The Coursera course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue started again on Monday – there’s still time to sign up! I took the course in the second half of 2014, making me a Think Again alumnus. If you are looking to learn something new this new year, then Think Again could be the course for you. Read on for a review.
Reasoning is important, and Think Again promises to teach you how to do it well. I have blogged before about public speaking, and when I signed up for the course I had in mind that this course would help me to take my public speaking to a new level, beyond delivering information and into the realm of persuading and debating – having conviction and the courage to match. Whilst the course does indeed discuss
how to identify, analyse and evaluate arguments by other people including politicians, used car salesmen, and teachers
it stops short of turning you into one of those characters. This course was not about rhetoric per se. It was about the logic underlying arguments, about how arguments are constructed and deconstructed, and how to identify and evaluate arguments – what makes a good argument? The course had connections to linguistics, logic, and, yes, statistics.
Course teachers Walter and Ram
The course was taught by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, and Ram Neta, Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is co-author (with Robert Fogelin) of the course textbook Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Walter and Ram present the course as a humorous double-act, Walter’s clownish humour alternating with Ram’s deadpan wit.
The course textbook
The course was twelve weeks long, structured as four three-week long units, taught alternately by Walter and Ram. The course material was delivered each week as a series of bite-sized lectures. Students could check their understanding using multiple-choice exercises that follow each lecture, and read the accompanying chapters in the course textbook. Online discussion forums on the Coursera website enabled students to check their understanding and clear up misunderstandings – and to help fellow students to do the same. At the end of each three-week long unit was a graded quiz, and if you achieve an average grade of 70 or above on the four quizzes you will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the professors. An average grade of 85 or above will get you a Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction also signed by the professors!
An outline of the course syllabus is given on the Coursera website, and you could get a more detailed idea about what is covered in the course by looking at the table of contents for the course textbook. Key learnings from the course include one from the very first week:
An argument is not a verbal fight
Useful to remember if a difference of opinion gets heated, online or off. I studied truth tables, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments, and logical fallacies. When I was not studying, it was fun to spot, uniting and reconstruct arguments in everyday life. Or, fun for me at least – I mused out loud that this Coursera course was changing the way I think, only for my husband to retort that it was making me “really annoying”. Oops.
Some students on the course – Courserians as we are known – went further than just observing the structure of arguments in their everyday lives We were encouraged by the course teachers to upload our own arguments to the discussion forums, and to comment on the arguments uploaded by other students. Some students created their own short videos to illustrate the course material, and a few of these videos were incorporated into future editions of the course.
This was my second run at a MOOC – earlier in the year I took Statistical Learning, also starting again soon, at Stanford Online. I learned from that first MOOC experience and when I took TA:HTRAA I made more of a conscious effort to set aside the time to study. A MOOC, with its lack of lecture theatre or exam hall, requires a different sort of commitment compared to bricks-and-mortar study. It can be challenging for students to set aside the time each week. One student in the discussion forums suggested watching the videos twice to aid understanding – a great idea but of course taking twice as much time. I used the Coursera app to download the video lectures, and studied on my commute, with a few binge-studying sessions to catch up on weekends.
I would recommend Think Again: How to Reason and Argue to people working or studying in a wide range of fields. Regardless your day job, the information, tools and techniques taught in the course will help you to reason in everyday life. If you would like to stretch your mind an a different direction this year, or are considering taking a MOOC perhaps for the first time, then signing up to Think Again would be a great move! And, if you do not agree with my endorsement, I would be interested to hear your counter argument.