educator, I know that students often arrive at the differnt answers when they are presented with a problem that requires critical thinking. And the soluntions that are presented range from excellent to good to poor. A person’s entire history guides how they will approach finding a solution to a problem.

When I “teach critical thinking” the idea is guide students in the finding of numerous possible solutions. Then narrowing the possible solutions down to the best choice. But the “best choice” is not necessarily the same for everyone. Critical thinking is not a linear process and posing multiple choice questions suggests that it is.

FYI - As you know, you and I had an extremenly similar educational experience in high school and undergrad since we went the the same schools. I too often felt that I was not asked to “critically think” until graduate school. But the educational system is getting better at being more inclusive of world views - allowing more divergent responses beyond the Anglo-Saxon “right answer.” Part of the reason we never thought we were taught to critically think is because we were educated at a time where it was believed that there was always one right answer…we just don’t think that anymore.

Sorry, Rachel, but I’m afraid I disagree. In particular, these questions address logic as it pertains to critical thinking, and they most definitely do have right and wrong answers without cultural bias, just the same as math problems have right and wrong answers without cultural bias. Certain argument forms are logically sound, and certain argument forms are not logically sound. This is not dependent on your background or way of looking at things.

The right answer to question 1 is always “modus ponens,” which is always a valid form of argument. This doesn’t mean that the statements contained within the argument are true, but that the argument form is valid.

With question #3, I used made-up words in an attempt to show that the content of a statement doesn’t always matter in discovering whether or not it is logically sound. Without knowing what a Frebat, Lidgemont, or Twackler is, the correct answer is always going to be “False.” This argument form is always fallacious, no matter what you’re talking about.

Too many people don’t know the proper forms of arguments, and they don’t know how to recognize a fallacious argument. Bad arguments are often shrouded in appeals to emotion or put in other contexts that hide their basic forms. A person who knows the basic forms of valid arguments and fallacies can learn to recognize them through the clutter. These are valuable tools in critical thinking.

Best still, the basic forms of valid arguments can be taught and memorized. This makes them ideal SAT material. If a student can learn to recognize good argument forms, and pick out what’s wrong with bad argument forms, well enough to get a good grade on their SATs, they can use those tools in their every day life, reading the newspaper, listening to the news, etc.

It’s valuable to hear a case presented and be able to say, “Wait a second, that argument sounds like it makes sense, but I recognize the argument form as being dicto simpliciter, so I know the argument is invalid.”

True, there’s more to critical thinking than just memorizing forms of valid arguments. But that takes people a long way toward thinking critically about things they hear every day and putting them in proper context.


Weird. Questions 2 and 3 are standard question types on the Law School Admissions Test and other graduate-school tests. Questions 1 and 4 are straightforward vocabulary questions and have *nothing whatsoever* to do with critical thinking — they’re just about whether you’ve memorized certain terms. Those terms are *used* in connection with analysis of arguments, but that doesn’t mean that the questions involve any analysis of arguments. A student who is excellent at critical reasoning, but hasn’t had a logic class that teaches technical terms (and lots of variations on those terms, as in Q4), would be disadvantaged. Strange to conflate the two question types.

This what the LSAT is about, it is just less focused on terms found in a standard logic course.

Multiple choice tests are a problem all around.

I began my dive into logic after reading “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” where he was in search of the definition of the word “truth” stemming from not being able to define the abstract word “quality”
It sent me to the library to get books starting with Logic in ancient Greece. Arostotle and Plato.
Plato’s cave taught me that reality is relative to your point of view literally.
Arostotle taught me basic logic which led into reasoning.
reading grammar logic sent me on a journey into rhetoric.

Take into consideration there may be more than one truth due to point of view.
Use logic to find which truth is the real one.
Use knowledge of rhetoric to detect any manipulation and I am left with a list of truths and reasoning is simple from there on.
If you feel you know logic, a little pc skill and a high I.Q. you have to try to solve this online logic puzzle that is 71 pages. Each page is a clue to the next page. prepare to be addicted for months .

This idea is great. I’ve been trying to get my local schools to understand the importance of logical thining, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority. If the SATs integrated a section testing logic, I believe schools would place more explicit emphasis on thinking skills vs just absorbing content.

Rachel, I disagree as well. Logic isn’t about how many creative ideas one can conjure with a dependence on their backgrounds, imagination, or ability to persuade. If it is able to be logically deduced, it will have a right answer.

Ex: If I like pie, I like baseball. I like pie. Therefore —

a) I don’t like baseball.
b) I do like baseball.
c) We cannot tell if I like baseball or not.

Or even

Ex: All mammals breathe sulfur. My cat is a mammal. Assuming both statements are TRUE, what would be the *logical* conclusion?

a) My cat breathes sulfur.
b) My cat breathes oxygen.
c) All mammals are cats.

The logical conclusion of this statement would be A. Although we know cats don’t breathe sulfur, the question tests the ability to logically deduce, not our knowledge of biology.

I don’t believe the SATs should test ones knowledge of logical definitions, per se. A person doesn’t have to know that an argument is called “the Hitler fallacy” or “an appeal to ignorance” to know it is logically invalid.

Ex: Hitler was a bad person. He believed in subject X. Therefore, you shouldn’t believe in subject X.

a) This argument is invalid.
b) This is a valid argument.

ex: I can’t imagine how subject X can be explained naturally. Therefore, it must have a supernatural explanation.

a) It is valid. If you cannot explain something naturally, it must be supernatural.
b) It is invalid—just because I don’t know, doesn’t mean it is unexplainable.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more of the appeal to ignorance sneaking into our schools.


Wouldn’t this violate the separation of church and state?

Anyway, I don’t think rote-memorized terms and fallacies have anything to do with critical thinking skills. That’s the problem with Internet know-it-alls, isn’t it? They memorize a list of 20 or so “fallacies” (liberals seem especially fond of the so-called Naturalistic Fallacy) and think that qualifies them to shout down opinions they dislike, meanwhile totally lacking critical thinking skills.

There is (or was) a reading comprehension test on the GED. It consisted entirely of limiting your conclusions to what the text actually said. If everyone were forced to pass a test like that, before graduating high school, it might limit the number of times you have to say, “I didn’t write that. You aren’t reading what I wrote. No, that’s not what it says…”

Instead you could say, “You obviously didn’t graduate high school, because there is no way you could have passed the test.”