Dialectical Map, Critical Thinking, Argumentation, Online Tool, Educational Technology

Dr. John Nesbit and Professor Joan Sharp on Critical Thinking and Dialectical Map

October 07, 2019

Dr. Hui Nui, Dr. John NesbitProfessor Joan Sharp, Qing Liu, and Kenny Teng are all motivated by one compelling question: How do we assist students in becoming better arguers and critical thinkers? In response, Dr. Hui Nui, former PhD student in the Faculty of Education, developed the Dialectical Map (DMap) tool under the supervision of John Nesbit. The DMap is an intuitive, online argument map that aims to raise students' level of critical thinking skills. From the time of the tool’s inception, it has created a great deal of interest and recognition. Dr. Hui Nui received the Dean's convocation medal for PhD research, while practitioners in a total of eight coursesat SFU have incorporated the tool into their teaching practices. Dr. John Nesbit and Professor Joan Sharp speak about the origins of the DMap tool, the collaborative spirit behind the project, and the tool’s success across disciplines.

Project Origins

The DMap tool was developed in 2015, when Hui Nui and John Nesbit were in pursuit of effective learning tools for addressing problems students were experiencing with argumentation. When they looked into the research, argumentation maps emerged as a useful tool to support an advanced level of argumentation. However, the format of most argument maps makes them difficult to read and work with. To address this, the team collaborated with a software developer, Liam Doherty, to translate an argumentation map developed by Michael Nussbaum from paper form into a visual digital tool.

As an online tool, the DMap helped students to visualize the components of argumentation and functioned to display each student’s argument structure more clearly and effectively. It was at this point that Joan Sharp first got involved in the project. Joan’s enthusiasm for the project shone through as she expressed the positive effect the tool has had on her undergraduate students, allowing them to critically engage in academic and public policy debates. “I was very taken by the project, because I have always encouraged Biology students to engage with competing academic hypotheses and with controversial public policy issues.”

During the development phase, the team received financial support from the Department of Biological Sciences, the Faculty of Science, and the Faculty of Education to put the DMap tool into Canvas, making it more broadly accessible to teachers and students in a variety of courses and disciplines.

The Problem with Student Argumentation

The foundation of critical thinking, Nesbit explains, is understanding the structure of well-formed arguments. From the research, Nui and Nesbit found one of the greatest challenges facing undergraduate students was they often present one-sided positions, failing to address counterarguments and providing weak reasoning for their conclusions.

In Biology classrooms, Sharp similarly observed that her students struggled to develop well-constructed dialectical arguments. One key issue was that students misunderstood an essential component of argumentation, the concept of warrants. A warrant is a simple concept but an unfamiliar term: It explains how evidence opposes or supports the argument it is linked to.

Sharp referenced an example of a question she used in her first-year biology class: Are dogs and wolves the same species? When it comes to this scientific controversy, there is literature making arguments and providing evidence for both a yes and a no answer. According to Sharp, inclusion of warrants in the structure of a Dialectical Map supports the advancement of students’ overall argumentative proficiency, as it helps them to recognize when they have developed suitable arguments supported or opposed by relevant evidence. The DMap trains students to construct an advanced form of argumentation, accounting for differing perspectives. 

Significance Beyond the Classroom

For both Sharp and Nesbit, the significance of clear argumentation reaches far beyond academia into social and political life. According to Dr. Nesbit, “something has changed in our media, social, and political environments, that is leading to a lot of misinformation being promoted online, putting pressure on all of us to be more critical thinkers.” The Dialectical Map directly addresses this issue by providing an opportunity for students to engage with scholarship that addresses competing hypotheses, promoting healthy critical thinking and informed reasoning.

Correspondingly, Sharp credits the DMap tool for building argumentation skills in a tangible way, “by asking students real world questions based on real life issues, that as citizens, as biologists, as criminologists, we all grapple with.” Her hope is that students will take their new capabilities in argumentation and continue to apply them to real world controversies.

Impact Across Disciplines and Institutions

Insistent that the project live on, the team spread the word about the availability of the DMap to teachers across multiple Faculties at SFU. The DMap tool has now been implemented in courses in criminology, computer science, and educational psychology, enhancing student’s argumentation skills across a variety of disciplines.

Alongside this achievement, the team has been working with the Student Learning Commons to deliver a workshop on How to Map an Effective Argument, using the DMap tool to support graduate and undergraduate students in argumentation.

The impact of the Dialectical Map is also a personal one. Nesbit remarks, “It is just so rare that you get to see your research get outside the laboratory… This project would be a distant memory by now if it wasn’t for Joan.” Reflecting on her professional practice, Sharp offered a similar sentiment to Nesbit. “Of all the many projects I have been involved in over the last 40 years, the DMap tool has had the most transformational impact on my teaching.”

Looking Forward

After a lengthy and diverse teaching career, Joan Sharp will be retiring next year, with plans to stay on as a Professor Emerita to continue to work with the Dialectical Map.The DMap team will be seeking funding to further the development and deployment of the tool, scaling the scope up to post-secondary institutions across the province. Rather than monetize the Dialectical Map, the team is interested in developing it as an open education resource, available to all.

Speaking to Nesbit and Sharp about the future, they are hopeful the tool will be applicable in a variety of contexts. Our interview ends with Nesbit acknowledging the tool’s potential for growth. “There really is no limit to it, it can be used by so many different teachers and students, in so many different domains, at so many different levels.” With a strong team behind the project, the Dialectical Map has had a far greater influence than could have been imagined when it was first being conceived of as a PhD project. The team looks forward to seeing what is next for the DMap tool.

Explore Further

Associated Events and Workshops

Learn how to use the Dialectical Map to structure your arguments with the Student Learning Commons workshop on How to Map an Effective Argument taking place on February 25th, 2020.

Additional Articles

These students are learning to argue—and that’s a good thing.

Developing Skills of Argumentation in Undergraduate Science Students Through the Use of an Online Dialectical Map at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia

Using Dialectical Maps in Biology at Lakehead University