Moving Beyond C-E-R: Arguing From Evidence

How can you engage students in argumentation beyond the CER essay?

I’m going to say it: C-E-R isn’t the only way to engage students in argument from evidence. In fact, it probably isn’t even the BEST way. WHAT?! Well, take a moment to consider

Engaging In Argument From Evidence when our students are writing their C-E-R responses, are they getting feedback from peers on their argument? Or are they simply writing their ideas and leaving it at that?

(Believe me, I was totally guilty of this!) 

Typically, we are NOT involving feedback in our C-E-R process (or at the very least, it isn’t timely feedback), and therefore, we aren’t truly engaging our students in argumentation. We aren’t providing a setting for them to collaboratively build knowledge and understanding.  We are simply asking them to share THEIR ideas and THEIR evidence.  And sure, we can theoretically evaluate our own ideas but realistically, ideas are honed and refined NOT by our OWN evaluations but rather by the discourse that occurs between individuals and amongst groups.  Therefore, we really should be engaging our students in argumentation through discussion.  Individual written responses can occur as a reflective practice before a discussion or perhaps to refine their ideas after students have had time to engage in discourse around the issue… but it isn’t the primary way to engage students in argumentation.


A Better Way To Practice Argumentation: Discussion

So how can classroom discussions reflect argumentation? Like written responses, you would first need to engage your group with open-ended questions that require students to make evidence-based claims.  These discussions can be held in partners or small groups (using appropriate protocols to support teacher documentation) or in a whole-class setting.  Oftentimes, beginning with a partner or small group discussions can elicit better participation and engagement in a whole-class setting as students gain confidence and experience with the practices in general and their ideas and thoughts specifically. 


Argumentation and Analyzing Data

Because claims must be evidence-based, analyzing data is an important part of these discussions. Students may be given new data to analyze in light of the question (and other evidence they have gathered) or students may simply be reviewing the work they have already done — investigations and activities that have completed as a part of the unit.  Either way, this evidence must be present during the discussion so that it is there for students to draw from.  Using science notebooks is one way to keep these resources together and easily accessible.


Argumentation and Model Building

Argumentation can be tied to conceptual model-building.  After being presented with a phenomenon, students can illustrate what is occurring (both seen and unseen!) and then evaluate the models to identify strengths and weaknesses — like which best represents the phenomenon, explains what is occurring, illustrates the evidence, etc.  Students can use this argumentation experience to refine their models or to build a single model based on class consensus.  In both building and discussing models, it is important to remind students to use the evidence — and be prepared to justify their choices. 


Evaluating Claims and Evidence

Beyond just using evidence, students should be developing skills in evaluating evidence and claims — identifying the strongest evidence, the evidence that supports one and only one claim, and differentiating it from weaker evidence, evidence that may lend itself to many different claims or explanations. The wealth of evidence should be considered, as well as if evidence exists that disproves a claim. Oftentimes in the classroom, we focus on “evidence in general” or “evidence that supports” and we don’t always examine the strength and weakness of the evidence that exists or discuss how to deal with information that “doesn’t fit.”


Final Thoughts

Giving and receiving feedback and critique is an important part of Engaging in Argument from Evidence, and it is important to build this skill carefully and conscientiously — as it requires a degree of trust and a safe classroom environment.  To reduce the “risk” initially, work can be shared and feedback offered anonymously – using gallery walk formats and post-it notes, for example. Work (models, arguments) can be shared and discussed without names.  That said, over time, it is important for students to become comfortable claiming and sharing their own ideas and having those ideas challenged. It’s simply a part of argumentation.