The Critical Thinking Toolkit

Director of Admissions and Professor Igor Kourkine explains why Northwestern's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) places such a strong emphasis on critical thinking.

Igor Kourkine wears a lot of hats within Northwestern's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP). He is the Associate Director and Director of Admissions for the program, and he also is a Professor of Instruction.

Arguably one of his most enjoyable roles, though, is as an instructor of Critical Thinking and Communication, one of three required, non-technical courses in the MBP. Kourkine admits he likes to dabble at the intersection of cognitive science and engineering, and what he's found to be his greatest asset is his ability to think critically.

It's that message that he imparts on his students.

The first half of the course focuses on critical thinking, while the second half emphasizes communications. As part of the critical thinking portion of the course, Kourkine helps students develop their ability to evaluate possibilities, identify patterns, and look at data in new ways.

"I like to think about the course as a box of tools," Kourkine said. "The mind is not a perfect tool. We are prone to many biases, and to overcome the biases, we need glasses for our mental myopia. Those glasses are the tools that I'm teaching."

Students in Critical Thinking and Communications primarily learn about argument maps, concept maps, grouping, categorical logic, and cause-and-effect logic. By the end of the course, they are able to take complex problems and separate them into claims or individual components. From there, students can examine each component and either think about similar grouping principles or provide a reason or evidence that will support or refute that claim.

The frameworks learned in the course are applied throughout MBP, and while they aren't necessarily used on a daily basis, Kourkine believes they are able to boost confidence, and that can be pivotal when it comes to key decisions.

"Would I create an argument map every day? No," Kourkine said. "But if there is an important conclusion that I want to make and then I need to discuss it with my superiors, I would definitely construct it and then show them my thinking and be more confident that my conclusion is at least logical. It may not be a true conclusion, but it's at least logical."

That confidence can also be a differentiator when it comes to interviewing for potential job opportunities.

"Having done something practical gives you ammunition for an interesting story," Kourkine said. "For our graduates to bring up these tools in an interview, it could be an interesting selling point. In my mind, a successful interview is when you can not just answer the questions, but when you can teach the person who interviews you something new. Then, they will remember you better.

"(Thinking critically) creates a more dimensional personality where you can impress other people with the breadth of your knowledge or the connections you can make."