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Teaching Argument

What Students Know (or Don't Know) about Argument


Professors teaching first-year writing classes often note that their students don't understand the
terms of academic argument. Indeed, our students have several misconceptions about argument:

Students sometimes confuse argument with debate, taking a strong, oppositional position
on a topic and then trying to "win" points.

Students sometimes conceptualize an argument as a fight: they spar with a text without
taking the time to understand it.

Students sometimes think in black and white, neglecting the nuances of an argument.

Students sometimes jump on the first bandwagon they find, citing an authority with
almost blind reverence and ignoring all other points of view.

Students can mistake argument for opinion, writing papers that are subjective and selfgratifying rather than objective and reader-based.

Students sometimes construct a weakly supported or poorly reasoned argument because it


is, after all, their opinion, and they have a right to it.

Students can find themselves overwhelmed by the complexity of an intellectual problem,


unable to take a stand.

Students too often rely on structures that they learned in high school (for instance, the
five-paragraph theme), thereby crippling their arguments from the get-go.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills


When developing the courses that we teach, we want to design a course that will inspire our
students to sharpen their critical thinking skills. In part, we accomplish this aim by presenting
our students with challenging reading materials and engaging them in interesting class
discussions. As students read more and talk more, they will gain knowledge and discover new
contexts for their ideas. They will also (we hope) come to think more critically.
However, readings and class discussions by themselves do not insure that our students will
improve their critical thinking skills. Many students read and listen passively, simply absorbing
information. They do not reliably challenge the writers they are reading. Nor do they reliably
read to challenge their own ideas. (For a discussion of how to improve your students' critical
reading skills, see Integrating Reading and Writing.)

However, when students write, they cannot remain passive players in the learning game. Even
the simplest writing task, such as a summary of an article, requires that students make important
critical choices: What information is most important to this argument? What might be left out?
More complex writing assignments ask students to make more difficult choices about a topic
choices that eventually bring them to the questions: "What is it that I think about this subject?
How did I arrive at what I think? What are my assumptions, and are they valid? How can I work
with facts, observations, inferences, and so on, in order to convince others of what I think?" (For
a discussion of designing assignments and assignment sequences to improve critical thinking, see
Syllabus and Assignment Design.)
In order to help students successfully and critically interrogate their ideas, professors may want
to employ critical thinking pedagogy in their classrooms. Critical thinking pedagogy breaks
down a student's existing critical thinking into discrete activities, and then shows students how to
reflect carefully on each of these activities in order to sharpen their thinking skills.

Elements of Critical Thinking


1. Observations. From a series of observations, we can come to establish:
2. Facts. From a series of facts, or from an absence of fact, we make:
3. Inferences. Testing the validity of our inferences, we can make:
4. Assumptions. From our assumptions, we form our:
5. Opinions. Taking our opinions, we use evidence and the principles of logic to develop:
6. Arguments. And when we want to test our arguments and to challenge the arguments of
others, we employ:
7. Critical Analysis (through which we challenge the observations, facts, inferences,
assumptions, and opinions in the arguments that we are analyzing).
The process is not linear; rather, as we go about establishing our opinions and crafting our
arguments, we return to our observations and facts, drawing new inferences and forming new
assumptions that, in turn, affect the arguments that we are trying to make.
At first glance, these categories seem obvious. Shouldn't our students already understand that
"observation" is not at all the same as "fact"? That inference differs from opinion? As we
consider the matter more closely, however, we understand that our students don't always
understand these distinctions, and that their writing might be considerably improved if they did.
Defining these terms clearly (and pointing out the essential differences between them) is
therefore the first step in providing our students with a critical vocabulary for their own thinking
processes.

To begin, we need to make our students aware that their own premises and biases are not fact.
We thus require our students to challenge these premises and biases. Finally, we encourage them
to discover and to challenge the premises and biases of others. In short, we move our students to
experience some shift in their understanding.
One way to facilitate this shift is to create writing assignments that require our students to move
back and forth between observation and inference, fact and assumptionall the while marking
where they are in the critical process. The primary aim is to encourage students to observe
themselves and others in the critical process. We want students to be able:

To know the difference between reliable and unreliable observations;

To be persistent enough to observe objectively and thoroughly, and to collect sufficient


factual or textual evidence;

To see patterns or relationships in what they have observed or discovered in their reading;

To infer and to assume carefully;

To form opinions even while keeping an open mind;

To create arguments understanding that these arguments are not the last word, but part of
an ongoing debate in a scholarly process.

Elements of Argument: Claims and Evidence


Most of the teaching that we do in the first year asks students to master three important elements
of the argument: thesis, evidence, and reason. The firstand perhaps most importantis the
thesis sentence.

Elements of Argument
The Claim/Thesis Sentence
Most first-year students can tell you that a thesis sentence makes the claim on which an argument
is based. But even while they understand the thesis' role, they are often unable to craft effective
thesis sentences. They may make a thinking mistake and craft a thesis sentence that declares an
observation rather than an argument. They may also write thesis sentences that are formulaic
i.e., sentences that state a claim and then offer a list of illustrations. They may not understand
that a thesis can point to conflicting claims or raise a question. They may also write thesis
sentences that are simply poor sentences, burying important ideas in subordinate clauses, thereby
confounding the reader.
Each of these problems requires specific teaching strategies. In the first case (declaring an
observation rather than an argument), an instructor might reveal the deficiencies of observations,

inferences, and opinions by interrogating them, revealing the importance of evidence to


argument. In the second case (writing formulaic theses), an instructor might model alternatives.
In the final case (writing poor sentences), an instructor might introduce students to the principles
of good style.
Instructors will find that the writing workshop is an ideal setting for thesis instruction. Having
students brainstorm about one another's theses is a great way to teach them to
refine/focus/broaden their arguments. You'll also want to use facilitative response methods in
order to prod your students to better and better theses.

Elements of Argument
Evidence
Often students write poor thesis sentences because they haven't gathered sufficient evidence.
Others fail because they don't know how to work with the evidence they have. Some come up
with their thesis sentences and then go looking for evidence, including only the ideas that seems
to fit. Others go to secondary sources before they have an idea, allowing other arguments to
stand in for their own. Still others turn their evidence into examples, offering a series of
illustrative passages or observations as a substitute for argument. ("Here's one example of the
failed health care system, here's another, and another; as we can see, the health care system is
failing.")
Complicating the matter further is that evidence differs from discipline to discipline. In some
sociology classes, careful observation may constitute evidence. In a literature class, evidence is
found by a close reading of the text. In the sciences, evidence is built upon repeated empirical
practices.
Instructors need to teach students what counts as evidence in their disciplines. They must also
teach students what to do with the evidence that they have. Illustrating a point isn't quite the
same thing as arguing it. An argument doesn't simply illustrate; it develops. Students should both
discover and grow their arguments using sound reasoning skills.