Using Argument Diagramming to Teach Critical Thinking in a First-Year Writing Course

Maralee Harrell and Danielle Wetzel


The importance of teaching critical thinking skills at the college level cannot be overemphasized. Teaching a subcategory of these skills—argument analysis—we believe is especially important for first-year students with their college careers, as well as their lives, ahead of them. The struggle, however, is how to effectively teach argument analysis skills that will serve students in a broad range of disciplines.

Why is it so hard to teach argument analysis skills? Martin Davies articulates a good answer:

In addition to the complexities of distinguishing different parts of the argument, students must also deal with the complexities of academic language.

The student must, in addition, be able to:

  • (1) Succinctly paraphrase claims;
  • (2) Distinguish premises from conclusions;
  • (3) Locate crucial hidden premises;
  • (4) Put the claims into the appropriate logical order;
  • (5) Show the inferential link(s) from premises to conclusions. (Davies 2009, 802-803)

The teaching method we want to advocate here is argument diagramming. There are, however, several different models of argument diagramming from which to choose. One of the most popular models was promoted by Stephen Toulmin in The Uses of Argument in 1958 (Toulmin 1958). Over the past several decades, for example, the Toulmin model has been adopted by English, rhetoric, and composition departments all over the United States. An alternative model for diagramming arguments, however, has recently gained some traction with teachers of critical thinking and informal logic. This model originated with Monroe Beardsley in 1950, was refined by James Freeman in the 1980s and 1990s (Freeman 1991), and is now known as the Beardsley-Freeman model.

This kind of argument diagram is a visual representation of the content and structure of an argument. For illustration, consider the following argument:

The ability to think critically is more important now than it has ever been. People have always had to make important decisions in their daily lives, but now, more than ever, these decisions can affect millions of others around the word, as well as many more millions in future generations. When we vote for particular criminal or national health policies, these decisions resonate through our communities. When we vote for candidates for particular political offices, these decisions can impact other people around the world who are affected by our foreign policy. And, when we vote for particular environmental policies, we are making decisions that will determine the kind of world our child and grandchildren will inherit. Since these decisions are so important, it stands to reason that we need these decisions to be the product of careful research and thoughtful reasoning, which are the hallmarks of critical thinking.

For diagramming using a modified Beardsley-Freeman model, the claims are put into boxes, the inferential connections are represented by arrows, and all the excess verbiage is removed (see figure 13.1).

In what follows, we argue that teaching argument analysis skills in a first- year composition course using a modified version of the Beardsley-Freeman model of diagramming is better than doing so using the Toulmin model. To make this case, we first explore the nature and importance of critical thinking skills in the twenty-first century. We then explore the mounting evidence that teaching argument diagramming is a good way to improve students' critical thinking skills. The method one uses for diagramming arguments, however, depends on one's theory of argumentation, so we analyze Toulmin's theory and its conceptual and pedagogical problems. We then describe the development of a modified Beardsley-Freeman method of argument diagramming, as well as the results of a study we conducted to test the difference between teaching using the Toulmin method of argument diagramming and using the modified Beardsley-Freeman method.

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