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.
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.
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.