Points for debate

June 1, 2007

Argumentation skills are underdeveloped in undergraduates, write Beng Huat See, Carole Torgerson and Richard Andrews, who suggest some ways ahead

The making and presenting of academic arguments has often been encouraged as a goal of higher education. But a complex picture emerges from a pilot study on whether and how such skills are being taught and/or learnt in the first year of higher education.

In a survey conducted for the Higher Education Academy, responses to one question asked of 237 first-year undergraduates in two UK universities suggested that many may be uncertain of the appropriate grounds for scepticism in their academic reading.

Most students indicated that they would accept the findings of academic papers on the basis that they had been peer reviewed (79 per cent) or just published (63 per cent). Eighty-five per cent said they were willing to accept the findings of a piece of research uncritically if it was substantiated by statistical or numerical data. The one-year study examined the use of academic arguments among first-year undergraduates in three disciplines - history, biology and electronic engineering - in two UK institutions and one in the US. It used a combination of questionnaire survey, exploratory focus groups, in-depth interviews with lecturers and students and document analysis.

There were differences between students in the different subjects, with history students being the most sceptical. This may be due to the specific nature of the sample, but another reason may be the explicit emphasis on argument in history assessment. History students have to argue well to get good grades. One history lecturer commented: "For history students, it is crucial to learn to argue. They have wider reading but don't always solve the structural problems in argument. Argument is central to a 'good' degree."

First-year biology assessments in one institution largely involved factual recall, so little emphasis and value was placed on the teaching and learning of argument. One lecturer explained: "Our own exam system has been changed so that there is more emphasis on factual recall, partly because of student numbers. It's easier to mark an exam where students just have to say 'yes' or 'no' or give a fact rather than constructing an argument. So the number of assessments to do with constructing an argument has declined."

Comments from students in this department also suggested that this was the case: "[For] quite a lot of people I know, the essays (because they don't count towards the course) are just something to get over with and they'd like [to do so] quickly the night before and not necessarily put [much] thought into it. Because essays for history... are what is marked, [and] that's what counts towards the final grade, I think you're going to put a lot more effort into doing them and finding out about them and thinking about them."

Electronic engineering students were the least likely to see the relevance of argument to academic success at first-year level, even though they were ready to acknowledge its usefulness and recognised that it would be of value at later stages. This is largely because in most cases assessments involved clear-cut right or wrong answers, even where they required justification to be given.

Interview data from one institution suggested that lecturers also had a strong influence on whether students used argument or not. As one lecturer put it: "I think there are the same opportunities in nearly all the modules, but some people will keep the argument out of the module because they just want to teach the facts. You'll find that individual lecturers will vary between choosing to work in an area where there's a lot of argument or whether they choose to avoid arguments."

The study incorporated a review of all empirical studies undertaken since 1990 that evaluated effective strategies to improve argumentation skills.

Few well-designed and large-scale studies have been carried out, and only ten were found that employed a control group. Some of the strategies and methods found to be effective in improving argumentation skills in undergraduates include:

1. Specifying goals. For example, tell students to: explore an issue in depth to increase their understanding; try to persuade others of their point of view; provide as many reasons as they can to justify their position; consider reasons why others might disagree.

2. Using a teaching tool/package developed by Pittsburgh University's Learning Research and Development Centre to help students generate reasoned arguments in discussions. It provides a framework for organising, displaying and recording the process so students can develop their argument toward solving a problem.

3. Training in critical thinking for the language and the positioning of argumentation in writing.

4. Argumentation training to enhance the ability to discern weak arguments, improve perception of argumentation effectiveness and decrease verbal aggression in debates.

Beng Huat See is a research fellow, Carole Torgerson is senior research fellow, and Richard Andrews is professor of education at the University of York.

The full report is available at www.heacademy.ac.uk/4148.htm

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