Tuesday, August 10, 2010

teaching argument mapping

Colleagues: inspired in part by some of Mara Harrell's research (and of course by the work of Tim van Gelder), I will begin including the teaching of argument mapping in my courses this semester. It seems particularly apt for the Informal Logic course that I teach, but I plan to try it to a more limited extent in my section of Intro to Philosophy, as well.

Rather than representing arguments in the classic

premise A
premise B
premise C

format, argument maps use lines, arrows, and boxes to represent visually the relationships between an argument's premises, intermediate conclusions, responses to objections, and main conclusions. I don't know enough sophisticated HTML to code an argument map here. So, for illustration, here's an example courtesy of the Wikipedia entry on argument mapping: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Traffic_congestion_straw_man.png (the conclusion is at the top of the map; the supporting premises are below the main conclusion). There are several software tools -- some available gratis; others not -- for creating argument maps. The hand-and-pen method seems to work, too.

I can see several possible advantages to teaching students how to map the arguments they'll encounter. It seems especially useful for more complex arguments and/or for students who describe themselves as visual learners. But I'd like to hear, from anyone who's used or taught argument mapping for a while now, about some of the challenges that you encountered. Did you choose (or avoid) a particular software tool? What were some of the limitations of argument maps? Did you have a way to assess their effectiveness in helping your students reconstruct and evaluate arguments? If so, then what did you find?


  1. I've been using what I've been calling "Debate Landscapes" for several years now to provide a visual representation of single articles, arguments, or even of whole topics. Instead of mapping an argument, they trace the key claims, arguments, objections, and thought experiments of some area. I create these in Microsoft Vizio and often distribute them to students. I've never had students make their own as an assignment, but many students report that the landscapes are helpful. I'm happy to email you some examples of these if you like. I've also used these in seminar presentations.

  2. You might want to have a look at the teaching resource site Argument Mapping In Your Subject

  3. Hello, Phil, and thanks for the pointer -- I had seen that site, but not for a couple of months.

    I was writing less to solicit that kind of pointers (but again, thanks for it!) and more to hear reports from the field by some of the readers/co-authors of this site.

    Hello, John (if I may), can you say more about what led you to adopt that method; pitfalls for a newbie to avoid; any evidence that debate landscapes provide more easily-transferable "critical thinking" abilities to your students; etc.?

  4. From what I have seen of them, I do not find argument maps appealing or preferable to the standard "premises leading to a conclusion" way of representing things.

    A map is not analogous to reasoning. With a map, you can start (or be) anymore and go anywhere you'd like. It's not that way with reasoning. There are definite starting points and destinations, premises and conclusions. Maps seem to misrepresent this.

  5. Vance,

    I have no evidence that it improved critical reasoning skills. I haven't looked. I started using the landscapes because a) I often find visuals like them useful for myself and b) by drawing the maps on the board, I can ask the students to choose areas to focus discussion during discussion periods. I can then point and say okay, now that we have clarified X, see how it connects to the other issues.

    As far as pitfalls, I think that it is better to keep the landscape as simple as possible. Try to capture a lot with a little and remember that they are just aids. If you looked one of my landscapes before discussion, you wouldn't really be able to glean a lot. it is only in context, after a discussion, that it helps to keep your oriented.

  6. Thanks, John.

    Anonymous, I'm not sure that I follow your objections. A map IS (supposed to be) a "premises leading to a conclusion" representation of an argument. It's true that there are several different ways of designing argument maps, but look at the example argument map that I linked to on the Wikipedia page. That seems precisely to do what you say that argument maps don't do. It has a clear starting point -- at the bottom, in this case -- leading, via clear symbols, to the specific "destination" of the main conclusion at the top.
    Or have I completely misunderstood what you're saying?

  7. Vance -- I'm sorry, I did not look at this sample map:
    All the maps I have ever seen have been a totally confusing mess. This one is much simpler than the one's I have seen. So my concerns do not apply to maps like this. I am glad there are better maps than the ones I have seen!

  8. I just found this post, so I may be a little late, but we've been doing some new stuff at CMU that anyone interested in this subject might want to check out. I have created an online "course" to introduce students to argument diagramming. It's free through CMU's Open Learning Initiative (OLI). We have integrated into it argument diagramming software developed by myself and Matt Easterday (there is also a stand alone version of it). If you are interested, send me an email: mharrell at cmu dot edu.


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