Argumentative writing is frequently assigned in composition and disciplinary courses. This guide is based on the curriculum and course materials for CO300 Writing Arguments, an upper-division writing course at Colorado State University.
CO300, Writing Arguments, focuses on having students critically read and write a variety of arguments, both for academic and nonacademic audiences. In the materials collected here, we lay out key features of the course that make it a part of the All-University Core Curriculum (AUCC). In addition, you will find a collection of various materials developed by teachers for their individual sections of CO300. The course continues to evolve in response to students' needs, so these materials represent approaches taken over the last several years. If you need to see how a specific teacher pulls together all the pieces that appear in different parts of our resource list below, please contact that teacher for a recent syllabus. And please, contribute to this resource. We want it to reflect the full range of creative approaches possible when teaching critical thinking and argument.
Like all our composition courses, CO300 has evolved over many years in response to student needs and program goals. Moreover, as part of the All-University Core Curriculum, the course must meet certain goals set by the University Curriculum Committee. We present here some general information about the course to help teachers new to it understand how it fits into our sequence of courses and how we try to set students' expectations for the work of the course.
When the University adopted its most recent core curriculum in the mid-1990s, CO300 was approved as meeting two core categories: 2A - Advanced Communication and 2B - Logic/Critical Thinking. Students cannot use CO300 to fulfill requirements in both categories, so about half of the students in the course now take the course to fulfill category 2B - Logic/Critical Thinking.
As a department, we have an obligation to be sure that each section of CO300 conforms to the description approved by the University Curriculum Committee. Links below capture key elements of the University core description of and expectations for CO300.
This course builds on the writing principles and processes practiced in CO150. CO300 focuses on reading and writing a range of arguments appropriate for academic and general audiences. This course offers students multiple opportunities to both read and analyze varieties of argumentation and to research, write, and revise their own arguments on controversial issues. Students will complete a carefully sequenced series of assignments that will include summarizing, synthesizing, evaluating, and crafting arguments, many of which will be based on library and field research.
The following specific learning objectives were also identified. Students in CO300 should be given multiple opportunities to
The course is divided into two main parts:
1. The first several weeks concentrate on critical reading of other writers' arguments. Most teachers work through two or more analytic approaches to help students with critical reading and thinking. The analytic approaches include close reading (with special emphasis on critical reading strategies), rhetorical analysis, structural analysis (often based on a Toulmin or modified-Toulmin model), or logical analysis (with emphasis on inductive and deductive models and other elements of informal logic).
Writing assignments in this first portion of the course typically include summaries, summary-response essays (with particular emphasis on analytic response), Toulmin analysis, or synthesis/exploratory essays (sometimes called inquiry essays following the terminology in Aims of Argument).
Depending on the number of assignments, the depth of the analysis, and the use of portfolios rather than individual assignments, this part of the course typically takes up 6-7 weeks of the term.
2. The second main chunk of the course focuses on having students write original arguments. Typically, teachers ask students to pick a single topic that can be shaped into multiple arguments for different target audiences. Teachers then look at the range of argumentative purposes - convincing, persuading, negotiating/mediating - and ask students to research their topic to write arguments for at least two distinctive rhetorical contexts.
Many teachers of the course feel strongly that students need a guided collaborative writing experience in this upper-division writing course. Variations have included some collaborative analytic work for the first chunk of the semester and full-scale collaborative projects on an original argument at the end of the semester. More details of these collaborative projects are collected in the "Writing Assignment Sheets" section.
Similarly, many teachers have added analysis of or original visual arguments into their syllabi. The jury is still out on whether the original visual arguments are well suited to our goals for this course. But analysis of visual arguments has been useful for extending students' critical thinking. Again, please find specific assignmentsin the "Writing Assignment Sheets" section.
CO300 appears to cover some of the same territory as CO150, but keep in mind that at least half the students in CO300 are transfer students who haven't taken our CO150. We outline below some other key features of the kinds of students we typically have seen in CO300 sections and of the relationship between the two courses.
As a group CO300 students surprisingly resemble CO150 students. We need to emphasize at the outset and reiterate throughout the semester how much work this course is; the students don't expect to do so much work in a core course. We need to teach our students how to conduct effective workshops. A full, or nearly full, class period devoted to discussing, modeling, and practicing workshops is well worth the time it takes from other activities. Moreover, those of us who optimistically believed our students would see the value of coming to class and volunteer to be there have needed to return to strong attendance policies. And we have all found ourselves spending much more time than we had planned on building critical reading skills at the beginning of the course.
On the other hand, CO300 students are typically further along in their majors than are CO150 students. Most of your students will be juniors or seniors. Consequently, we have found that when we capitalize on our students' knowledge by constructing assignments that ask them to explore topics in their disciplines, (some of) the students demonstrate in their essays the level of thoughtful and complex analysis and/or synthesis we only hope for in CO150.
After the freshman year, students also talk! Every class is, of course, different, but on the whole we think it safe to say that CO300 discussions are easier to get going, more fruitful, and often a pleasure to participate in. Enjoy! But a word of warning: while our students have consistently impressed us with their verbal skills, their writing skills have very often lagged behind. Therefore, we heartily recommend collecting a piece of writing immediately and spending a significant amount of time with critical reading skills early in the semester.
In the end, it isn't really that that the individual CO300 student is different in nature from the CO150 student; you may well recognize his or her good and bad habits and be pleasantly surprised at students' willingness to interact with each other and you. Rather, the greatest distinction between teaching the two classes seems to be a very real difference in the students as groups of writers: CO300 students bring with them an astounding diversity of writing abilities.
Two factors influence the variation in skill levels in CO300. First, the course is both an elective and a requirement. Consequently, we sometimes have very strong writers, who want to hone their skills with a class in argumentation. On the other hand, we also have students who have barely passed CO150 but who need this class to fulfill a core requirement. Second, we get lots of students with CO150 transfer credit but without the experience in a CSU composition class. As a result, instructors can't assume that all (or even half) of the students will be familiar with terms like focus, development, and coherence, much less be able to apply the terms in their writing; yet at the same time, some of the students will come into the class writing extremely well and eager to be challenged further.
Your most challenging task, therefore, may well be to make the class flexible enough to meet the needs of all your students. Critically important is making sure unprepared students have a chance to learn key concepts. At the same time, it is important that the well-prepared writers feel challenged. Fortunately, several elements in the current course description work toward flexibility: portfolio grading, the computer classroom, and the semester focus on argument that leaves lots of room to vary activities but gets students ready for more advanced writing.
The early emphasis in the sample syllabi on critical reading and thinking reflects the need to assess your students' analytical skills before they begin writing arguments. We suggest that significant amounts of time be devoted to finding and stating theses, to learning how to establish the rhetorical context of an argument, and to annotating texts. (Even well-prepared students are not necessarily active readers.) As mentioned above, it also seems to be true that, while CO300 students analyze and synthesize essays during discussions better than their counterparts in CO150, they aren't necessarily prepared to write strong summaries, syntheses, or responses. Getting them to accurately represent and synthesize other people's arguments in writing is a necessary prerequisite for writing arguments effectively, so don't grudge the time spent here.
Happily, CO300 is meant to be innovative. In the first place, this means that the Comp Faculty counts on you to adapt your section of CO300 to your particular students' needs. CO300's focus is indeed on building the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills necessary to write arguments well, and we are indeed obliged to give our students a wide acquaintance with a variety of argumentative strategies so they can choose the most effective ones to use in given writing contexts. However, precisely what you choose to teach in your section, and the amount of time you spend on various critical reading, writing, and thinking skills, should depend on the particular needs of your students. You are not required to use any particular sequence of activities, nor are you required to teach a particular argumentative strategy.
In the second place, innovation means that CO300 was sold to the university partly on its merit as a class that utilizes creative teaching strategies. Teaching in the computer classroom, mixing work at the computers with lots of small group activities, using portfolios to evaluate student progress are some of the innovations that make the class both challenging and a very fine experience for both student and instructor. While it is not mandatory that you do any of these things, they all come--of course--highly recommended.
Arranging the course around portfolios can also help you meet your students' divergent needs. One of the greatest benefits of a portfolio system is that it allows a student to draft and revise a paper several times over a long period before submitting it for evaluation. In other words, a student can set aside a paper, get some distance from it, (we hope) learn some pertinent skills, and return to it a better or more knowing writer/critic. Additionally, students can afford to take some risks with their papers, risks that are too great when a paper must be written and submitted in a short time. Students are more likely, for example, to experiment with different audiences, voices, types of appeal, or organization because they know they can get feedback on a new approach and either revise until it works or omit the paper from the final portfolio. We would like to think, anyway, that portfolios encourage creativity among all levels of writers. They certainly allow ambitious writers to explore a topic to their heart's content. If a student chooses to emphasize a single paper for several weeks, he or she can really get to know the intricacies of the issue and develop a well-considered argument.
There are, however, drawbacks to portfolio grading. If you'd like still more discussion of the pros and cons of using portfolios, Kate has additional rationales and bibliographis in her office. See also Randy Fetzer's "Portfolio Assessment: Is It Right for CSU's Comp Program?" available in Steve Reid's office. Most importantly, be warned that portfolio grading can be treacherously time-consuming (it doesn't have to be, however!). Choose a grading method that will work for you.
If you do choose to use portfolios, be sure that you plan to return students' first portfolio before the final day on which they can drop and still get a 'W.'
While again not mandatory, portfolio evaluation has been a part of CO300 from the beginning, and most instructors have so far organized their classes around portfolios, though their approaches vary significantly. Some instructors use portfolios throughout the term; some begin the term by evaluating individual papers, then move into a portfolio format; some begin by evaluating portfolios, then move into an individual essay format. Whether or not you choose to use portfolios, it will be helpful if all instructors continue to require between 20 and 25 pages of polished text from each student.
To give you some idea of how you might fashion a plan that suits your individual goals and tastes, we offer here an overview of several approaches.
Just a few comments about why we have enjoyed teaching this class:
Perhaps foremost, CO300 is rewarding because of its potential for connection with so many activities our students engage in. Spending so much time reading and writing arguments, our students truly have the opportunity to grow as critical readers, writers, and thinkers, growth which, obviously, will serve them as students in other courses, as citizens, as consumers, and as explorers of what it means to be human. Thus, the sheer "purposeful-ness" of the course material can make one feel he or she is involved in a very worthwhile project--and one that is often a great deal of fun!
Secondly, CO300 is a place where writers can grow by leaps and bounds. For some, this might just mean learning to draft and revise on-line--and thereby break through a long-standing writer's block; for others, it might mean learning to sustain a complex argument in writing because the writer has the time to be truly dedicated to an essay. Consistently, however, our students have commented that they can see their own growth as writers, even if they do also comment on how much work growth takes! And last, the very stuff of CO300 is fun to work with. Exploring issues in the aim of learning to read and write arguments well can result in illuminating juxtapositions of assigned reading, rewarding interactions with and among students, and crazy mini-activities which actually teach students to be more effective writers.
So we wish you lesson plans that work even better than you expected, inspiring discussions, dedicated students, and a bottomless pot of coffee to keep you going during stretches of grading.
We've organized sample materials into categories that sometimes overlap. Hence, you might see the same handout in more than one section, or you might want to check multiple sections for the handouts most helpful for you. Also, please note that wherever possible we've taken out extra spaces between prompts to save space on the screen. Download the files and adjust spacing (or edit in any other way you want to) to suit your students' needs.
Some of the materials have names to identify the authors. Unless otherwise noted, someone at CSU created all these materials, so give credit to the author if noted or the Writing Center Web site as your resource should you use the materials at another campus in the future.
Defining a rhetorical context is crucial to students' ability to write effective arguments. Some teachers believe this skill is so important that they establish matching purpose with audience as the baseline criterion for essays in the second portfolio: they simply refuse to read a piece if the rhetorical strategy chosen by a writer does not match the target audience. The idea here is that regardless of a piece's stylistic verve, impressive focus, organization, or development, it is not going to persuade its chosen audience if the writer has selected a rhetorical strategy inappropriate for that audience. Therefore, students need lots of practice in two areas: learning to see how other writers have written within specific rhetorical contexts and learning to match a given audience to a specific argumentative strategy.
To encourage students to think about the importance of audience, many instructors begin by asking students to analyze magazine ads or articles for their intended audiences. Marisa Harper's activity in this section is one good example of such an exercise. Even if you do not do this kind of activity until your students write their first research-based essay, you can begin teaching the importance of rhetorical context during the critical reading unit. Some of us have asked our students to analyze each of the essays they will summarize for rhetorical context, thereby encouraging students to see discrete arguments as parts of a larger and dynamic context. Giving your students essays with editorial headnotes makes this easier. Included is a set of questions about rhetorical context from Aims as well as Kate's handout on realm, a rhetorical analysis based on Bitzer's work.
Most of us ask our students to really get into audience analysis when it comes time to write that first essay whose purpose is to convince a particular audience about something. As you'll see, though, the example activities span the semester.
Something to keep in mind while planning critical reading/thinking activities is that while we do need to talk about informal logic as it applies to critical reading and writing, this isn't a course in formal logic. Therefore, most of the work we do on fallacies emerges through the discussion of readings, and the handouts included here are meant to be supplementary to the students' investigations into the essays they read. Also, refer students to the writing guide on Toulmin analysis; it's thorough, clear, and helpful.
S Taken together, critical thinking, reading, and writing are the tripartite soul of CO300. The materials in this section include
All experienced writing teachers know that focusing and narrowing topics is typically the most difficult task for college writers. CO300 students aren't an exception. Especially because students will choose to argue about general issues unless we direct them otherwise, be prepared to work closely with students to narrow the scope of their arguments.
The first handout details the process of focusing for students. The other handouts are exercises to help students focus topics for papers.
We have found that "mid-course corrections" are helpful for comp courses, so we recommend a short evaluation be given about the middle of the semester (shortly after the first portfolio is collected). These can help you adjust to your students' needs while there is still a significant amount of time left to implement new strategies, if necessary. The sample includes prompts teachers have found useful.
Having students complete group and self assessments after a collaborative project builds in accountability. We'd be happy to include additional prompts you've found useful.
Finally, although you'll give the composition final evaluation form, supplemental questions can also give you more specific feedback about CO300.
If you want to assign these kinds of writing tasks, you might consider handing out these explanations or ones that you create. Most of the material in the "notes on Toulmin" have been incorporated into the Writing Center module on Toulmin analysis.
Instructors use portfolios very differently. This section includes rationales and notes for using portfolio grading from Anne Gogela, Marisa Harper, Christina Holtcamp, and Kate Kiefer. You might also see Randy Fetzer's discussion (in Steve Reid's office) of Laura Thomas' portfolio system as it was used in CO300 during the Spring, 1995 term. Kate also has an article on using portfolios to enhance revision as well as a variety of bibliographies on portfolio evaluation.
Also included are sample explanation sheets instructors give to their students. It is important to explain your portfolio system clearly and give your students something tangible to refer to. Most instructors put a brief description of the submission requirements in their policy statements. Nevertheless, come submission time, you will probably be barraged with questions about what the portfolio should include. Some instructors reduce the questioning by providing students with checklists that let them know exactly what the portfolio should contain and ask the students to submit the checklist (checked off) with their portfolio.
Postscripts can be especially fruitful when using portfolios. Students have usually had a large amount of time to draft, workshop, and revise each piece they submit and usually have a pretty good idea of what the pieces do well and what they still need. Consequently, you can ask your students to consider their writing process in some depth and can ask them to direct your reading and commenting toward specific strengths and weaknesses in the portfolio as a whole.
Unfortunately, this section is mighty slim, partly because teachers often base their discussions and exercises of these concepts on copyrighted material that we cannot put on the Internet without official permission. (For instance, Kate has a great article that gives advice on questioning statistics and other kinds of evidence.) If you need to see examples of professional materials that lend themselves to discussion of these concepts, please refer to the CO300 paper manual. If you develop exercises or handouts on using evidence honorably and making it meaningful for the audience, please be sure to send a copy to Kate Kiefer for inclusion in these materials.
We include the pro/con activity because it gets students talking together so well and is especially effective in the computer classroom. Whether students work in small groups or as roving devil's advocates in the classroom, each writer can begin by generating as many pros and cons as he or she can think of, then moving to another person's paper or computer screen and adding to what they see there. Although we don't include an example, you might have a third column for rebuttals.
Be aware that, from our experience, CO300 students do not seem to be terribly much more sophisticated than first-year writing students in discussing the problems of "hard facts." Examples of the abuse of statistics and of statistics used correctly but without relation to an author's claim help evaluate the evidence they see in others' arguments and select better evidence for their own arguments.
We include some pieces here on the effect of inductive or deductive logic on one's audience. Inductive reasoning is the process of reasoning from specific examples to a general conclusion, and an essay can be organized this way--usually by leaving the main claim to the end of the paper. Deductive reasoning is the process of reasoning from general statements to a specific conclusion. An essay that puts its main claim in the beginning may be deductively organized as a whole. However, most longer essays include both inductive and deductive reasoning on the part of the writer and sub-sections of the paper that are likewise organized from specific to general or general to specific. We have included a short explanation of inductive and deductive organization and one exercise from recent instructors.
Don't forget the revision checklists in Aims. We include here only more general prompts for revising. Other revision activities are included in the Workshop Sheets sub-section.
Included here are the assignment sheets for most of the major writing tasks assigned by instructors in recent semesters. We include multiple samples for each essay so you can choose from a variety of prompts.
Several instructors did not assign specific essays during the second half of the term. Rather, they introduced general rhetorical strategies in a series of short activities and then had their students define their own assignments by identifying the rhetorical context within which they wished to write and choosing the most appropriate argumentative strategy for that context.
Just a note of comfort: having taught synthesis/response and the problem-solving essay before, you are already well acquainted with the problems most of your students will face in the CO300 essays. On the other hand, we would like to push the students beyond 100-level writing. In the exploratory essay (the CO300 version of synthesis/response) this might mean, as Laura Thomas put it, "getting students to make the individual texts to disappear." That is, rather than asking students to represent discrete arguments in oppositional relation to each other, instead asking students to represent the complexity of the relations among different perspectives. One possible means of achieving this complexity is to ask students to consider the rhetorical context of the essays they are synthesizing and to explain how the apparent differences in perspectives might be related to the different purposes and audiences each author had in mind.
And a self-indulgent note about the persuasive essay, should you choose to assign it. As Aims defines this essay, students are asked to appeal not only to reason (a typical expectation in the academic community) but also to character, style, and emotion (rather atypical in our world). Because all appeals can be so effective in motivating people to action--toward both worthy and unworthy ends--I suggest that the weeks leading up to the persuasion essay offer a likely spot in the syllabus to talk about the ethics of argumentation, should this topic interest you. During the spring 1995 term, for example, I spent one well-received class period on the ethical nature of persuasion. Having read about audience appeals in Aims, the students and I watched a series of video clips from Branagh's Henry V, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Eleanor Roosevelt's appeal to the United Nations, and one of Hitler's many vacuous presentations. After each clip, the students considered the appeals the speaker used, why those appeals were effective for his or her audience, and what end the speaker wished to achieve through his or her persuasion. Thus, without positioning myself as a morality cop, the students started thinking about how their own essays fit into larger ethical systems.
The materials under Workshopping Generally help students see why they need to take peer-review sessions seriously. McMahon's handout also notes some points of etiquette for peer review. We also include multiple workshop sheet samples for each essay we typically assign so you can choose from a variety of revision prompts. Under portfolio 1, you'll find samples for Toulmin analysis, summary, summary/response, synthesis/response, and the exploratory essay. Under portfolio 2, you'll find annotated bibliography, convincing, persuading, and pro/con assignments. Under portfolio 3, you'll find mediating/ negotiating and analysis assignments. The general sheets can be adapted for various assignments at different points in the term. As always, tailor your workshop sheets to emphasize the criteria you've presented as most important for the papers you assign. Be aware that some of the workshop sheets are designed for early drafts and some are for final drafts.
Bronwyn Becker, Mark Bruce, Kerri Conrad, Molly Costello, Anne Gogela, Marisa Harper, Christina Holtcamp, Kate Kiefer, Donna LeCourt, Seanne McMahon, Dan Melzer, Lauren Myracle, Laura Thomas, & Bob White. (2018). Teaching Intermediate Composition: Writing Arguments. The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/resources/teaching/guides/composition-argument/. Originally developed for Writing@CSU (https://writing.colostate.edu). [Authorship is alphabetical.]