Helping Students Understand Argument Construction

After completing my first bout of marking for this year I have come to the conclusion that my students have not yet been taught the difference between an assertion and an argument. Most seem to have been trained from secondary school or elsewhere that displaying knowledge of the correct answer is more important than a demonstration of their ability to evaluate and analyse evidence and historiography. I consider this a failing on my part, as was readily shown in recent feedback forms.

‘I wish I had been told before I handed in my first essay what the tutor wanted.’

Indeed, most of my students are very good at obtaining information and reading around subjects.They are generally engaged with the topic and have a drive to do well. However, they often fail to understand why, despite extensive research, their argument structure results in a low mark. When one student entered my office to discuss their mark, I tried to explain they had relied too heavily on historiography, specifically the concluding summations by historians, as proof that their evidence was correct. They did not understand so I paraphrased on of their paragraphs:

The Salem Witch trials were the result of feelings of repressions by the young women of the community. Chafe supports this by saying ‘the trials were the result of feelings of repressions by the young women of the community.’ Thus, this proves that the trials were the result of feelings of repressions by the young women of the community.

Stated such, they understood and vowed not to make the mistake again.

I certainly do not, however, want to embarrass my students. They have been told for many years that if they mentioned key points (somewhere defined) they will earn points for each one and receive a high mark. This was absolutely the case in certain secondary exam, which were testing knowledge. It is not the case in my class where I am assessing analytical ability. I have thus come up with the following examples to illustrate poor uses of evidence and analysis, to help them steer clear of simple mistakes in the future. Please feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Question: Which are better, cats or dogs?

Thesis Statements:

1. Exploration Thesis

This essay will explore the relative betterness of cats and dogs.

This thesis statement is not an argument or answer to the question but merely a grammatically incorrect statement of the general topic

2. Rephrasing Thesis

But which, really, is better? Cats or Dogs?

This is simply rephrasing the question, rather than explaining what you will argue.

3. Loosely Qualified Thesis

It could be argued that cats are better than dogs, but it must not be forgotten that some people feel dogs are better.

This thesis statement is attempting to provide a qualified answer, one which states something is mostly true but occasionally false. When you do this, it is important to make it clear when the distinction occurs.

Uses of Evidence

1. Narration Cat

The cat (Felis catus), also known as the domestic cat or housecat to distinguish it from other felids and felines, is a small, usually furry, domesticated, carnivorous mammal that is valued by humans for its companionship and for its ability to hunt vermin and household pests.

This provides background information on the topic, taken from Wikipedia or some other tertiary (third-hand or textbook) source. It provides several non-contentious assertions without any indication of their relevancy to the question at hand.

2. Authority Figure Cat

According to J. R. Dallason, cats have longed been valued over dogs by peoples around the world.

This uses the authority of a named author to establish a fact as being true without providing either the evidence used by the author or additional evidence which corroborates the claim.

3. Authority Figure – Leap of Logic Cat

According to P. S. McManusstein, cats have long been believed to be the descendants of extra-terrestrials. As aliens are very cool, cats are clearly better than dogs.

This uses the authority of a named author to establish a fact as being true and then offers a ‘logical’ or ‘personalised’ interpretation of the relevance of this fact to the question at hand.

4. Implicit Argument Cat

Cats have whiskers and claws which can retract. This makes them superior climbers.

This offers a piece of factual evidence and then explains the implications of this evidence but does not relate the point back to the topic at hand or the argument being made.

5. Possibility Counter Evidence Dog

It can, however, be argued that cats are not very good pets at all. This proves that dogs are better than cats.

This confuses the possibility of an argument with the validity of an argument.

6. Unlinked Counter Evidence Dog

Dogs were domesticated from gray wolves about 15,000 years ago. Their value to early human settlements led to them quickly becoming ubiquitous across world cultures.

This is attempting to offer counter evidence, in an effort to make the essay more balanced. However, like Narration Cat, it is  a narrative statement of facts or history which does not really shed any light on the discussion, despite being technically ‘on topic’. Counter evidence should be explained in the context of the main argument being put forth.


1. Assertion Conclusion

Therefore, I believe that cats are better than dogs.

This conclusion does answer the question but does not follow on logically from the essay preceding it. This is because it relies (apparently) on personal opinion.

2. Net Gain Conclusion

Overall, therefore, the evidence seems to be in favour of cats being better.

This conclusion seems to indicate that, having looked at all the evidence, your reader will agree with you that cats are better. It indicates that you have not had an explicit argument throughout your paper but waited until the end to offer your answer.

3. Summary Conclusion

Therefore, it can be seen that because cats have been so longed valued by humans, and the possibly of their being descendants of aliens, that they are better than dogs. The have biological advantages and although some people prefer dogs, cats are clearly better.

This conclusion summaries all the points that came before, then asserts the argument is true. It doesn’t really help fit the pieces together or add anything new (analytically) to your paper.

3 thoughts on “Helping Students Understand Argument Construction

  1. Aldwin

    I don't think you should see the fact that students don't know how to construct and sustain an argument – I think it goes beyond issues of evidence, but is also about structure – as a failing on your part. I'd say it is a failing in the history curriculum. Of course it is good, and necessary, for all tutors/lecturers to try to get students to understand how to construct a scientific argument (rather than merely mimic one) but, as your student feedback shows, students often interpret such efforts as the mere personal style or preference of a specific teacher rather than the basics of sound writing practice.

    What we urgently need is to integrate rigourous writing skills in our first year history methodology classes.

    As things stand, I think it is problematic that we have to evaluate students on their writing within a curriculum which essentially assumes they already know how to do it. In my experience this is not the case: they have often been dramatically mistaught. Not only is ticking boxes valued over demonstrating causality; what I find most tragic is how students, often the brightest ones too, seem to believe that eloquence (an odd melange of pompous language and witticisms) always trumps rigour. [Which, by the way, it often does: I performed exceedingly well during my undergraduate years with essays which were usually big on style, but less so on substance. It took my MA thesis supervisor to teach me the basics of balanced treatment of complex issues]. Teachers – in school and, unfortunately, at university – are to blame for rewarding rather than failing confused arguments with big words.

    Probably the best advice we can give students is still to read, reread and understand George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language':

    I know it helped me.

  2. M. H. Beals

    @Aldwin – Thank you for your thoughtful comment (and the link to Orwell. I shall add it to my list of writing resources for my students!). Sadly, I do still consider it a failing on my part because I know full well that they have been taught to excel at a different sort of assessment, and, knowing this, I should have accounted for it more rigorously, rather 'shock and awe' my students with their first mark. Unfortunately, there are only so many weeks in the year and removing one from content in favour of one for essay writing skills may do more harm than good. Can my students really manage the colonial period and the Revolutionary War in a single week? Until such time when I am all powerful and control the progression of all the students in my department (aiming for 2020 or 2021, I think) I believe that having e-contact with my students, such as this, may be the best course of action.

  3. Aldwin

    I see your point, but I read your comment as a confirmation of mine too: it shouldn't be up to the American History lecturer to teach the basics of essay writing: there should be a (mandatory) course for that. In year 1.

    By the way: I don't mind giving low marks on the first essay. Though students do grumble, it is an effective way to deliver the message that what worked in high school doesn't necessarily work at university. As long you offer the tools to improve (which you do) I don't see the problem in maintaining strict standards.

    Something I tried when I taught my first class was to give students a little bundle containing a short introduction to historical essay writing, which also included some references to online writing resources. It didn't have much of an impact for the first essay, but at least students couldn't say they weren't told what to do. And, most importantly: some students did use it to improve their writing for essay two.

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