Best Practices In Learning To Argue

We all argue all the time. With friends, with partners, at the office, persuasiveness is central.

What’s more, argumentation is a skill like playing tennis. This means that we can all get better at it.

This article, then, looks at argumentative writing. Because after people learn foundational writing or speaking skills like spelling, sentence structure, etc, they also need to learn how to argue effectively.

Argumentation can happen both within and outside of writing (like in collaborative oral discussions), and, like writing, occurs in various forms across different disciplines and genres. The form of arguments in a science class differ in meaningful ways from the form of arguments in history; arguments in literature differ from those in mathematics.

Each involves particular community norms, different kinds of evidence, different warrants for that evidence, and, in some cases, different standards for evidential proof.

Several scholars express concern about a rigid focus on “mechanical or formulaic” approaches to argumentation, to be sure. Many rubrics used in schools mimic standardized test rubrics, which isolate arguments from the social context in which arguments take place. The fear is that a focus on structural features of the text doesn’t engage students in the deep thinking necessary to become good at making reasoned arguments.

Others argue that the idea that students need to learn “argumentation skills” before engaging in argumentation is backwards—rather, students need to argue in order to learn argumentation skills.

Some argue that short interventions have limited outcomes. Rather, what’s needed is a change in classroom culture.

One approach to fusing multiple traditions in argumentation is to divide the goals of learning argumentation into three categories:

  • Structural—An emphasis on the parts of an argument, how an argument fits together, on creating a coherent argument that fits a form. Includes both learning terms/models of argumentation and learning processes for creating arguments
  • Ideational—An emphasis on clarifying ideas and generating new ones through argument. Here the focus is on the content of what’s being argued about.
  • Social Practice—An emphasis on thinking of argument in a social context. This includes thinking about how audiences will respond to arguments, counter arguments and rebuttals, and a “real” or at least richly imagined purpose for the argument.​ ​

The main explanation for the mismatch between oral argumentation skill and written argumentation skill is the challenge of imagining other sides of an argument.

Argumentation: How We Pulled Together The Evidence

​​Researchers focusing on argumentation face many of the same challenges that researchers focusing on writing skills generally face: argumentation is a complex construct.

There are fewer syntheses of the current state of argumentation research — no repeated meta-analyses. Argumentation is perceived as both an individual skill (e.g., the “cognitive perspective”) and as a learned social practice necessarily embedded in communities (e.g., the “social perspective”).

There are also more discipline-specific lines of research (e.g., in teaching argumentation in science, in teaching argumentation in history) that I haven’t delved into here.

Our Argument On Argumentation

People aren’t getting enough practice in argumentation

Although modern curricula increasingly emphasize argumentation, the available evidence suggests that, outside of specialized research projects and some innovative teachers, most classrooms contain little practice at argumentation. The common teacher practice, rather,seems to be to have students write summaries or summaries of arguments (rather than make, analyze, or interpret arguments).

Although many researchers used to believe that developmental trajectories prevented elementary school students from learning how to write persuasively, current evidence suggests that even very young students can engage in persuasive writing. One widely cited study illustrates fourth-grade students of various backgrounds writing strong persuasive letters to authority figures. In most cases, however, persuasive writing isn’t introduced until several years later.

Several experts also argue that existing argumentative writing instruction simply doesn’t address issues that interest students. The focus tends to be on the structure of arguments, rather than the purpose of arguments. Empirical research suggests that having students argue (and write persuasively) about issues that they can actually influence — such as writing a letter to the school principal in order to change a school policy — can result in higher student engagement and better learning outcomes.

Teacher practice in teaching argumentative writing varies. In some cases, teachers teach argumentative writing throughout the year (as part of several units). In other cases, teachers think of teaching argumentative writing as its own unit (over, say, a 4-week period). Teachers also vary in their beliefs about the purpose of teaching argumentative writing. Some believe that it’s fundamentally about clear thinking and reasoning; others believe it’s fundamentally about persuasion.​

Typical Mistakes In Argumentation

Confusing the narrative and argumentative genres

The main issue in teaching argumentative writing skills is that the transfer of writing skillsand argumentation skills to other contexts can be quite challenging.

Empirical research going back into the 1980s establishes that adolescent students tend to be better at writing narratives than arguments. This is a repeated finding, both from anecdotal reports and from more structured research.

Scholars offer several proposed explanations as to why this is. First, narrative form is much more common to encounter, especially at early ages. Conversations between parents and children often involve narratives (of what happened or what will happen), and most media presents narratives to children. To the extent that argumentative structure comes up, it typically comes during early ages in the form of dialogue (arguments between two or more people), and not in the form of single compositions written by a single person.

Myside bias and lack of elaboration

Something similar happens in the translation from oral argumentation to written argumentation. In some cases, oral discussions can be used to bolster students argumentative writing skills, but perceived skill at oral argumentation doesn’t necessarily translate into skillful writing patterns (although there are some exceptions).

​The main explanation for the mismatch between oral argumentation skill and written argumentation skill is the challenge of imagining other sides of an argument. In oral arguments, students build on each other’s challenges. In written arguments, they have to imagine their own rigorous challenges to their positions. Argument writing, in this sense, involves abstraction in a way that oral argument doesn’t.

When students try to write arguments, they tend to replace it with another form of expression instead: arguments that blend into narratives or exposition; arguments that may offer reasons, but no conclusion and little consideration of what the opposing arguments might be. Developing counter-arguments (and sound rebuttals to those counter-arguments) seems to be one of the most challenging things for developing writers across multiple cultures. Students also lack the nomenclature for describing the structure of arguments (e.g., claim, counter argument, warrant, rebuttal).​

Evidence suggests that weak schemas are associated with weak writers, and strong schemas with strong writers.

Weak argument schemas

Students also have weak argument schemas. The word “schema” in this context refers to what students think an argument is about. The idea is that students who perceive arguments as primarily about supporting one’s own ideas, for example, will write pieces suffering from “myside bias,” even if they could write something more sophisticated.

Researchers distinguish at least four argument “schemas.

Interview with Karen Harris about writing
​The least sophisticated schema is myside bias, where students simply do not consider opposing claims or arguments at all. The next sophisticated category is pseudo-integration, where students include counter arguments, but maintain their position based on the strength of their personal feelings (not the weight of the evidence). Students don’t elaborate on counter arguments.

The third category is integration, where students fully evaluate counter arguments and either weigh the arguments against each other (ultimately supporting one), or identify one or more arguments as faulty. Finally, in the most sophisticated category — synthesis — students develop evidence on multiple sides of an issue and build an understanding that encompasses contexts where one argument is stronger than another, and contexts where the same argument is weaker than another.

Evidence suggests that weak schemas are associated with weak writers, and strong schemas with strong writers. This line of research supports explicitly teaching students the features of more sophisticated arguments so that they know more clearly what their goals should be.​

Students with learning disabilities make the same kinds of mistakes as students in the general population

The limited evidence on how students with learning disabilities learn argumentative writing suggests that their main weaknesses mimic those of general education students: essays are narrative, not argumentative, the claims are unclear and have little support, and opposing views are either not acknowledged or not elaborated upon.

Evidence for Best Practices For Learning Argumentation

Techniques that work for overall expressive skill also improve argumentative writing

Much of the research on teaching argumentative writing specificallyhas found that general writing teaching strategies (e.g., explicitly teach writing strategies, process writing, peer collaboration, incorporate goals, the self-regulated strategy development model, etc.) also applies to teaching argumentative writing. In a review specifically targeting argument writing to 7-14 year-olds, studies featuring specific strategy instruction, process writing (including pre-writing and organizing activities), goal-setting, and self-regulated strategy development all perform well.
Even generic feedback, for instance, can improve student arguments. In one study, automated feedback to scientific arguments improved students’ subsequent arguments (e.g., feedback that reads something like “You haven’t provided enough evidence for your argument. You should add more evidence.” The effects, however, were most pronounced for students that had high scores to begin with. This suggests that, as in teaching other writing skills, receptiveness to feedback plays an important role.

Finding the “right case” to argue about seems particularly important. In one striking example, a group of researchers replicated results from an earlier study that found that first-year undergraduates didn’t use many sophisticated argument comprehension strategies when reading. Then, by merely changing the case to a more familiar one, results were substantially different: three times as many students increased their rhetorical strategies (which include things like thinking about the author’s perspective, placing the piece in a larger context, and thinking about the intended audience of the piece).

The first case was a passage from an academic professional development book for teachers. The second case was structurally similar, but on a different topic: gender equality in education. The contrast revealed that when students have more familiarity with the topic, they tend to use more sophisticated strategies and engage in the material at a personal level. This mimics findings on expert readers—when reading in their area of expertise, for example, readers are much more likely to question assumptions made in the text.

Other research also suggests developmental issues are at play. Two early research studies found that students in later grades (5th as opposed to 3rd; 8th as opposed to 4th and 6th) gained more from writing interventions than those in earlier grades. Exactly why older students benefited more in these research studies is an open question, but developmental readiness is one plausible explanation. Research in scientific reasoning, however, establishes how contextual changes can make children reason quite soundly (and adults reason quite poorly).

In some cases, studies have found few differences between students with learning disabilities and general education students when implementing some of these writing strategies. For instance, in an early study focused on strategies and self-talk, students with learning disabilities performed the same as general education students.

Another study focused on using writing goals found the same. The evidence suggests that, generally speaking, techniques aimed at improving writing in the general population work for students with learning disabilities as well although students with learning disabilities may benefit from some extra techniques, like dictation.​

Existing argumentative writing instruction simply doesn’t address issues that interest students. 

Small-group discussion as a way of supporting written argumentation

Researchers have also explored the effects of two forms of collaborative argumentation — “collaborative reasoning” and “quality talk” — on students’ written work. Collaborative reasoning is a classroom discussion technique that gets students involved in peer-led discussion groups, facilitated by teachers. The idea is to promote critical and creative reasoning about texts. Quality talk is a more recent classroom discussion technique. Like collaborative reasoning, it asks students to agree on some ground rules for discussion (for instance: asking “why do you think that?” if you disagree). It also involves pre-discussion activities and post-discussion activities. Both techniques are usually focused on a text that students can disagree on.

One line of research suggests that collaborative reasoning sessions can improve student reasoning (and post-discussion written work) beyond traditional recitation or teacher Q&A sessions. Strategies (like using the word “disagree” to disagree politely) spread quickly from student to student during oral arguments. And these beneficial outcomes seem to persist across diverse cultural backgrounds. Anecdotal reports suggest that students with learning disabilities are often able to hold their own in class discussions. However, shy students may be left out.  But transfer is not guaranteed and the effect is not always statistically significant.

There’s evidence that students who engage in quality talk showed improved writing outcomes on the discussed text, but no evidence of transfer of skills to unrelated texts. Other studies show suggestive outcomes (positive results, but no comparison group; students in quality talk more likely to generate counter arguments and rebuttals than explicit instruction, but less likely to provide evidence).

In some cases, group collaboration can improve mastery (e.g., performance on transfer measures) without improving performance on the collaborated-on task.

Overall, it seems like making explicit links between the small-group discussions and written argumentation practice — for instance, through visualizations, discussed below — and perhaps interleaving small-group discussion with written practice might make this technique more consistently effective.​​

Theory of Argumentation: D represents data, W represents warrant, C represents claim, B represents backing, Q represents qualifier, and R represents reservation. Source: Toulmin (1958)
Theory of Argumentation


​Using models of argumentation to make argument structure more explicit

Research has established that studentslack the nomenclature for understanding the structure of arguments (and misunderstand the structure of arguments more generally). This is particularly true for students unfamiliar with the idea of thesis writing.

Given this, many researchers and teachers have endorsed using models of argument to make the structure of arguments more explicit. The most commonly used model is the Toulmin model developed by philosopher Stephen Toulmin in the late 1940s. This model makes distinctions between claims, evidence, and warrants, which link evidence to claims.

A handful of studies focused specifically on students with disabilities suggest that giving students explicit instruction on the role of evidence, how to search for information that would help their argument, and providing feedback based on Toulmin’s model of argumentation can help them. These same techniques have been used to support general education students as well.

Toulmin’s model can help emphasize structural features of arguments, but there are also some limitations to using it. For instance, the model doesn’t explore the social aspect of argumentation—how social groups negotiate what counts as evidence and warrants.

Toulmin’s model also emphasizes sharp distinctions between claims and data that are inconsistent with more nuanced understandings of the nature of argumentation. The model applies to single-claim arguments, but scientific arguments (to take one example) rest onchains of claims at varying levels of generality, linked together where claims become data or warrants for other claims. From this perspective, Toulmin’s model is a good start as a way of modeling an argument, but should be extended to include other important elements (like claim-linking and building specific claims into more general ones).

Even generic feedback, for instance, can improve student arguments.

Using visualizations to make argument structure more explicit

Another approach, which has occasionally been incorporated with using small-group discussion is to use visualizations to help students understand argument structure. Often, these visualizations incorporate some argumentation model (for instance, the Toulmin model described above).

The exact nature of the visualization varies. They may simply help students list arguments for and against a claim. Or they may incorporate more complex structure: a claim supported by evidence, with the link between the claim and the evidence supported by warrants, and even potential exceptions to the main claim. Visualizations tend to help students come up with potential counter-arguments and rebuttals, and promote the development of compromise positions.

Low-achieving students seem most poised to learn from these kinds of scaffolds.

Whether students should create argument diagrams from reading essays or teachers should provide them is an open question. One study found that students who received “correct” argument diagrams performed better than students who created their own argument diagrams on a test about the same subject matter. But on a transfer test in a different subject matter, students who created their own argument diagrams outperformed those who simply received correct ones.

The benefits of small-group discussion on the quality of students’ written argumentation is often limited to the text discussed. But written argument scaffolds (visualizations) that help students make sense of the argument seem to benefit students over the long-term, on even unrelated texts.

Several research groups have integrated all of these techniques. For instance, an approach that combined oral debate, an explicit instruction on a model of argumentation, a graphic organizer and mnemonic device, and collaborative process writing showed significant promise (but wasn’t compared to control groups).

One of the more sustained approaches at teaching argumentation created essentially a separate course in a middle school with a high minority population (80% hispanic and black). For two years students attended a twice-weekly class billed as a philosophy class but focusing on argumentation designed by veteran argumentation researchers. A control group attended a comparable class where the teacher made decisions about what to teach. A series of articles explored the results. Overall, students in the intervention group performed much better at supporting their own claims with evidence (and using more sophisticated positions in their writing), but there was no difference in how the students used evidence to weaken opponent positions.

-Ulrich Boser

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