When I wasn’t MOOC’ing my heart out this semester, I was trying to help my students improve their writing. In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments. The real challenge is getting through to the students who are very bad at this, despite really trying. Good, hardworking students are easy to teach. You point out what’s wrong and they don’t do it anymore, most days. But the hardworking student who persists in submitting terrible stuff can be a real puzzle. You pin and label individual errors. But they just do it again. Teaching ‘informal reasoning’ doesn’t help, mostly. Students who have trouble seeing that there are major problems with their arguments – up to and including: you have no argument – are not assisted by lists of fallacies.
Teaching fallacies is mostly helpful for good students, even though it seems very basic. You are giving names to things they already get, thereby sharpening existing perception. The bad students, by contrast, have more of an ‘if it were a bear, it would have bitten you’ problem. Providing labels – brown, black, grizzly – is not going to help with ‘why did you completely miss it?’ [click to continue…]