- Miguel de Unamuno
The academic argument is one of the cornerstones of scholarly thinking. At all levels, from undergraduate freshmen to doctoral candidates, constructing, supporting, and defending a scholarly argument is one of the most challenging and rewarding ways that students express their knowledge. And while we are surrounded by arguments every day (from political ads to infomercials), students often struggle with this activity. How then can we best support students in this valuable learning experience?
Key features of the strategy
Before diving into specific examples, it can be helpful to take a step back and think about what an argument is and why students might experience difficulties in constructing their own. The Dartmouth College Institute for Writing and Rhetoric offers a helpful guide on teaching argument. From the guide, students bring a number of misconceptions about argument, including:
- they see argument as a type of contest, where they try to “win points”
- they may think in black and white terms, rather than acknowledging nuance
- they may assume that since an argument is their opinion, there is no need to support it
Examples and Variations
Many examples of activities and assignments that challenge students to construct an argument focus on scaffolding the process. This approach both helps to counter some of the common misconceptions students may have, as well as, to help them to develop their own arguments. This example assignment from the Writing Center at Colorado State is a good example of this basic approach. It is essentially a template-driven strategy that is very approachable for students. This kind of assignment would work well for freshmen and students with little experience in constructing academic arguments.
This example from a course titled The Rhetoric of Gender and Technology at Stanford University is a more robust approach that would work for more advanced students. This assignment requires at least one draft prior to the final paper and breaks down the writing process into manageable chunks. The assignment also includes the development of a reflective memo that supports reflective learning and metacognition. The professor provides evaluation criteria for students to consider as they work on the assignment.
While the first two examples focus on written argument assignments, multimedia options offer unique opportunities for students to support their argument with multimodal evidence. With the ability to incorporate images, video, animations, and more, students can develop interesting, creative and substantive arguments. Dr. Melanie Kohnen from Georgia Tech shares this very interesting Remix assignment. In this assignment, students are challenged to create a multimedia argument in the form of a remix about contemporary remix culture. Essentially students create some form of a remix in which they repurpose audio, video, images and text they find online to form the argument product. In addition to this multimedia product, students also create a written essay to document their choices and work throughout the project. A sample student product helps to better visualize this creative work.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Constructing an argument is a challenging way to encourage students to practice skilled communication - an important dimension of 21st century learning design (21CLD). One could argue that the creation of a scholarly argument is the most all-inclusive way to practice skilled communication, as the work includes extended communication, supporting evidence, a focus on a particular audience, and can include multimodal elements. Particularly as we consider ways for students to share their work widely, constructing an argument can move from being defined as a paper to possibly even an active of civic engagement.
While the primary technologies used in this activity would be the word processor and possibly a concept map, the last example illustrates how the use of digital technologies can enrich and extend this kind of work. As demonstrated in the remix example, students can leverage digital video creation software to construct multimedia arguments. Even in written documents, students can include images and at least links to other multimedia sources. The creation of videos, however, enables students to share their work with a world-wide audience through video sharing sites like YouTube or Vimeo.
I can’t complete this post without a nod to a great resource to help students to better understand, analyze, and construct their own arguments. Everything’s an Argument is an amazing text (currently in its 6th edition) which provides hundreds of argument examples, including essays, editorials, advertisements, and websites that not only serve to engage the reader, but also illustrate how arguments are all around us. These broad-ranging examples help students build a much more nuanced understanding of how arguments can be formulated and presented.
How might you challenge your students to construct an argument in your classes?
Please post your comments below.