Weekly Teaching Note
Mar 28 2012
Building Critical Thinking Skills with a Pro-Con-Caveat Grid


A faculty member recently commented to me that his students are often quite willing to take a position on an issue and argue it, but they are not as adept at researching both sides of the issue. This semester he has told them to prepare information on both sides of their chosen issue, and he will then tell them which side to argue in their papers.
Here is an idea that you can use if you want students to explore both sides of an issue when they are working in groups. One characteristic of well-designed cooperative groups is that the tasks hold students accountable for their own, independent, work while simultaneously demanding that they complete a task that is complex enough to require cooperation. This particular assignment, therefore, has two parts: the first completed individually, prior to class, and the second completed in class, as a group.
  • To encourage students to reflect on issues prior to coming to class
  • To ensure preparation prior to class
  • To promote higher order thinking when the students in small groups make judgments about the most cogent pro and con arguments and the caveats that should be considered
Students receive via email, the course management system, or a webpage a blank electronic version of a pro-con-caveat grid. Their instructions are to list the arguments in favor of a certain decision and against the decision with caveats (other considerations) placed in a third column.
Sample issues might include:
  • After reading a case study of a two-career couple, list the pros (benefits) of their filing a joint income tax return and the cons (costs), plus any caveats (other considerations) they should take into consideration. (Accounting)
  •  Explore the pros, cons, and caveats of building a hospital near a Superfund clean up site (for areas that are heavily polluted). (Architecture, Engineering, Health Professions)
  • Debate the merits of using social media in a nutrition awareness campaign targeted at senior citizens. (Communication Arts, Health Professions, Marketing)
Assignments such as these are often motivating for students because they involve a real-life problem relevant to themselves. It is helpful to give students guidelines about how many entries you expect and how the entries should be expressed (e.g, complete sentences, bullets, etc.).
In the example given below, students, as homework, complete their grids, listing the arguments, pro and con, for changing the current flat rate campus parking system to one that is pro-rated based on the salary level of the person purchasing the permit. In a third column, the students list any caveats that might impact the decision.
Pro-Con-Caveat Grid
By Barbara J. Millis
Should Parking on Campus be Pro-Rated Based on Salary Levels?
This system would be much fairer because an administrative assistant and a faculty member parking in the same designated area, such as the parking garages, would not pay the same amount.
Often the people who are carrying the heaviest burdens end up parking the furthest away. This would give people in lower pay grades a better opportunity to afford closer parking.
Some faculty and administrators would resist any changes that might increase their parking fees.
It would be very complex to administer because each designated parking area would have to have various levels of fees.
Parking fees constitute a major source of revenue for the university, so efforts to reduce overall costs could negatively impact the budget.
A feasibility study would be needed
The university would need to be able to prevent people from giving their parking passes to others.
Students bring two copies of their complete pro-con-caveat grid to class. They turn in one copy for pass-fail credit (three points for notations in all three columns), thus making them easy to mark. Students then work in small groups (three to five students: four students in my cooperative learning classes) to create an in-depth grid with the best ideas of each student. Groups can be called on randomly to share their joint creation on a document camera.
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio
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