Monday, December 8, 2014

Critical Thinking and Argument: Grading the Argumentative Essay

The Breakdown and Assessment
of Argumentative Essays

Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau define a formal argument as “a discussion that takes account of possible counterarguments, that relies chiefly on logic and little if at all on emotional appeal, and that draws a conclusion that seems irrefutable” (pg. 106). An argumentative essay is that formal argument shaped and crafted into a written document.   

Skills related to argumentation and the writing of argumentative essays span the breadth of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.  In order to construct an argument, students must collect and evaluate sources, examine the available evidence, come to a conclusion, compose an original thesis statement, organize and draft a paper, and within that paper carefully and thoroughly explain their reasoning

Argumentation is a Process

Students who do not complete any one of the many tasks related to writing the argumentative essay are missing a key component of the overall activity.  Argumentation, after all, is a discussion, an ongoing process, not a product.  Therefore, faculty who have not already done so should shift the assessment or grading of the argumentative essay from an evaluation of the product to an evaluation of the process.

A Model for Assessing the Argumentative Essay

One such model for assessing argumentation and the argumentative essay includes an assignment for each of the major elements of argumentation: a prewriting activity to help students find and narrow a topic, an annotated bibliography to help students learn to evaluate sources, an outline to show organization skills, and a paper taken through several drafts to demonstrate an ability to formulate complete thoughts and explain their reasoning to others.  Faculty evaluation of each of these four assignments can help assess students’ strengths and weaknesses before a final paper is submitted.

Subdividing Measurable Skills and Tasks

If and when necessary, generally depending on students’ levels of knowledge about the writing process, each of those four assignments can be further subdivided.  Students in a 100-level research writing course will, in other words, generally need more assistance than those in a 300 or 400-level research writing course.  For example, a prewriting assignment can be divided into several subsections: discussion of a topic, preliminary research, brainstorming, clustering, or the drafting of research questions.  The annotated bibliography can be introduced and created over the course of several lessons about research and information literacy, citations and style guides, or types of sources and evidence.  Because the outline can only be created after a student comes to a conclusion about the argumentative topic, a natural subsection is the composition of the thesis statement and topic sentences, which can even be introduced before or after an informal in-class debate.  This type of teamwork can also serve students who work together to revise one another’s papers.

An additional way to think of these assignments, or subdivided assignments, is to think of them as learning objectives for the overall course broken into lesson or assignment outcomes for individual units within the course.  Whereas an overall learning objective of the course might be for students to “evaluate source content,” the annotated bibliography unit may break that objective into much smaller pieces.  Before evaluating source content, students must first be able to “find authoritative source content,” “summarize the main ideas within a source,” and “research opposing views or authors.”   

Whereas the course objective may be difficult to assess or grade without taking into account multiple tasks, the lesson outcomes can be assessed and remediated in the immediate.  When students have difficulty “evaluating,” there could be a number of factors contributing to the confusion: The confusion could stem from an inability to find appropriate sources, to skim or comprehend the sources, or to learn more about the credentials of the source author or authors.

A Proficiency Rubric

A rubric associated with the main course objective, therefore, must also include a breakdown of the aggregate skills.  Is isn't enough to grade a student’s work based on whether or not the student evaluated a source, a simple “yes” or “no.”  To truly assess a student’s ability, we should also perhaps ask, “At what level of proficiency was the student able to accurately summarize or paraphrase the claims and evidence within the original source?”  “At what level of proficiency was the student able to explain or compare and contrast opposing views?”  Furthermore, we must make judgments about the level of proficiency we expect students to demonstrate by the end of a course.  Grades should align, mathematically, with the level of proficiency we expect students to have in each of the skills and subskills.

Argumentation is a process, not a product.  There are several skillful tasks that must be mastered in order for a student to argue successfully.  In the assessment of argumentative essay writing, each of these tasks related to writing and argumentation must be taken into account.  This can be accomplished with the breakdown of the written essay assignment into several smaller skills and tasks, rubric graded to reflect proficiency in each skill or task.


Barnet, S. & Bedau, H. (2014). Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. (8th ed. ). Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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