Teaching Students Logic Improves Their Logical Reasoning Skills

Newflash: teaching students logic improves their logical reasoning skills—at least according to some new research. You may be thinking, “duh,” but that would be a mistake. After all, “teach” isn’t a success term. And as it turns out, “there is little evidence that studying logic itself improves one’s logical thinking.”

You may recall that there have been some rather dispiriting empirical studies questioning the effectiveness of philosophy courses in improving students’ critical thinking skills. There’s this meta-analysis which we discussed here last fall. And then there’s this one:

Cheng, Holyoak, Nisbett and Oliver (1986) investigated the development of conditional reasoning skills in undergraduates taking a semester-long course in logic. The students completed four Wason Selection Tasks (with a mixture of conditional and biconditional statements and abstract and thematic content, see Figure 1 for an example) at the beginning and end of the course, which contained 40 hours of teaching, including the definition of the conditional. It seems reasonable to expect that after such training students should be fairly competent at dealing with conditional statements; it is difficult to imagine a more promising way to improve a student’s logical thinking competency. Nonetheless, there was a non-significant decrease in errors of only 3%.

That description is courtesy of Nina Attridge (University of Bath), Andrew Aberdein (Florida Institute of Technology), and Matthew Inglis (Loughboro University). They raise some concerns about that study before describing their own perhaps slightly more reassuring one in “Does Studying Logic Improve Logical Reasoning?” (forthcoming in Proceedings of the 40th Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education).

To investigate the question of whether and how students’ logic skills could be improved, Attridge, Aberdein, and Inglis tested around 80 students from various majors on conditional reasoning tasks prior to and following a semester-long course in logic. The student data was split into two groups—those whose majors typically involved some logic instruction, and those whose majors did not. Only those in the first group showed a significant improvement in their logical reasoning skills.

Here’s how they put it:

We investigated the development of conditional reasoning skills in undergraduates taking a course in logic. Overall, our results suggest that studying formal logic improves students’ ability to deal with conditional statements, but only if they have had some experience with logic previously. While conditional inference scores did improve over time for the whole sample, when we examined the role of previous experience with logic, it became apparent that only those who had studied logic previously actually showed any gains in reasoning skills during the course. For those students who had not studied logic before, there was not a significant improvement in conditional inference scores over time. Interestingly, the students who had taken a logic course previously did not outperform those who had not at Time 1 [at the beginning of the course]. This suggests that the amount of logic training the students had received previously was not sufficient to give them an advantage on our conditional inference task, but that it was sufficient to make the logic course in question more effective.

Our findings suggest that it is possible to teach logical thinking, but that a certain level of exposure may be necessary before students’ skills begin to develop. We do not have data on the number of hours of previous study that participants had, but the fact that students without prior experience did not improve during the 37.5 hours of lectures involved in the current course suggests that a greater number of hours is required for development. Future research should systematically investigate the number of hours of exposure necessary for students’ logical reasoning skills to improve.

Still, this study does not make a strong case for instruction in philosophy or logic, over, say, mathematics:

Our findings suggest that, contrary to previous research, it is possible to improve students’ logical reasoning through instruction. Nevertheless, the level of improvement we found was comparable to that seen in A level mathematics students, who received no explicit logic tuition.

(Thanks to Nick Byrd for linking to this study in a recent comment.)

Mark Reynolds, "Phi Series: Root 5 Grouping, 1.15.15" (detail)

Mark Reynolds, “Phi Series: Root 5 Grouping, 1.15.15” (detail)


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