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 self-gratifying 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 assumption—all 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 first—and perhaps most important—is 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


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.