Lesson Planning to Support Students’ Argumentation Skills and Learning Outcomes

Lesson Planning to Support Students’ Argumentation Skills and Learning Outcomes

We want students to participate in class. We want students to share their ideas and opinions. We want students to be able to justify their viewpoints with credible supporting evidence. We want students to engage in meaningful argumentation. To help students do this, authors Antonia Larrain et al. find that it is not enough to simply have class discussions. The design of the lesson plan matters.

Numerous studies have shown the benefit of dialogic teaching, a method that promotes an interactive learning environment in which students are expected to verbally participate in class and express their own ideas and opinions. Moreover, there is a growing body of research showing the effectiveness of having students engage in a particular kind of dialogic practice: argumentation.

In their paper, “‘More is not necessarily better’: Curriculum materials support the impact of classroom argumentative dialogue in science teaching on content knowledge,” authors Antonia Larrain et al. explain that argumentation involves a series of complex thought processes. In particular, students must engage with controversial issues and formulate their own opinions, consider opposing viewpoints, and defend their own views with credible supporting evidence (283). While students may naturally engage in argumentation to some extent, Larrain et al. investigate how specially designed lesson planning supports students’ argumentation and learning outcomes.

The authors worked with 18 teachers and their fifth-grade classes across 18 public schools. Classes were randomly assigned to either the intervention group or the control group (286). Teachers in the intervention group carried out 10 specially designed lessons on the scientific topic of force, while the teachers in the control group addressed the topic of force as they normally would. Teachers in the control group carried out, on average, 3 more lessons on force than teachers in the intervention group (287).

Since the researchers were interested in how specially designed curriculum materials supported student argumentation and learning, they had students complete two measurement tests at three different times: (1) before the lessons began, (2) immediately after the unit finished, and (3) four weeks after the unit finished (delayed measurement). With these tests, Larrain et al. measured students’ understanding of force and their proficiency in argumentation (290).

While teachers in the control group implemented their usual lesson plans on force, teachers in the intervention group carried out lessons that were specially designed to support student discussions and argumentation. The structure of each lesson was as follows:

  • 1st: The teacher started each lesson with a whole-class activity that focused on previously taught concepts.
  • 2nd: Students worked in small groups to solve problem situations. In these small groups, students were required to discuss their ideas, make predictions, test their predictions, and discuss the outcomes of their tests.
  • 3rd: Students shared their outcomes to the whole class, and the teacher guided a whole class discussion. As Larrain et al. explain, during these class discussions, the teacher was to “give and elicit reasons, formulate implicit controversies, and discuss these in order to reach a classroom agreement” (287).

To better understand students’ use of argumentation in class, the researchers randomly videotaped two lessons in the intervention group and two lessons in the control group. If students were working in small groups during the videotaping, then two of the small groups were also audio recorded (291).

The Findings

  • Teachers in the intervention group carried out 10 lessons on force, and teachers in the control group carried out, on average, 13 lessons on force.
  • Students in the intervention group had higher immediate test scores and higher delayed test scores than students in the control group: “The intervention group significantly surpassed the control group” (294).
  • “Only three control classes included at least one collaborative group-work activity” (294).
  • Students in the control group used argumentative statements more frequently than students in the intervention group (294).

More is better is not necessarily true in this case. More than the quantity of argumentative utterances, what counts is the type of argumentative process involved” (296).

Larrain et al. explain that even though students in the control group used argumentative phrases more frequently than students in the intervention group, the quality and appropriateness of the argumentative phrases may have been better in the intervention group. That every lesson was designed to have students discuss ideas and reach a group consensus about a specific application or problem may have supported not only students’ ability to engage in effective argumentation, but also students’ increased learning outcomes.

“It clearly suggests that when teachers invite students to think about controversial issues in small collaborative groups, testing their hypotheses and predictions, and then prompt students to share and justify their views in whole-class interactions, students benefit” (297).


Paper Title:  ‘More is not necessarily better’: Curriculum materials to support the impact of classroom argumentative dialogue in science teaching on content knowledge

Authors: Antonia Larrain (Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile), Christine Howe (University of Cambridge, UK), and Paulina Freire (Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02635143.2017.1408581?journalCode=crst20

Published: Research in Science and Technological Education, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2018, Pages 282-301