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Challenging Assumptions: Research and Resources

Challenging Assumptions: Research and Resources

Examining unstated premises upon which a conclusion depends.


Teaching Argument - Dartmouth Writing Program

A very concise and practical website for faculty to help students understand the process of argument in their writing. Of interest here because of how it describes the place of assumptions in the argument process.

The Monash Critical Thinking Study - Web-based Argument Mapping

Visually depicts the process of argument mapping and gives several good examples using Reason!Able argument mapping software.


Browne, N.M. & Keeley, S.M. (2010). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking (9th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

A compact and concise critical thinking classic, with two chapters directly relevant to the challenging of assumptions:

  • Chapter 6 - What are the value and descriptive assumptions? (pp.53-69)
  • Chapter 12 - What significant information is omitted? (pp.147-156)

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Often using candidly-autobiographic vignettes, the author describes the importance of and process by which teachers can "hunt assumptions" in their own thinking about teaching. Investigates how revealing it can be to see ourselves through our students' eyes.

Erickson, B.L., Peters, C.B., Strommer, D.W. (2006). Teaching first-year college students: Revised and expanded edition of 'Teaching college freshmen'. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

An updated version of a classic, this volume details the unique perspectives and challenges faced by students in their first year of college, and provides many practical methods to "meet them where they are."

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn't so: The Fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Tackles the cognitive, motivational and social roots of "questionable beliefs" in mainstream society. Provides clear examples of popular but questionable beliefs and explores the role of social science in illuminating them.

Perry, W.G. (1998). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco, CA: Wiley and Sons.

This seminal work explores college students' developmental trajectory through a 9-stage model. Focusing on both intellectual and ethical growth, this model provides a thorough framework for understanding college students' attitudes and worldview.


Berrill, D. (1991). Exploring underlying assumptions: Small group work of university undergraduates. Educational Review, 43(2), 143.

The authors analyzed the strategies that students used in group discussion to explore and illuminate their underlying assumptions. Analysis revealed ten strategies students used including: challenging generalizations, challenging the validity of questions posed, and challenging the assumptions of generalization made in various positions. The authors propose that teaching the strategies uncovered through their study may increase the quality of students' dialogue and improve their ability to understand and defend their underlying assumptions. Furthermore, the authors suggest that this discussion format serves as a vehicle for allowing students to become aware of others' assumptions, and to come to conclusions through evaluating and testing these varying assumptions.

Dede, C. (2005). Planning for neomillenial learning styles. Educause Quarterly, 1, 7-12.

This article offers a relevant perspective on challenging the assumptions of how students learn. As a result of the rapid technological advances adopted by younger generations, the way students learn is also shifting. To best support student learning, higher education should adopt these technological tools, which may lead to a shift in traditional assumptions on instruction. The author suggests that ongoing professional development for instructors, as well as investment by institutions in technology, will foster learning through the channels which today's students have adopted as their own standard practice. The article offers specific technology and instructional strategies that match these learning styles, which scaffold learning.

Keeley, S. (1992). Are college students learning the critical thinking skill of finding assumptions? College Student Journal, 26(3), 316-322.

In this study, 145 freshman and 155 seniors were asked to critically evaluate two essays. Results indicated that few study participants were able to identify the implicit assumptions within the presented essays, although on average seniors outperformed freshman. The authors suggest three implications for instruction to address this apparent lack of ability in college students. First, instructors should help students recognize differences between assumptions and claims that have not been fully established. Second, instructors should define assumptions, and help model this understanding. Third, instructors should engage students in identifying assumptions as part of classroom discussion and activities.

Keeley, S., & Browne, M. (1986). How college seniors operationalize critical thinking behavior. College Student Journal, 20(4), 389-395.

This study explored specific critical thinking processes college students used to critically evaluate an essay. The sample consisted of 37 college seniors from across disciplines. The essay presented to participants was written in a way that both blatant and subtle reasoning errors were present in order to provide multiple opportunities for participants to utilize critical thinking skills. Less than half of participants questioned the reasoning within the article. More illuminating, less than 25% of the participants identified the underlying value assumption within the essay. 65% of students indirectly recognized questionable assumptions, however they were not explicit in asking about these assumptions.

Sheldon, J. (1999). A secondary agenda in classroom activities: Having students confront their biases and assumptions. Teaching of Psychology, 26(3), 209-211.

The author posits that students must be open-minded and able to address their own biases in order for critical thinking to occur. The author also points out that students often are reluctant to admit to their own biases. To this end, the author proposes a method of exploring assumptions as a secondary task woven into a class activity. The author's technique involves conducting a class discussion where ambiguous background information is presented. During the discussion the instructor monitors the assumptions students make given the ambiguous information. The author provides many examples of in-class assignments. In one example, the students are provided with the scenario of a 12-year-old who has been caught shoplifting and then they are asked to respond as if they were the parents. Although the gender of the child is not given, students invariably assume the child is male.

West, R., Toplak, M., & Stanovich, K. (2008). Heuristics and biases as measures of critical thinking: Associations with cognitive ability and thinking dispositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 930-941.

The foundation for this article is that critical thinking involves the ability to evaluate evidence independently of an individual's prior beliefs. This empirical study tests this proposition of the association between critical thinking and the ability to avoid becoming biased by prior beliefs. A sample of 793 undergraduate students were presented with syllogistic reasoning problems of varying validity for the given conclusions. The authors stated that these types of reasoning problems require the participant to ignore prior knowledge and beliefs in the context of critical thinking. Results indicated that students' scores on critical thinking measures was moderately correlated with the ability to reason without interference from prior beliefs and biases. Furthermore, the thinking disposition of open-mindedness predicted critical thinking scores, even after controlling for general cognitive ability.

Yanchar, S., & Slife, B. (2004). Teaching critical thinking by examining assumptions. Teaching of Psychology, 31(2), 85-90.

The authors propose an instructional strategy for examining theoretical assumptions in psychology courses to promote critical thinking. While the material is embedded within a specific discipline, the activities translate well to a variety of courses. The instructional strategy presented is comprised of five parts. First, the instructor should provide experiences that are conducive to student engagement in critical thinking such as interesting case studies that promote curiosity. The instructor then creates a generic list of questions that will promote the identification of assumptions, and then allows students to discover the assumptions through these questions. Students are next encouraged to determine the practical implications of the identified assumptions. Finally, students are asked to decide on the validity of the specific theory based on the underlying assumptions.