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Transferring Critical Thinking Skills into a Novel Context

Curricular materials created for the 2012 SAIL seminar:

Considering Animals in Washington, DC

In advanced science courses, students are often asked to analyze scientific arguments, but they have little practice transferring these analytical skills into a novel context. In this activity, students enrolled in a neurobiology course engage in a collaborative analysis of a philosophy reading to apply their critical analysis skills, enhance their understanding of cognition (through comparison of humans and non-human animals), connect cognition to other neurobiological concepts, and further their ability to develop an argument by analyzing evidence from other disciplines.

Note: Content adapted from the currciular project.

Course Context and Description

This activity is part of an advanced biology course, Neurobiology. During this course, students study general neural transmission and neural anatomy and physiology in vertebrate systems. The target audience is a diverse student group of biology, biochemistry, chemistry, psychology, public health, and cognitive science majors. The course combines laboratory work, class discussions, small group case study analysis, and lecture.

Journal club analysis of peer-reviewed literature is a common form of collaborative critical analysis in the sciences. Rather than analyzing a primary scientific research paper, this particular activity is the analysis of a philosophy paper that investigates cognition through comparisons of human and non-human animals. Invite a philosophy or cognitive science faculty colleague to join in the reading of the paper and ask him or her to join your class on the day of the journal club.

Approximately one week prior to the journal club, post the paper for students to access. For Neurobiology, “Brute Experience” (Carruthers, P., Journal of Philosophy, 86[5], 1989, 258-69) was selected as an easily accessible text for introductory philosophy students and directly addresses the topic cognition. It also presents philosophical arguments that can be easily deconstructed. When the paper is posted, arrange for an online forum or email thread for students to respond and ask question about the article. Encourage student engagement and preparation by assigning students to respond to the reading 48 hours and then again 24 hours prior to the journal club.

On the day of the journal club, ask students to arrange themselves in circle. Journal club should be student-led, and the faculty members should only intervene to clarify or correct content or interpretations of the material. (As students are not familiar with this type of reading, it may be appropriate for a brief overview of philosophical thought by the philosophy or cognitive science faculty member, but often this in not necessary, as questions and discussion by the students will present an opportunity for this faculty member to elaborate on pertinent points.) Faculty members should be considered collaborators in the analysis, rather than leaders of the discussion. A student proctor may be assigned to ensure forward progress of the conversation.

At the conclusion of the journal club, students are assigned a brief reflective paper. This assignment asks student to use both scientific and philosophical evidence to compare and contrast the process of cognition to other neural processes. Students should present specific evidence in the differences and similarities between humans and non-human animals to create their arguments.


Content/Concept Goals

Using nonhuman animal-human comparisons (e.g. language), students will be able to explain how the process of cognition aligns with the nervous system processes of receiving, integration, and application of information.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

Students will transfer their analytical skills to critically evaluate peer-reviewed literature in a discipline that is not their expertise, apply what they know about how the nervous system receives, integrates, and applies information to the newly learned information of cognition, effectively communicate and collaborate with others, and ask relevant and thought provoking questions.

Multidisciplinary Analysis Goals

Students will transfer their analytical skills developed evaluating scientific literature to a novel context beyond the sciences. At the conclusion of this activity, students will be able to describe how various disciplines develop arguments unique to the discipline and the type of evidence used to create effective arguments. They will also gain perspective on how their scientific understanding of a topic is enhanced when evaluating a topic using evidence from a different discipline.

Other Skills Goals

Introduce students to faculty from non-science disciplines and peak their interest in enrolling in other courses that complement the work in Neurobiology. Encourage students to connect the skills and content of other courses with this course.


As an activity conducted at the end of the semester, this activity provides an opportunity to review content and evaluate skills in a novel situation. For example in Neurobiology, the execution and interpretation of language is introduced approximately one week prior to this journal club. Comparisons are made between human language and the replication of human sign language by non-human primates. These discussions can be augmented with YouTube videos demonstrating these non-human

primates (see resources). The journal club will provide an excellent opportunity to connect language and cognition.

The online forum (though Moodle or Blackboard), or an email thread including all students, sets the tone for a collaborative analysis, with the expectation that students will revisit the analysis several times to prepare for the journal club. A public forum provides an opportunity for students to work through common problems and promotes contributions that are more thoughtful because peers will be using their posts to enhance their comprehension.

The process of student-led conversation in journal club takes practice! Early in the semester, it is helpful for the faculty member to take more of a moderator role by focusing students with questions that promotes the analysis (i.e. What is the argument that is presented?, What evidence is presented to support this argument?, Are there other conclusions that can be made with the same evidence or with supporting evidence?). Although science majors become comfortable with this type of analysis during the course of the semester, they often struggle transferring this type of critical thinking into a novel context, such as reading philosophy. They need to be reassured and encouraged that the skills developed during the semester are transferable, with an awareness of disciplinary differences. Although this particular article was considered at the introductory level by the philosophy faculty, it was challenging for the advanced science students.

The reflective paper component of this exercise is critical, as there is no formal introduction to cognition prior to this analysis exercise. This form of analysis mimic professional analysis, as academics are often introduced to a topic through peer-reviewed literature, and then they must solidify their understanding of the topic by connecting and applying this new information to their prior knowledge.


The online forum responses and the journal club contributions will be graded using similar criteria. Both will be evaluated based on the thoughtfulness of the responses and how the responses link the current analysis to content or concepts from previous work in the current course or other experiences. Specific attention will be given to responses relevant to how cognition aligns with the nervous system processes of receiving, integration, and application of information. These contributions are also assessed on if they progress the conversation by building on the comments of others.

The reflective paper will be evaluated on what scientific and philosophical evidence is selected and how it is used to compare and contrast the process of cognition to other neural processes and how specific examples comparing humans and non-human animals are used to create an argument. The arguments presented must progress beyond the analysis conducted during the journal club, and the best scores are given to those that connect the concept of cognition to work done earlier in the course, in other courses, or from other prior knowledge.

Resources & Materials

Journal Club Article:

Carruthers, P., Brute Experience, Journal of Philosophy, 86(5), 1989, 258-69.

This article provides a Descartes-based perspective that separates human and non-human experiences based on cognitive perception of these experiences. Although it does not represent current thought, it provides a glimpse of historical context and a gateway to Descartes, which is often foreign to science majors. An article that is more familiar to the philosophy or cognitive science faculty member could replace it.

Video for starting conversations about language, cognition, and human/non-human animal comparisons (pause at 2:36 to initiate discussion):

Kanzi in the Kitchen: Primates and Communication, Jeffery Elman, Department of Cognitive Science, UCSD, Posted: Nov. 6, 2008

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