Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Cultivating Expertise in Informal Reasoning

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Cultivating Expertise in Informal Reasoning

Article excerpt

Abstract

People generally develop some degree of competence in general informal reasoning and argument skills, but how do they go beyond this to attain higher expertise? Ericsson has proposed that high-level expertise in a variety of domains is cultivated through a specific type of practice, referred to as "deliberate practice." Applying this framework yields the empirical hypothesis that high-level expertise in informal reasoning is the outcome of extensive, deliberate practice. This paper reports results from two studies evaluating the hypothesis. University student participants completed 12 weeks of deliberate practice in informal reasoning. Quantity of practice was recorded by computer, and additionally assessed via self-report. The hypothesis was supported: Students in both studies showed a large improvement, and practice, as measured by computer, was related to amount of improvement in informal reasoning. These findings support adopting a deliberate practice approach when attempting to teach or learn expertise in informal reasoning.

The general skills of informal reasoning and argumentation, which in the following we simply call informal reasoning, are often ill understood and poorly deployed, even among those in the upper tiers of our educational systems (Graf, 2003). In her important book, The Skills of Argument, Deanna Kuhn reported on an extensive study of a wide range of people. She found that, for each of the major subskills of informal argumentation, around half of her subjects did not successfully exhibit that subskill (Kuhn, 1991). For example, while participants readily held opinions on controversial matters, when asked to give evidence in support of their opinions, in over half of the cases their responses did not constitute genuine evidence (let alone good evidence). Other studies have come up with similarly bleak results (Means & Voss, 1996; Perkins, 1985; Perkins, Alien, & Hafner, 1983).

Of course, almost all people do have some informal reasoning ability. They can follow, and often produce, basic inferences such as "you can't get on the bus, because you don't have a ticket." They have fragmented abilities in the range of argument skills investigated by Kuhn (1991). These abilities are deployed in many eveiyday circumstances. Informal reasoning appears at quite an early age (Stein & Miller, 1993) and continues to develop through secondary and tertiary education (Felton & Kuhn, 2001; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). A few people manage to become highly proficient.

The problem, then, seems to be that the natural development of informal reasoning often peters out while skills are still incomplete. Ordinarily, through standard processes of maturation, socialization, and education, people achieve a certain level of expertise, broadly comparable to that of their peers and adequate for most of their everyday purposes. In this paper, we call this "competence," allowing that competent people may have settled at widely vaiying levels of ability. The key point is that people rarely advance beyond that competence to genuine mastery of a coherent set of skills. Extraordinary efforts, pressures or opportunities might yield some improvement, but for most people this unfinished competence is a more or less stable state.

This poses a challenge for educators and trainers, especially those working at the higher ends of our educational systems: How can they help students progress beyond ordinary competence to achieve some level of mastery? To address instructional challenges of this kind, we need good theories of the psychological terrain. How, in general, are informal reasoning skills acquired? What is their developmental trajectory? What are the cognitive processes and mechanisms involved? What contexts and activities best promote growth in such skills? How is excellence achieved?

Given the pervasiveness and importance of informal reasoning, we might expect psychologists to know a considerable amount about these topics. …

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