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Challenging Assumptions: Defined and Explored

Challenging Assumptions: Defined and Explored

Examining unstated premises upon which a conclusion depends.

The roles that assumptions play in our lives

In an argument, an assumption is a statement for which no proof or evidence is offered (Halpern, 2003). In a broader sense, an assumption is an idea one believes to be true based on prior experience or one's belief systems (Elder & Paul, 2002). We all assume many things in order to make sense of the world, but studies have demonstrated biases exist across domains of reasoning that lead to inaccurate judgment (Newstead & Evans, 1993). Therefore, challenging assumptions is an essential critical thinking skill, addressing our tendency toward biased reasoning (Evans, Newstead, Allen, & Pollard, 1994).

There are at least two kinds of assumptions worth considering by teachers of lower division college students. First, there are the assumptions in arguments that we want to help our students identify and examine. Second, there are assumptions we commonly make about our students--assumptions worth exploring so that we can better meet our students where they truly are, intellectually.

Helping students learn to question assumptions

Many teachers comment upon how first-year college students seem to arrive with a dualistic perception of knowledge, as described by Perry (1998).  The central assumption of this perspective is that there is one correct answer to each question or one right solution to each problem.  These teachers describe the profound importance of introducing complexity to their students in how they talk about course content.  Opening students’ minds to many perspectives on a problem, many shades of gray, and the needs of many different stakeholders in any given situation is a crucial contribution to their intellectual growth.

Modeling "assumption hunting" (Brookfield, 1995) for students in one’s own thought and speech can help them learn that one must remain flexible in one’s thought and open to the reconsideration of ideas.  Furthermore, it can be helpful to make clear that we are all human and even scholars don't always get it right the first time by assumptions they do not realize they are making.

At a more detailed level, students must be given practice with assignments requiring them to actively search for assumptions in textbooks, articles, and even the popular media.  "When we give them routine practice in identifying inferences and assumptions, they begin to see that inferences will be illogical when the assumptions that lead to them are not justifiable (Elder & Paul, 2002, p.35)."  One way to draw overt attention to the mechanics of an argument (and the assumptions upon which it relies) is to collaboratively diagram the argument and discuss, for example, what components of the argument are necessary or sufficient to draw the stated or implied conclusion.

Challenging our own assumptions about our students

Beyond teaching our students to challenge assumptions in their own and others' arguments, we must also challenge our own assumptions about who our students are and how we can teach them best. Especially when students are in their first college semester, we must challenge the assumption that they already know how succeed in this new academic environment.  The truth is that many are not well prepared and must effort into learning habits of thought and behavior that we frequently assume they have long mastered (Erickson, Peters, & Strommer, 2006).  For this reason, many teachers have discovered the importance assessing students early and often, to keep sharpening their own perception of where students are in their learning.

Good teachers have figured out simple ways to help students take excellent class notes, recommendations for helping them learn to study at the college level and even certain ways to discuss course content that helps students think in terms of an academic discipline.

Only when we adjust our expectations of classrooms and students to better match this classroom and these students, will we stop being surprised and frustrated by our prescriptive and causal assumptions proving incorrect.


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

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2002). Critical thinking: Distinguishing between inferences and assumptions. Journal of Developmental Education, 25(3), 34-35.

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: John Wiley and Sons.

Evans, J., Newstead, S., Allen, J., & Pollard, P. (1994). Debiasing by instruction: The case of belief bias. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 6(3), 263-285.

Halpern, D.F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (4th Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

Newstead, S., & Evans, J. (1993). Mental models as an explanation of belief bias effects in syllogistic reasoning. Cognition, 46, 93-97.

Perry, W. G. (1998). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. Jossey-Bass.