Self-regulated Learning in an Online Environment for Argumentative Writing

Skilled argumentative writing is among the most highly valued and vital goals of secondary and post-secondary education. Whether in the form of essays, scientific reports, book reports, or online discussions, writing that features argumentation is intrinsic to most academic disciplines students encounter in high school and university.

Principal Investigator: Dr. John Nesbit
Funding Agency: SSHRC

What's Proposed

Developing students’ skills for argumentative writing and their understanding of the structure of arguments advances their ability to think critically, contribute constructively in the workplace, and participate fully as citizens in a democratic society. Despite its recognized importance and a recent surge of scholarly interest in argumentation, there is a dearth of educational research on how students individually and collaboratively construct argumentative writing from source materials and few evidence-based strategies that students can use to learn this key skill.

Our research provides students with online tools we developed that empower them to generate, select and organize ideas as they examine sources for an argument. The tools are fashioned so that each use strengthens students’ writing as well as their ability to monitor and adapt writing strategies. Because the design of the tools is based on the theory of self-regulated learning applied to the domain of argumentative writing, students do not become dependent on the tools but instead internalize information structures and guides for processing information that they can reuse when the tools are unavailable.

How This Project is Carried Out

One online tool, called ArgueBot, guides students to articulate their initial understanding of reasons that support a claim such as "people cause climate change." ArgueBot is a semi-intelligent chat program. It leads an interactive conversation in which students are invited to state why they believe a claim is correct, why others might believe the claim is incorrect, reasons that might rebut others’ counterarguments, and so on.

Students participating in our research will use nStudy, another system we created. It is a specialized web browser and a powerful, integrated suite of tools that support online studying and writing. Two nStudy tools that figure prominently in this research are tags, which students use to categorize task-relevant information they find in source materials, and notes, structured forms in which students can add and connect their ideas to source information. 

For example, tags labeled "pro" and "con" prompt students to identify and decide how to classify evidence they will use in writing an argumentative essay. A student could make a note by filling in text fields labeled "counterargument" and "rebuttal." Other information can be linked to the note to elaborate it with examples found in sources.

This research, conducted in our laboratory, in high school classes, and in university courses where students learn educational psychology, science and engineering, investigates how using ArgueBot and nStudy affects students’ argumentative writing ability and topic knowledge. We also investigate how students’ motivations and learning preferences influence their use of these tools and how their skills for argumentative writing develop.

Because nStudy collects copious data as students use its tools, we can draw a detailed picture of what students do at each point in the writing process. Using this information plus assessments of qualities of students’ essays, we will develop and progressively refine a comprehensive educational theory of argumentative writing. We will disseminate evidence-based strategies for teaching argumentative writing that result from this work to high school and university instructors who adopt writing-to-learn and learning-to-write to promote student success across the social, natural and applied sciences.