Argument mapping in your subject

By Ian Handsley

Argument mapping is a technique for representing ideas visually. Research on its use in Australian universities has consistently shown it has a profound impact on students’ critical thinking abilities.

What’s an argument map?

Rather than describe one, here’s a map of the argument “You should integrate argument mapping into the subjects you teach.”

This map was made using a program called Rationale, which we have available on LSU computers, library computers and in open-acess labs on campus. The technique doesn’t actually require the software – the software just makes the process easier.

How does an argument map work?

Argument maps are similar to concept maps in that they feature boxes and arrows, but relationships between ideas are either ‘support’ or ‘oppose’. Vertically, ideas and topics are organised from abstract/general at the top, down to specific/concrete at the bottom. The idea in the white box the top is called the ‘contention’, otherwise known as the thesis statement. The contention is the most abstract and general statement in the whole map.

The contention is systematically broken down into ‘support’ (green boxes below it) and ‘oppose’ (the red box below it). The support for any given contention can be seen as reasons, and these reasons must work together logically to make the contention valid. ‘Oppose’ ideas are reasons against a contention, which can then be rebutted (orange box).

How does argument mapping help critical thinking?

Argument mapping allows the ‘mapper’ to employ spatial/visual skills when dealing with the structure and validity of interdependent ideas. This spreads the congitive burden of critical thinking to other parts of the brain and allows more of the mapper’s ‘intelligences’ to be leveraged on comprehension  and evaluation of ideas.

When making the map, the mapper is required to deconstruct ideas. Because of this, the mapper is more readily able to identify inconsitencies in an argument – perhaps some ideas are poorly supported or some ideas are in the wrong place… an argument mapper can make these judgements much more quickly than if they are dealing with ideas which are hidden in lexically dense academic articles. Making the map allows for deeper engagement with ideas.

How can argument mapping be intergated into RMITV subjects?
  • Have students map the ideas they come across in an article/video/textbook chapter and then facilitate critical evaluation of it in a discussion.
  • This can be made as easy or as difficult as you like – argument maps can be ‘gapped’, meaning that you could give students a half-finished map and have them finish it. Or, reveal nothing about the structure of the argument and require them to build the map from the top down.
  • Argument mapping as a comprehension activity also punctuates the organisation of authentic texts. Students learn very quickly that the ideas they’re looking for can be found in the same places: contentions are generally somewhere in the introduction/abstract/executive summary, reasons for and against should be in topic sentences of body paragraphs, and reasons for reasons are somewhere inside paragraphs.
  • Have students submit argument maps of their assignments as a stage of assessment before final submission.Feedback can be from peers and/or lecturers.Argument mapping is a great pre-writing (or pre-presentation) activity, and drafts of student assignments are much easier to give feedback on when they’re in the form of an argument map. If you stage assessment with an argument map and students get good feedback on it, better results are virtually guaranteed.
Argument mapping looks too hard for our students!

Argument mapping may seem like an advanced technique but it’s actually much simpler than the mental juggling act we do when we read academic texts or contemplate the notes we’ve taken for an assignment. Critical thinking is, of course, never easy, but when it’s supported by a technique like argument mapping, it’s actually much easier.

Also, argument mapping reduces the impact of English language ability on academic outcomes. Mapping ideas removes them from the prose in which they’re dressed, so they become much more accessible and students are more able to engage them critically. Argument mapping can actually support students’ development of better English proficiency. With instruction, the visual relationships between ideas on an argument map can be matched to common academic phrases and transitions.

LSU advisors already use argument mapping in consultations and workshops. Yes, students need to pick up a few new ways of thinking about and representing ideas, but they adapt quickly and most enjoy using the technique to reconceptualise the ideas they are puttin forward in assignments. Students can learn the basics of argument mapping in about 30 minutes. Of course, much practice is needed before students can make the previously mentioned gains in critical thinking ability, but the technique itself is relatively intuitive.

How can I learn more?

Check out these websites…

Teaching Critical Thinking – some lessons from cognitive science – an highly readable article from Tim van Gelder which presents 6 key lessons for those us concerned with critical thinking in higher learning.

The Rational homepage – all about argument mapping and the software use to create the map above.

Online tutorials for argument mapping – really interesting tutorials, based on conspiracies about the Apollo moon landings.

Help from the LSU

If you’d like to discuss way to introduce your students to this technique, the LSU would be happy to give you some ideas. We have the Rationale program on our computers, and we be happy to collaborate with you to create reusuable teaching and learning resources.

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