Developing an Argument

Lecturers and tutors regard students' development of an argument in essays or assignments as essential. Very frequently, teachers find lack of an argument, or an undeveloped argument, to be an issue in their students' writing.

But lecturers often find it hard to define exactly what "argument" means in their discipline. This difficulty is compounded because the word "argument" can be used to refer both to:

  • making a specific claim and supporting it with evidence, and to
  • the extended argument of an entire essay.

We might usefully define "developing an argument" as persuading the reader and using logic to reach a conclusion. However, interpretations will vary depending on discipline.

It's important for you as a teacher to clarify what you expect from student assignments. Be clear in your own mind, and make your expectations very clear to your students.

In these disciplines...
...you might expect student assignments to...
Engineering/Science ...demonstrate in their writing that they can understand the nature of a problem, propose solutions and then evaluate those solutions.
Economics/Medicine ...observe a specific situation and then relate their observations to key theories in the discipline.
Humanities/Social Sciences ...consider the viewpoints of the key theorists and justify support for a particular theory/viewpoint.

See also the table on the Developing academic style page.

Help students develop an argument

Identify potential arguments within an assessment task

For example, in class you could ask the students to discuss the assignment topic in groups and identify potential points of view, conflicting theories or possible solutions to problems.

Use explicit instruction words

Make sure that your instructions for assessment tasks contain explicit instruction words that indicate what students should do, e.g. discuss, compare and contrast, do you agree?, evaluate, justify, give reasons.

Sample questions containing explicit instruction words:

  • "The ideal of human rights is not universal. Discuss."
  • "Compare and contrast the development of ethics in medicine and the development and use of antibiotics. Are they equally important?"
  • "Indigenous Australians experience lower levels of access to health services than the general population. List and discuss the factors determining access." (demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship)
  • "Why did the ideas of Martin Luther cause such an upheaval in 16th century Europe? Would there have been a Reformation without him? How would you measure the success of the Lutheran Reformation? Give reasons for your view." (requires analysis and opinion)
  • "To what extent did the subcultural research project demonstrate that youth cultures were 'counter-hegemonic'?" (requires evaluation and quantification); "What traits distinguish Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism from each another? Has society influenced these religions or have these religions influenced society?" (requires demonstration of knowledge, followed by analysis and evaluation)

Source: The Learning Centre Online Resources: Answering Assignment Questions

Use the Guess what? Prove it! So what? model

This model encourages students to think about ideas as propositions rather than as immutable facts. For example, you could present your students with a statement containing a key theory or concept and ask them to:

  • provide proof to support or challenge the concept
  • evaluate the importance of the concept.

(Source: S. McLaren (1997). Easy Writer: a student's guide to writing essays and reports. Glebe, NSW: Pascal Press.)

Have your students evaluate arguments

It is useful for students to see argument "in action" within an assignment. Present good and bad models of argument assignments to the class and ask the students to evaluate them. For example, present a descriptive and an argumentative paragraph to the class and ask students to identify the argument in each, then discuss why the descriptive paragraph is inadequate in this context.

Sample descriptive and argumentative paragraphs

(Source: Student Learning Unit, UWS, Unistep: Academic skills guide, 220.)

Paragraph A is a collection of unanalysed quotations about reflection; paragraph B uses sources to support a claim about the importance of reflection.

A. "According to Mezirow (1990, p. 5), reflection 'is generally used as a synonym for higher-order mental processes'. Reflection is the process of 'turning thought back on action' (Schon, 1983, p. 50). Through reflection teachers 'can surface and criticise the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experience of a specialised practice' (Schon, 1983, p. 61)."

B. "Reflection is a distinguishing feature of critical thinking about teaching [claim]. Although reflection is sometimes associated with 'higher order mental processes' (Mezirow, 1990, p. 5) [quotation], it might be more useful to emphasise its relationship to action [contrasted with following quotation]. For Schon (1983), reflection is the process of 'turning thought back on action' (p. 50) [quotation]. Without reflection, our teaching practice can stagnate. Reflective teachers, however, can 'surface and criticise the tacit understandings' (Schon, 1983, p. 61) that tend to make teaching routine and repetitive. These tacit understandings might include beliefs about what students are capable of learning and assumptions about how students learn. Thus, reflection looks forward as well as backward. It is oriented to practicality and change, not to undirected mental activity [quotation explained and contextualised]."

Encourage your students to use evidence to support their claims

This is a way of getting students to think (and write) about supporting ideas with evidence, and to explain how the evidence links to the idea. You can use the following diagram in conjunction with a claim and ask the students to provide evidence and reasons to support the claim.

(Source: W. Booth, G.G. Colomb and J. M. Williams (2003). The Craft of Research. In Student Learning Unit, UWS, Unistep: Academic skills guide, 208.)