Critical Thinking Class Syllabus

The Key Concept of the Course

This course is entirely and exclusively concerned with the development of potential capacities that all of you have, even though you have not developed them, capacities in that part of your mind known as "your intellect". Most people don’t develop their intellect and use it very ineffectively and often mainly to rationalize or justify their infantile or egocentric drives.

One way to put this point is to say that most people are not in charge of their ideas and thinking. Most of their ideas have come into their minds without their having thought about it. They unconsciously pick up what the people around them think. They unconsciously pick up what is on television or in the movies.

They unconsciously absorb ideas from the family they were raised in. They are the products, through and through, of forces they did not choose. They reflect those forces without understanding them. They are like puppets who don’t know that they have strings being pulled.

To become a critical thinker is to reverse that process, by learning to practice skills that enable one to start to take charge of the ideas that run one’s life. It is to think consciously and deliberately and skillfully in ways that transform oneself. It is to begin to remake one’s own mind. It is to run for the first time one’s inner workings and to understand the "system" one is running. It is to develop a mind that is analogous to the body of a person that is physically fit. It is like an excellent dancer who can perform any dance that can be choreographed. It is like a puppet that discovers the strings, and figures out how to gain control of the way they are pulled.

Whenever you are doing a task in or for the class, ask yourself, would an independent observer watching you closely conclude that you were engaged in "taking charge of your mind, of your ideas, of your thinking" or would such a person conclude that you were "merely going through the motions of formally doing an assignment", trying to get by with some rotely memorized formula or procedure?

The General Plan

The class will focus on practice not on lecture. It will emphasize your figuring out things using your own mind, not memorizing what is in a textbook. On a typical class day you will be in small groups practicing "disciplined" thinking. You will be regularly responsible for assessing your own work using criteria and standards discussed in class. If at any time in the semester you feel unsure about your "grade", you should request an assessment from the professor.

For every class day you will have a written assignment which involves "disciplined" thinking. Out of class you will enter disciplined reflections into in a journal, using a special format.


All students must complete all of the following:

  1. 25 short written assignments, one due for every class day. Each of these must be computer - generated - so that you can easily revise them. If your assignment for the day is not completed, then you are not prepared to do the "in-class" work of the day and you will be asked to leave.
  2. 20 journal entries, all in a special format.
  3. An oral exam. This is a mastery exam. All entries must be passed to pass the exam.
  4. A final exam.
  5. A Self-Evaluation, in which you "make a case" for receiving a particular grade using criteria provided in class and citing evidence from your work across the semester.
  6. Consistent classroom attendance and active, skilled participation.


The class will not be graded on a curve. It is theoretically possible for the whole class to get an A or an F. You will not be competing against each other and there will be every incentive to help each other improve. No letter grades will be given before the final grade - unless you make a specific request to the professor. You should focus on improving your performance, increasing your strengths and diminishing your weaknesses, not in looking for a grade.

  • Final Exam: about 30%
  • Out of class writing: about 30%
  • Self-evaluation: about 20%
  • Active, Skilled Participation: about 10 %
  • Journal: about 10%
  • Penalty for Missed Classes: You may miss two classes without receiving any formal penalty (though it is clearly in your interest to attend every class and participate actively). Every two unexcused absences after the first two results in a 1/3 of a grade penalty (Hence, with four absences: if your final grade would have been C+, it would be reduced to a C; if C- it would be reduced to D+). Attendance is taken by way of "stamped in" class assignments.
Since the final grade is not based on points and is not mathematically calculated, the above percentages are approximations to suggest emphasis, not precise figures. In assigning your final grade the professor will lay all of your work out before him and match your work as a whole against the criteria passed out in class. You should read and re-read these criteria many times through-out the semester to ensure that you are clear about what you are striving to achieve.

Vague Thinking

The "mortal sin" of the class is thinking that is vague, obscure, nebulous, blurred, confused, intangible, indefinite, imprecise, fuzzy, foggy, or indeterminate. If you learn nothing else in the class, learn to be clear, precise, definite, specific, concrete, distinct, and exact in what you say and write.

Reading Resource

There is a book available to serve as a background reader for the concepts of the course. Once in a while assignments may be made in it, but for the most part it will be used for readings that will help you learn some of the basic concepts implicit in the course. The book, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, retails for $30, but is being made available for $15 only to registered members of the course. Books will be available for this price simply once in class. You will have to pay in cash or with a check made out to The Foundation For Critical Thinking. At the final exam you may sell the book back for $8, making your cost for the semester only $7.

Teaching Assistants

There will be some teaching assistants working with the professor, Richard Paul. These assistants do not assign grades, nor do they lecture. Instead, they help with tutorial work and are facilitators for in-class practice sessions when the professor is away on University work. They also administer the oral exam and conduct practice sessions when the professor is absent on official business. All class sessions are designed by the professor with specific goals in mind. There should be no relaxation of discipline and excellence of work when participating in a practice sessions conducted by the teaching assistants in the absence of the professor. Active, skilled participation in these sessions is just as important to your final grade as that of any other session.

{This article is adapted from the resource: Critical Thinking Basic Theory and Instructional Structures.}

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Catalog description

  PHIL 4. Critical Thinking. 3 Units General Education Area/Graduation Study of the basic skills of good reasoning needed for the intelligent and responsible conduct of life. Topics include: argument structure and identification, validity and strength of arguments, common fallacies of reasoning, use and abuse of language in reasoning, principles of fair play in argumentation.

This course satisfies area A3 of your G.E. (General Education) requirements.


When does our class meet?

This course is 100% online, including the tests. To get started, keep reading.


The required textbook Logical Reasoning is free online at my personal webpage.

For extra reading, I recommend your working on the aids at Here you will find a summary of our main topics, frequently asked questions with answers, and sample tests with answers.

Our course is designed to improve your skills at making wise decisions about what to believe and do. Your critical thinking skills are your skills at making judgments. Not snap judgments that occur in the blink of an eye, but those that require careful reasoning. You use your critical thinking skills to

  • grasp the point that a writer or speaker is trying to make,
  • detect whether someone's claim needs more evidence to back it up,
  • distinguish between strong arguments and weak ones,
  • generate reasons for your viewpoint on some issue,
  • decide what information in a piece of writing or speaking to accept and use, and decide what information to reject and not use,
  • reason from a hypothetical assumption,
  • make a potentially strong argument stronger,
  • practice conscious quality control as you think,
  • foreseeing problems.

Critical thinking skills involve the ability to reason, to assemble evidence in order to develop a position, and to communicate complex ideas. These skills are of practical value to anyone, and they will be taught here independent of subject matter. Our course will not emphasize philosophy over any other subject.

The central core of your critical thinking skills is your ability to detect, generate and evaluate reasons given in support of some conclusionoften also called the "key proposition" or "point" or "thesis." This conclusion might be a new belief, or a change in plans, or a confirmation that the old beliefs are OK. The technical term for a set of reasons plus their intended conclusion is an "argument." So, the central topic of this course is argumentation. Not argumentation in the sense of quarrels, but argumentation in the sense of giving reasons to support some conclusion or other.

Although many scientific studies of decision making have shown that people tend to sift sources of information to reinforce existing views rather than to accept the view that is backed up with the better argument, our course is designed to combat this tendency.

Our course is concerned with many other kinds of reasoning, not just with argumentation. For example, when you are trying to summarize a complicated explanation of allowable deductions on I.R.S. income tax form 1040 Schedule C, you are not arguing, but you are doing some critical thinking. Your critical thinking skills also involve assessing whether a group of sentences are consistent, whether a proposed definition is successful, whether an advertisement gives any useful information about a product, whether a speaker is being fair in a debate with an opponent, whether a statistical sample was biased, and whether someone's supposed scientific explanation is unscientific. Our course will try to improve all these other critical thinking skills, too, even though they don't directly involve arguments.

In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of the first importance.

--Thomas Jefferson

One of your most valuable critical thinking skills is illustrated in the following transcript of a radio conversation between a large U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision with us.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a light house. Your call.

Hopefully, the Captain changed course. Critical thinkers will alter their beliefs and actions in light of new evidence. Inflexible thinkers won't.

For more details about what our course is about, visit the overview page.


This is a skills course, not a look-up-the-answer course nor a know-these-facts course. The primary goal of this course is to develop your critical thinking skills, not to teach you a body of knowledge. More specifically, the course aims to improve your ability to do the following things:

1. Locate the argument in a passage.

2. Detect errors of reasoning and explain how the reasoning is in error.

3. Evaluate evidence and make appropriate inferences from that evidence.

4. Write an argumentative essay.

5. Rewrite an argumentative essay to improve it.

6. Write clearly as you apply the other skills on this list.

7. Distinguish whether an argument's conclusion follows with certainty or only with probability from its premises [i.e., distinguish deductive validity from inductive strength].

8. Identify the issue in a disagreement.

9. Detect logical inconsistency.

10. Detect and remove vagueness and ambiguity, but do not confuse being explicit with being objective.

11. Identify the point or purpose of someone's remark. For example, is the person asking something, making a claim, arguing, threatening, or joking?

12. Create an argument that avoids the fallacies and makes a plausible case for a position on an issue.

13. Given an argument on a controversial issue, create a plausible argument that defends a different (or the opposite) conclusion.

14. Detect when someone is asking a bad question because it's loaded, or because it's a red herring.

15. Explain in what way this is analogous to that.

16. Compare the quality of two competing explanations.

17. Identify implicit assumptions.

18. Be less gullible than you were before taking the course.

One goal for our course is to improve your writing ability.


Here is a more formal presentation of the GE learning goals for this course (and available at

  1. Students study about and consciously develop skills in critical thinking.
  2. Knowledge through logical analysis and argument construction is pursued throughout the course.
  3. Instruction develops understanding of logical relationships between premises and conclusions.
  4. Instruction develops ability to recognize more common formal and informal fallacies.
  5. Grading reflects emphasis on logical processes.
  6. Develops basic skills, applicable to a variety of academic subjects and to the fulfillment of such roles as citizen, consumer, leader and moral agent.
    1. Skill in evaluating the validity, strength and relevance of arguments.
    2. A sense of logical structure of both inductive and deductive forms.
    3. Awareness of uses and abuses of argument language, including connotation, ambiguity and definition.
    4. Skill in handling a variety of arguments in variety of contexts.
    5. Ability to argue fairly and to handle bias, emotion, and propaganda.


At the end of the course, students will be able to:

1. Describe, explain and distinguish key concepts in critical thinking.
2. Identify an argument in a passage of ordinary text, including identifying the premises and conclusions and distinguishing them from extraneous information.
3. Identify errors of reasoning and explain what the error is.
4. Engage with peers in cogent and respectful discussion.
5. Analyze specific arguments for consistency and credibility.
6. Apply good reasoning to issues and problems in professional and personal contexts.
7. Evaluate evidence and draw inferences from that evidence.

As you read, it is helpful first to skim the assignment to get some sense of what's ahead. Look at how it is organized and what cues, if any, the author provides to signify main ideas (section titles, bold face, boxes). Make your own notes as you read. Stop every ten or fifteen minutes to look back over what you've read and try to summarize the key ideas for yourself by asking yourself, "What was the point of all that?" This periodic pausing and reviewing will help you maintain your concentration, process the information more deeply, and retain it longer. You'll be given sample questions now and then to help guide your studying for future assignments, but answering an actual homework or test question usually will require you to apply your knowledge to new questions not specifically discussed in class nor in the required reading. This ability to use your knowledge in new situations requires study activities different from memorizing. You goal is to improve your skills, not simply to memorize.



This course has no prerequisites. It is designed to be taken in the second semester of your first year of college, but you can take it any semester you wish.



Add policy: To add the course, try to do so by using CMS, else write the instructor.

Drop policy: This course has participation and activity requirements, including engagement with the course material on a weekly basis. Students who do NOT participate during the first two weeks by either completing the first week’s email assignment or taking the second week’s quiz will be considered to have abandoned the course and may be administratively dropped by the instructor. Re-enrolment will not be permitted.

To drop the course on purpose during the first two weeks, use the CMS system. No paperwork is required. After the first two weeks, it is harder to drop, and a departmental form from the Dept. Secretary in MND 3000 is required; the form is called "Petition to Add/Drop After Deadline." It requires stating a good reason for dropping. As with any university course, make sure you are dropped officially (by CMS or the instructor or the department secretary); don't simply walk away into the ozone, or else you will get a "U" grade for the course, which is counted as an "F" by the Registrar in computing your GPA (grade point average).

Your grade will be determined by weekly assignments, a midterm and a final examination. The weekly assignments might be homework questions, an essay, a crossword puzzle, or a quiz.

Notice in the Schedule of Assignments and Due Dates how much each week's assignment counts as part of the total grade.  In SacCT you will find a more detailed description of each week's assignment. Weekly assignments are due each Friday.

You are expected to do your own final work on all assignments, although it is OK to discuss assignments with others before you actually write up or choose your answers. Emailing another student for their answers so you can use them is not what is meant by allowable discussion.

After each homework or quiz is graded, I'll post within SacCT your grade, the grading scale, and a representative sample of the answers with explanations of them.  The grading scale and answers will be viewable by everyone, but your own grade will be viewable only by you and me; no other student will be able to see your grade. 

It's possible for everyone to get an A grade; I don't curve the results to force a certain number of D's and F's, although I sometimes curve the other way to ensure a sufficient number of A's each week.

This is a paper-less course. You don't give me any paper. You do all the work for this course online, and you do not need to meet me or the other students in a classroom. For each week's assignment, you send in all your work by computer, and you can do your work any day of that week and any time of day you wish. You are never required to be online at any particular time of the day nor any particular day of the week. But you have to do something each week. Also, even if you can view a future week's assignment, you are not allowed to complete it in advance, because the assignment might change a few hours before the week begins.


It is recommended that you finish an assignment before the last day it is due. That way, if you are sick the day the assignment is due or have computer problems that day or just have a bad hair day, then you won't have to worry about the Phil. 4 assignment.  

You are penalized for not doing an assignment on time even if you are sick, because you had an entire week to do that assignment. There are . Without this policy, I'd be having to create make-up assignments for every week for somebody.

. Late homework is accepted for three days after the due date; but the later it is, the more your grade suffers, which is one-third letter grade per day, including weekend days. The quizzes must be taken by the due date.


Below is a schedule of topics to be covered in the course.

Week 1: What is critical thinking?

Week 2: Claims, issues, and arguments

Week 3: Argument structure

Week 4: Ways to be imprecise

Week 5: Evaluating claims

Week 6: Arguing fairly

Week 7: Fallacies

Week 8: Review

Week 9: Midterm

Week 10: Consistency and contradiction

Week 11: Deductive logic

Week 12: Explanations

Week 13: Inductive Arguments

Week 14: Scientific reasoning

Week 15: Review for the final exam


You will take this course wholly on a computer (any computer is OK) over the Internet (the web).

If you don't already have a SacLink account, go ahead and get one. CSUS students can create a free SacLink account for web access (and e-mail, too) by visiting, or by making a short visit in person to any student computer lab.

No matter how, or from where, you access the Internet, in order to gain entry to the SacCT web pages of our course you will need to use your SacLink User name as your SacCT username and use your SacLink password as your SacCT password.

During the semester, you will need elementary word processing skills such as the ability to type a sentence, to create and save a text document using your favorite word processor, and to copy a paragraph from that document and paste it into another document (such as into an e-mail to me). These skills aren't hard to learn, and the best way to get them is either to ask a friend for advice or to visit a campus computer lab and talk to the student assistant there. Don't bother reading manuals.

Campus computer labs

The labs are here.

You can get help about SacLink and about getting your computer to work with our course by going to one of these labs and speaking with the student who is running it or telephoning their help desk at 278-7337.



  • You will work all the test questions and homework questions on your own and won't receive the answers from other students, nor give them to other students.
  • At the moment, SacCT contains a rough draft of every assignment for every week of the course, so you can look ahead to get a good idea of what is coming.  However, I often change assignments on the Saturday morning before a week begins, so I expect you not to work future assignments until the week begins in which they are actually due. 
  • You will seek help or advice about the course if you need it rather than waiting until the end of the semester.
  • You will be courteous to other students. If you are assigned to do a group project with someone you don't particularly like, you will do it anyway; you are in training to be a professional.
  • You will be honest and won't cheat by plagiarizing (copying) from someone else. For more information see the University's policy on honesty and cheating. A student tutorial on how not to plagiarize is available online from our library.



If you have a disability and require accommodations, you need to provide disability documentation to SSWD, Lassen Hall 1008 (phone 916-278-6955).  Then see me early in the semester so that appropriate arrangements can be made to ensure your full participation in class. See also



You are expected to be honest in your academic work. For more details, visit this link to the University's policy on academic honesty at


Prof. Dowden

My office is in Mendocino Hall 3022, phone 916-278-7384. My weekly office hours there are Monday and Wednesday 10:45 - 11:55. Feel free to stop by or to telephone at any of those times. If those times are inconvenient for you, then we can arrange an appointment for an alternative time. In addition I hold online office hours within SacCT every Wednesday night 9-10 P.M.

You may send e-mail to me any time at Once you have access to the SacCT program (see below), you should send nearly all your course related email to me at 'Bradley Dowden (Instructor)' within the SacCT mail program. Regardless of how you send me email, you should expect a response within 24 hours, usually much sooner.  My personal web page at has the telephone number of the Philosophy Department's secretary, a mailing address, and other info about me.


The first thing to do is to go get a SacLink password, then enter SacCT below and read all the web pages in the table of contents for the first week of our course, and follow their directions. Below is more info on how to do this.

When you've been officially registered in the course by the University, a day later they will tell the SacCT computer program to allow you into the rest of the course (provided the semester has started), but I probably won't allow students into SacCT until a few days before the semester begins.

Your SacCT UserName is the same as your SacLink account name. It looks something like sac87888, but with different numbers just for you. When you apply for a SacLink account, the Administration's computer looks deep into your soul and assigns you a number based on the order in which you applied.

When you get a SacLink account, you will also get a SacLink password which you will use each time you use the University computers. It is also your password into the SacCT program. You will never need to tell me this password (and be suspicious of any email that asks you for it).

I'm glad you're interested in taking the course. I'll try to help you if you get stuck somewhere. If you ever have trouble with SacLink or with logging in to the University from home, call the SacLink help desk at 916-278-7337, and the student who answers will try to help you. If you have trouble and are in a campus computer lab, just ask the student who is working in the lab.  If all that fails, contact me.

Your goal now is to enter SacCT. You do not need to do anything in order to be registered for access to SacCT; once you are offically enrolled in the course with the University, then your enrollment in SacCT happens automatically near the beginning of the semester. Then when you click to enter SacCT you will be allowed to enter.

And for a first exercise in critical thinking while you are waiting for the course to begin, you should know that on eBay you can purchase a $500 scholarship to our university for only $1,000. This is a great deal, and no person is turned down. Please send your $1,000 to the address in Nigeria that is indicated in the eBay announcement that will arrive soon.

If you are already registered in the course and have your Saclink password (and it's less than a week before the semester begins), then you are ready to enter SacCT.



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