March 13, 2017

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

The Dialectical Map tool (above) provides an online visual framework that enables students to consider arguments for and against particular propositions in order to arrive at a conclusion. Instructors can provide feedback, and all content can be downloaded in a structured, text-based format.

For the past three years, Joan Sharp, a teaching professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has been teaching her students how to argue; that is, how to gather and weigh evidence, evaluate opposing points of view and arrive at defensible conclusions. She uses a visualization tool called the Dialectical Map that was developed by Hui Niu as part of her PhD research under John Nesbit in the Faculty of Education. Recently Sharp spoke about her use of the tool and why she thinks argumentation is an essential skill for post-secondary students. Below is a condensed presentation of her comments.

TLC: What is argumentation?

Joan Sharp (JS): I provide students with a statement (for my lower-division students) or two contrasting hypotheses (for my upper-division students), and ask them to carefully read sufficient trustworthy material that they can marshal arguments supported by meaningful evidence to basically argue both sides. And then—and this is really key—they have to weigh the arguments and the evidence that they have put together, come to a clearly stated conclusion, and justify their conclusion based on the arguments and evidence.

“Argumentation is a verbal and social activity of reason aimed at increasing (or decreasing) the acceptability of a controversial standpoint for the listener or reader, by putting forward a constellation of propositions intended to justify (or refute) the standpoint before a rational judge.” (from Fundamentals of Argumentation Theory by van Eemeren, Grootendorst, & Henkemans, 1996, p. 5).

TLC: Why are argumentation skills important for students?

JS: I think weighing arguments and evidence and coming to a conclusion—or clarifying what additional evidence is necessary to reach a conclusion—is the most important thing we can teach undergraduates, especially in today’s world where there are so many critical issues and so much bullshit out there. Evaluating evidence and carefully thinking through the arguments is a skill students can learn, that they can get good at, and it’s something that will benefit them all their lives.

TLC: You use a tool called the Dialectical Map. Can you explain what that is and how it works?

JS: The Dialectical Map (DM) is a visualization tool that facilitates the teaching and learning of argumentation skills. Students create DMs by identifying and composing claims, evidence and warrants and filling them in an online map. They then draw an integrated conclusion by evaluating arguments and counterarguments in a visually hierarchical structure.

TLC: Do you use the Dialectical Map to teach argumentation for its own sake or are you using it as a tool to teach something else?

JS: Both. I think in lower-division courses, my emphasis is primarily on teaching students to think critically, to assess evidence, and to distinguish between argumentation and evidence. In upper-division courses, providing students with the opportunity to learn those skills is equally important, since I find that they haven’t yet learned to argue. I think we should increase opportunities for students to argue within our curriculum in science in general and in biology specifically. Ideally, by the time students get to third year, they would really know how to argue. Then, instructors would use argumentation tools to have students read scholarly papers presenting contrasting hypotheses and weigh the arguments that are made in those scholarly papers.

TLC: How labour-intensive and time-consuming is it to use?

JS: I would say this is no more work than the other written assignments we have.

TLC: Have you received feedback from students about the tool and about how useful they find it?

JS: They like the tool. My favourite quote is from a student who said, “I thought I was skilled in argumentation before, but I found I wasn’t, and this tool has taught me how to argue.” The students are generally very positive about it.

TLC: If an instructor reads this post and is interested in the tool, what would their next step be?

JS: Anybody [at SFU] can use it in their classes. Right now, you can contact Education doctoral student Qing Liu to get links that allow you to use the Dialectical Map in your classes and to see your students’ maps.

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