*Argument!* Helping students understand what essay writing is about

‘Argument!’ Helping students
understand what essay writing is
Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11 (2012),
145 - 154
Ursula Wingate
King’s College London
Concepts of ‘argument’
Single claim: a proposition is supported by
grounds and warrants (Toulmin, 1958)
Whole text: ‘a process of argumentation, a
connected series of statements intended to
establish a position and implying response to
another (or more than one) position’
(Andrews, 1995, 3).
Three components of
1. The analysis and evaluation of content
2. The writer’s development of a position
3. The presentation of that position in a
coherent manner
= Developing an argument
Teaching argumentation
• Need to teach argumentation within the disciplines
(Davies, 2008; Mitchell & Riddle, 2000)
• Tutors have fuzzy understanding of argument (e.g.
Lea & Street, 1998)
• Tutors provide insufficient advice/ unhelpful
feedback (‘clarity’, ‘analysis’, ‘argument!’)
Learning argumentation
Starkly different concepts of argument in secondary
school essay
Problems with:
1. Analysing and evaluating content knowledge 
lack of subject knowledge
2. Establishing a position  lack of confidence
3. Presenting position in a coherent manner 
arrangement of propositions into logical structure;
not addressed in study guides
Research objectives
• To identify the concepts of ‘argument’ students
have when arriving at university.
• To explore the difficulties students experience with
argumentation in academic writing.
• To discuss the limitations of current instruction and
make recommendations for improvements.
• Objective 1: Academic Writing Questionnaire to
two cohorts (2009 and 2010) with a total of 117
undergraduate students
• Objective 2: Analysis of tutor comments on 60
student essays; analysis of 8 student diaries
• Objective 3: Analysis of writing guidelines in the
Student; analysis of tutor comments on the 60
Findings: (1) Students’ concepts
of argument
Students’ understanding of argument
Category (N= 101)
1. Argument requires providing evidence
2. Argument has two sides
3. Argument means stating your personal 34
Argument means ‘persuasion’
Argument has more than two sides
Argument needs a proper conclusion
Argument requires analysis
Argument involves structure of whole essay
Example of student answer
‘I believe argument in academic writing is
when you strongly believe in a view and state
why you believe so’.
Findings: (2) Student’s
difficulties with argumentation
Tutor comments concerning argumentation
Low achieving essays (N= 40) No of
(N = 78)
1. Lack of structure
2. Lack of criticality/analysis
3. Lack of evidence
4. Unrelated conclusion
5. Unrelated information
Findings: (2) Student’s
difficulties with argumentation
Themes concerning argumentation in student diaries
1. Use of sources (10 mentions)
2. Writing the Conclusion (7 mentions)
3. Structure ( 6 mentions)
4. Who am I? (6 mentions)
5. Demonstrating knowledge (3 mentions)
Analysis through three
components of
1. Analysing and evaluating
content knowledge [1]
Tutor comments:
Cat. 2: Lack of criticality/analysis
Cat. 3: Lack of evidence
Cat. 5: Unrelated information
‘Your essay lacks criticality. You provide lengthy
reports of the literature without discussion.’
Analysing and evaluating
content knowledge [2]
Students diaries:
Theme 1: Use of sources
‘Made tons of notes. I typed all the notes on a word
document and totaled 11 pages, which stressed me
terribly. I get a feeling that I am going off the topic’.
2. Writers development of a
position [1]
Examples from tutor comments:
‘You need to try to organise your ideas better, based
on authoritative sources but with your own discussion
and arguments’ (Cat. 1)
‘Your essay looks like a list of seemingly unrelated
points, without progressing towards a meaningful
conclusion’ (Cat 4)
Writers development of a
position [2]
Student diaries:
Theme 2: Writing the Conclusion
Example: ‘I wrote the big section today, so only the
conclusion is left. I am not so worried about it,
because it’s small’.
Theme 4: Who am I?
Example: ‘In the exploratory, he accused me of not
being critical. How can I criticize xxx [a widely
published author]? I know so little, I have to accept
what he says’.
3. Presentation of position in
coherent manner
Tutor comments:
Cat. 1: Lack of structure
Example: ‘Your arguments tend to get buried in the
rather shapeless text structure.’
Student diaries:
Theme 3: Structure
Example: ‘I have all the information about around 20
theories and approaches, and what I am missing is a
structure by which those are to be presented.’
Findings (3): Limitations in
teaching argumentation
1. Vague labelling
‘criticality’, ‘analysis’, ‘evaluation’
2. Argumentation not presented as central
requirement of essay writing
Extract from writing guidelines:
It is very important that you reach your own
conclusion based on the evidence you have
presented earlier. The main purpose of the conclusion
is to reach a final position in your essay.
Improving the teaching of
Advice on ‘structure’
Current advice (Student Handbook):
‘The main body will consist of different stages or sub-topics in a
logical sequence. It may be organised in different ways. It may,
for example, contain a background section and discussion
Advice based on essay writing framework:
The structure of the essay should reflect how you developed your
position. ….. In the main body, discuss different viewpoints
(compare, contrast), and explain why you are taking your
position. In the conclusion, briefly summarise the previous
discussion and state your position clearly again.

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