Students in environmental science class

If you don't watch out, everything becomes a worksheet, and you don't want that. You want it to be a tool that they can use in the future to think about how to develop an argument.

Susan Nolen

Learning how to use evidence in making an argument is a critical skill for students to build, yet difficulties frequently arise when discipline-based learning goals conflict with schooling tasks.

University of Washington College of Education researchers took on that challenge by partnering with teachers of a project-based AP Environmental Science course to develop and revise design principles for creating "material tools" that can adequately scaffold disciplinary practice and support formative assessment, while also helping students' create better arguments.

"When you're doing project-based work, students are doing a lot of work in small groups or independently, and the teacher is having to divide their time among all of those different groups," said Professor Susan Nolen, who presented the research team's findings during the American Educational Research Association's 2018 meeting. "It's really difficult for the teacher to monitor the kinds of thinking and problem-solving that students are doing."

As the team designed the material tools, tried them out students and then redesigned them, Nolen said it became apparent that primary focus needed to be on the argument itself and the criteria for evaluating its effectiveness.

The team's initial attempt at an argument tool was aimed at supporting the use of the environmental science framework "three lenses of sustainability" and the practice of citing sources of evidence for claims. The tool was to serve as a shared artifact that scaffolded the use of these strategies and captured thinking so that teachers and students could hold groups accountable to disciplinary norms. Yet it actually shifted activity away from argumentation and the three lenses became buckets to fill rather than elements of sound sustainability arguments, while relationships among those buckets were left unexamined.

The team redesigned the tool to better situate it in developing actual arguments and to provide a framework for argument analysis and critique, thus providing the means for students and teacher to formatively assess arguments' quality while they were still in development. By specifically supporting argument development and analysis, the revised tool mediated the activity of students and teacher in ways that supported more disciplinary engagement and, ultimately, better argumentation.

"Teachers and students are used to having worksheets that are products you hand in and get graded, then they're given back, and they are ends in themselves," Nolen said. "So then doing the worksheet becomes filling out the worksheet, and students kind of disengage their thinking gears and it's not associated with this activity you're trying to do of crafting an argument and having a debate.

"If you don't watch out, everything becomes a worksheet, and you don't want that. You want it to be a tool that they can use in the future to think about how to develop an argument."

The research was conducted as part of the UW's Knowledge in Action project, which is focused on designing, implementing and conducting research on project-based learning courses that achieve the standards of traditional Advanced Placement courses and add value for learning, engagement and identity for diverse groups of students.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications