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An Uncritical Inference Test

Fact checking is an important skill.  In my opinion, it is neither taught nor practiced often enough. However inference checking comes off even worse; probably because we infer things from what we read, see and hear almost unconsciously.  This activity can help make students aware of the inferences they make, and why it is important to examine them.  It can also be adapted for use with just about any written, visual or audio topic subject to True-False testing.

1. This activity can be conducted in either oral or written form.  The oral form is probably best suited for students with limited reading abilities; but can be used with good readers too, especially if you're attempting to focus on listening and discussion skills.  If you choose to use the written version with your students, make a copy of the Billy and Tom handout for each student before you begin.
1. Explain to your class that you are about to read a very short story.  Once you've finished, you'll present a set of statements about the story to the class.  You'll ask the students to decide, based solely on the information presented in the story, whether each statement is true, false or questionable.  If you want, review the instructions from the written test.
2. When everybody is fully focused, read the story.
3. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper.
4. Have them number the spaces (1-15) where they will write out their answers.
5. One at a time, read each of the numbered statements, having students write out T(rue), F(alse) or ? (questionable) in response to each.  Allow no talking during this process.  You can explain that there will be ample opportunity to discuss their responses later.
6. Once students have written out their responses to all 15 statements (or whatever number you choose to use), review the statements one by one.  If you like, poll the class prior to discussing each statement to find out how many responded T, F and ? to it.  You might even choose to attempt to reach a class consensus on it before discussing "the answer".

1. Distribute a copy of the Billy and Tom handout to each student in the class.
2. Review the instructions and answer any questions students have about them.
3. With no talking allowed, give students whatever time they need to read the story and respond to the statements.
4. Either collect the papers or poll the students to find out how many responded T, F and ? to each statement.
5. One by one, discuss the statements.  Before discussing a statement, poll the class or tabulate the written results to find out how many responded T, F and ? to it.  You might even choose to attempt to reach a class consensus on an answer before discussing "the answer".

1. Inferences for discussion that might be drawn from this activity
1. Humans automatically "fill-in the blanks" whenever we hear a story, and don't usually try to separate what we know "for sure" from what we infer "for sure".
2. Once a person makes an inference, s/he is reluctant to accept that it might not be true.
3. Uncritically accepting an inference makes it easier to accept related inferences as true.
4. Uncritically accepting an inference makes it likely a person will reject conflicting inferences.
5. Arguments, even wars, can result from a failure to examine and verify inferences.
6. Any given inference can prove to be true.
7. Any given inference can prove to be false.
8. Once you begin thinking about an observation, many possible inferences from it come to mind.
9. Contradictory inferences can be drawn from the same observation.

1. Assign each student a paragraph or two from your textbook.  Ask them to identify the factual and inferential assertions in their assigned reading.
2. Ask each student to bring in a clipped newspaper or news magazine article, or the printout of a news article from a news web site.  Collect the articles and place them in a large box.  Have each student reach in (without looking) and pull out one of the articles with which to work.  Ask them to identify the article's factual and inferential assertions.  One by one, have each student summarize his/her article for the group and present at least one inferential assertion for discussion.
3. Read a short news article (or a section from your textbook) to the class.  Ask your students to write out one or more inferences that could legitimately be drawn from the reading.  One by one, have students present an inference they've written down.  Allow the class to discuss each as they are presented.
4. Record a radio or TV news story.  Play it for your class.  Ask your students to write out one or more inferences that could legitimately be drawn from it.  One by one, have students present an inference they've written down.  Allow the class to discuss each as they are presented.
5. Select a human interest or news photograph.  Show it to your class.  Ask your students to write out one or more inferences that could legitimately be drawn from it.  One by one, have students present an inference they've written down.  Allow the class to discuss each as they are presented.
6. Next time you plan a True-False test or quiz, make it a T-F-? test or quiz instead.  As an additional requirement, ask students to support each T-F-? answer in writing.
7. Have your students read and discuss John Allen Paulos' November 2009 Who's Counting column for ABCNews.com. It shows how tabloid news headlines can lead us to make false inferences despite presenting uncontested facts.
8. Related Classroomtools.com activities
• Is That A Fact? gives you a tool to introduce your students to fact checking.
• Logic to the Rescue shows your students how to identify the impossible.
• Propaganda in the Classroom provides activities and resources that let your students begin exploring the machinery of manipulation in which we are immersed 24/7.

More Uncritical Inference Tests

As far as I know, William V. Haney developed the first Uncritical Inference Test.  Many variations of it have found their way to the web.  Here are links to a few.