Critical Thinking Skills for Corporate Sustainability

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The D-MTEC MSc core course “Corporate Sustainability” uses the six-sentence argument (6SA) exercise to train critical thinking skills. Students learn to write and give their peers constructive feedback on their concise recommendations to address sustainability challenges in the business world.

Champions for sustainable business practices
The core course “Corporate Sustainability” enables students to become champions for sustainable business practices in their later careers and to inspire their potential for academic research. The course takes places annually during the fall semester and attracts 150-200 students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds (MTEC, USYS and other ETH departments) and different educational levels (BSc, MSc, and MAS). The core course begins with introductions to four relevant topics that relate to the sustainability efforts of companies: assessment, strategy, technology, and finance. Interactive videos complement the lecture sessions to explain key concepts and introduce the four tracks. In addition, e-modules allow students to train and develop their critical thinking skills. Students learn to formulate concise arguments with the six sentence argument (6SA) exercise.

6 Sentence Argument-method to foster critical thinking
The 6SA method focuses on enhancing critical thinking skills through structured writing and guided peer-review. The core idea combines peer assessment with a formally structured written assignment. The method is based on the assumption that writing is thinking. The 6SA method focuses on enhancing critical thinking skills through structured writing and guided peer-review.
Unique to this course is the diversity of students and the 6SA students to benefit from this diversity. In the lecture, a 19-year-old Swiss environmental science student from the D-USYS BSc programme may be sitting next to a 25-year-old Chinese student who is pursuing a master’s degree in management. And sitting next to this student may be a 35-year-old American part-time student from the MTEC MAS programme with a PhD in chemistry and a management position with responsibilities for 20 employees in a multinational company. Peer feedback is a powerful solution to bridge these gaps of work and life experiences and cultural backgrounds. It allows younger students to write a creative and brilliant argument without being intimidated by more senior students. It allows a shy and quiet student to gain confidence by formulating a convincing argument whose strengths are recognized in their peers’ feedback. It creates a space for older students to learn how to coach younger classmates with constructive feedback to improve their reasoning.

Students engage critically with their peers’ arguments and receive constructive feedback
In the e-modules, students face a decision situation (a micro case based on the lecture content) and argue for their preferred course of action using a logical structure of exactly six sentences. Each sentence fulfills a specific function in the overall argument and has a 20-word limit. A clear grading rubric enables students to assess 6SAs in double-blind peer reviews. Through the peer assessment, they critically engage with their peers’ arguments and receive constructive feedback on their own arguments. The exercise helps students to craft convincing arguments that could be applied in many practical situations, and to reflect on their reasoning. With the 6SA exercise students learn to argue with clarity, and it helps them to reflect on the way they and others think. The method involves several feedback loops that substantially support the development and refinement of critical thinking skills.

LET-staff:
What is the project about?
Volker Hoffmann:
The course “Corporate Sustainability” aims to enable students to become advocates of sustainable business practices in their later careers. Each year it attracts 150-200 students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and different educational levels (BSc, MSc, and MAS). We adapted the Six Sentence Argument (6SA) method for this course. The method focuses on enhancing critical thinking skills through structured writing and guided, double-blind peer-review.
LET-staff:
What motivated you to initiate the project?
Volker Hoffmann:
We wanted students to get a clearer picture of what sustainability really is. In the course, they develop not only a deeper understanding of corporate sustainability but also the skills to give and receive feedback.
LET-staff:
How did you do it?
Volker Hoffmann:
We want to develop students’ critical thinking skills and started with the assumption that writing is thinking. In a series of e-modules, students face a decision (a micro case based on the lecture content) and have to argue for their preferred course of action using a logical structure of exactly six sentences. Each sentence fulfils a specific function in the overall argument and has a 20-word limit. A clear grading rubric enables students to assess 6SAs in double-blind peer reviews. We continuously adapt and improve the exercise since 2015. The specialized online tool “peergrade” that is linked with moodle helps us to conduct a smooth process – for both students and teachers. Also, students can earn a bonus to their exam grade if they work through a series of e-modules in which they learn to formulate concise and short arguments with the 6SA method.

LET-staff:
What do students learn?
Volker Hoffmann:
With the 6SA exercise, students learn to argue with clarity. The excercise also helps them to reflect on the way they and others think. In these peer assessment exercises, students engage critically with their peers’ arguments and receive constructive feedback on their own arguments. This way, they also develop their “feedback literacy”, meaning they not only learn to give feedback but also learn to handle honest, constructive and critical feedback.

We’re convinced that when students learn to write better arguments to justify strategic decisions and learn to give feedback in a way that helps improves the arguments of others, they will become effective change-makers for sustainability.
LET-staff:
What did you learn as teachers?
Volker Hoffmann:
First we learned that the effective design of such peer assessment exercises for students requires training on how to give constructive feedback. In addition we have now developed a series of short animated videos that help students understand the exercise.

Furthermore, we understood that it needs several feedback loops to support the development and refinement of critical thinking skills. In each e-module, a student writes three reviews. This ensures that every student also receives much more feedback than a single lecturer could provide.

The main work for lecturers is providing an overview of the themes in the arguments and summarizing the activity for all students. This lets them know that their individual contribution becomes part of a collective intelligence. There are always truly smart and innovative solutions that need to be shared with the whole class. Also, there is little effort involved in re-grading/moderating student questions about feedback, because we train students to write helpful and considerate feedback and make them aware of that they also have to learn how to receive feedback, especially if it is feedback that they don’t want to, but need to hear.

The Six-Sentence Argument: Training Critical Thinking Skills Using Peer Review

The six-sentence argument (6SA) is an exercise to train critical thinking skills. Faced with a decision situation, students argue for their preferred course of action using a logical structure of exactly six sentences. Through a guided peer review, students engage critically with other students’ arguments and receive detailed feedback on their own arguments. This exercise helps students craft convincing arguments and reflect on their reasoning in a format that can be applied in real-world situations. A key strength of the six-sentence argument exercise is that it can be administered online and is scalable for large courses with little additional workload for the instructor.

However, it is demanding to teach critical thinking. To be successful, such teaching needs to encourage metacognition (Flavell, 1979), which describes a process of “thinking about thinking.” Instructors often aim to trigger that process through writing assignments, yet providing feedback about the weaknesses in writing assignments is usually not sufficient to achieve metacognition (Fisher, 2011). Instructors need to provide a specific explanation of why a certain argument is not sound, and then offer general guidance on how to improve it. For students, this kind of feedback is invaluable, but for instructors, providing such detailed individual feedback is time consuming.

The six-sentence argument (6SA) exercise offers instructors a less time-consuming way to teach critical thinking skills, even in courses with several hundred students. The 6SA exercise provides detailed guidance on how to construct an argument, and a subsequent peer review process allows students to give each other feedback and reflect on their thinking.

Writing a Six-Sentence Argument

A 6SA is a mini-essay of six sentences that conveys one statement, supports it with one reason, and heads off one important challenge. The structure of a 6SA is predefined so that each sentence fulfills a specific function within the argument, based on Toulmin’s (1958) theory of convincing arguments.

  1. The introduction presents the topic of the 6SA. It guides the reader to the decision situation of the case.
  2. The position states the course of action the author decides to argue for. The author can choose any position as long as it responds to the decision situation.
  3. The reason supports the stated position. Authors need to choose the most compelling reason that can be expressed in one sentence.
  4. The challenge anticipates a point of criticism that a reader might voice concerning the reason. The idea is to strengthen the argument by preempting criticism.
  5. The rebuttal provides an answer to the challenge, for example, by limiting the position to certain situations. The purpose is to inform the reader that the author has weighed the pros and cons of the position.
  6. The conclusion sums up the argument and states the result of the author’s reasoning. It should rest firmly on the previous sentences and avoid introducing new information.

Kölbel, J., & Jentges, E. (2018). The Six-Sentence Argument: Training Critical Thinking Skills Using Peer Review. Management Teaching Review, 3(2), 118–128

Course Description

Name:
Corporate Sustainability
Description:
The lecture explores current challenges of corporate sustainability and prepares students to become champions for sustainable business practices. In the beginning, traditional lectures are complemented by e-modules that allow students to train critical thinking skills. In the 2nd half of the semester, students work in teams on sustainability challenges related to water, energy, mobility, and food.
Objective:
Students
* assess the limits and the potential of corporate sustainability for sustainable development
* develop critical thinking skills (argumentation, communication, evaluative judgment) that are useful in the context of corporate sustainability using an innovative writing and peer review method.
* corporate sustainability in a business environment
* present strategic recommendations in teams with different output formats (tv-style debate, consultancy pitch, technology model walk-through, campaign video)
VVZ:
363-0387-00L
Department:
D-MTEC
Level:
MSc, MAS, and BSc
Format:
Lecture
Size:
150 students
Type:
MTEC MSc Core Course; elective for other study programmes
Teaching Power:
11
Assessment:
End-of-semester exam, The examination will account for 60% of the grade and will be conducted electronically. The group exercises (track phase) counts as a compulsory continuous performance assessment (obligatorisches Leistungselement) and the group grade counts with 40% to the final grade. During the lecture phase, the voluntary E-modules are learning tasks (Lernelemente) that focus on critical thinking skills and peer feedback. Completing the three e-modules on time offer the opportunity to earn a bonus of 0.25 points to the exam grade.

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