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Critical Thinking

Choose someone you admire as a thinker. Read a biography (or an
autobiography) of that person that discusses the way he or she thought about some problem (or
problems). You might choose a scientist, entrepreneur, writer, humanitarian, politician,
educator, someone who effected social change, etc. You have quite a bit of leeway here. But it
is important that you choose someone you admire for they way they approached some problem.
Write a short paper about what we can learn about how to think well from this person. Here are
some questions you might answer in your paper (I’m sure you can come up with many more of
your own):
1. Why did you choose this person? What did he or she accomplish? What problem did he
or she try to solve? Why was this important?
2. What can we learn from this person about the nature of critical thinking?
3. How did this person solve problems? What was his or her approach? How did this
person come to have a “breakthrough” in his or her thinking?
4. What are some of the habits this person developed that enabled him or her to think well?
5. Are there some ways this person could have been a better thinker?
6. How did this person handle success or failure?
7. How has reading about this person changed the way you think about thinking?

Your paper should have three parts:
(1/2 – 1 pg)
Briefly introduce the thinker you chose. Just jump right in. Avoid opening your
paper with something like, “Since the dawn of time humans have wondered
about…” Instead, start with who you chose and why your reader should be
interested in this person. What did he or she accomplish? What is it that you
admire about this person? Avoid giving a detailed history of the person, unless
doing so is relevant to understanding his or her thinking. In this section you
should also give the title and author of the biography you read.

(2 – 3 pgs)
What lessons about thinking well can we draw from this person’s life? How can
we apply these lessons to our own lives? Keep your writing concrete. Give
good examples from this person’s life to support the lessons you discuss. This is
the most important part of your paper.
(≤ 1/2 pg)
Briefly summarize the lessons you discussed in your paper. Try to boil your
paper down to a few sentences.
GRADING: Your papers will be graded primarily on how well they demonstrate a high level of
thought and reflection on what it is to be a critical thinker through the lens of the great thinker
you chose. Here is what your TAs will be looking for as they grade your papers:
Organization Is the structure of the paper clear? Is it organized? Are the paragraphs wellstructured,
coherent, and unified? Does each paragraph have a clear purpose?
Clarity Are the ideas clear, insightful, thought-provoking, and focused so that they
consistently support the topic?
Content Are the details and examples well-chosen? Do they arouse the reader’s interest
and provide relevant, concrete, specific and insightful evidence in support of the
claims made in the paper? Does the writing demonstrate a thorough
understanding of the material?
Style &
Is the writing style readable and rhetorically effective? Are there errors in
grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Does the paper read as though it were put
together at the last minute?

ADVICE: This is a challenging assignment, but it will be rewarding if you put some effort into
it and plan ahead. Start early. During Week 1 you should start thinking about who you would
like to write about. List 2-3 people and take a look at a few of biographies for each person. For
each biography, briefly look over the table of contents and a chapter or two to see if it would be a
good choice for this assignment. By the end of Week 2 you should have chosen a biography.
Keep a notebook of thoughts and ideas with you as you read the biography. Write down key
passages that provide examples of good thinking, focusing especially on passages that show how
the person thought through problems. Write down any themes, insights, or questions that strike
you as you read. Plan to finish your paper at least two days before it is due. Set it aside and
don’t look at it again for at least 24 hours. Then come back to it and read it and make your final
changes. When writing, Jim Pryor advises students to pretend that the person reading their
papers is lazy, stupid, and mean:
He’s lazy in that he doesn’t want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are
supposed to mean, and he doesn’t want to figure out what your argument is, if it’s not
already obvious. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in
simple, bite-sized pieces. And he’s mean, so he’s not going to read your paper
charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation,
he’s going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material
you’re writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you’ll probably get an
Robert Louis Stevenson also gives good advice for writers: “Don’t write merely to be
understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.”

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Category: Sample Questions