By Teachers, For Teachers
When teachers use teaching strategies that incorporate evidence in argumentative writing or speeches, they are talking specifically about using one of two things:
These definitely make for quality evidence in many instances; however, we do not want to overlook all of the different types of evidences in our teaching strategies that an argument could be supported by. Ultimately, students ought to be able to support an argument they make with a wide range of appropriate evidence that illustrates and supports their main idea. Are you giving them the tools for the job within your teaching strategies?
Broadly speaking, there are three main types of evidence utilized to support claims:
Instructors might focus on one of these areas. Doing so will doubtlessly help students support claims, but perhaps not in a way that is as effective or dynamic as it could be. Let’s examine each of these a little further and consider how we might obtain a stronger understand ourselves of how these can be utilized, then how we can pass on this in a meaningful way to our students.
When we’re talking about this type of evidence, we’re usually referring to some hard number or irrefutable fact. It’s difficult to argue with numbers, and including some numerical value as a piece of evidence to support a claim can be rather convincing in the right context. For example, you might claim that texting while driving is dangerous, but numerical evidence such as “The National Safety Council reports that 26 percent of all traffic deaths in 2014 were caused by distracted driving,” helps to support that claim.
Drawbacks: Using facts and stats is a rather cold, birds-eye view of a situation. They are impersonal by nature, and while numbers can be concrete and shocking, they can also feel a little distant from the specific topic being addressed.
Expert opinion is not facts; it’s opinion. But since it’s an opinion coming from an expert, it carries a little more weight than just anyone’s opinion. So who is an expert? An expert is anyone with personal experience or extensive education in a given field. Preferably an expert possesses both experience and education. When discussing a claim, a writer’s viewpoint might not be enough, but the writer can appeal to an expert with appropriate credentials whose perspective would be more convincing.
Drawbacks: When using expert opinion, writers need to be careful of a few pitfalls. First, they must remember that it is only opinion and not irrefutable fact. It is reasonable to assume that somewhere there is an equally qualified expert in the field providing a dissenting opinion, too. Also, this is easily misapplied by writers: Just because someone is famous doesn’t make them an expert on the topic you’re discussing. For example, Albert Einstein is not an expert on religion, horseracing, or pasta sauce; he is a physicist, and his views are most valuable when applicable to that domain. My grandma, on the other hand, has been making her own pasta sauce for 80 years … she is definitely qualified as having expert experience on the subject.
Finally, one easily overlooked type of evidence is the use of examples to illustrate a claim. Examples can come in the form of stories, historical examples, hypothetical situations, documents, laws, science, news stories, physical details, personal experiences, and so on. You might support a claim that texting and driving is dangerous not because some research council says so, but because “I got into an accident last year when I checked my phone while driving and ran off the road into a stop sign.” A claim is true not because there is a fact, number, or expert to say so, but because someone somewhere has lived it. Stories and illustrations add a valuable, personal element to arguments that brings in an easy-to-connect-to human and emotional tone.
Drawbacks: While numbers can be too broad, stories can be too narrow. Sure, something may very well have happened to you personally, but that doesn’t make it a universal truth that supports your claim. Writers must be mindful that examples by themselves provide powerful but limited illustrations of the truth of their claim.
After giving students a firm understanding of the types of evidence at their disposal for supporting claims, it’s important to continually practice identifying and utilizing that evidence. Don’t limit students to using only particular types of evidence that you deem as “More effective” – the effectiveness of evidence depends on the style, content, audience, context, and topic of a giving argument.
It is far more important to help students play with the range of evidence at their disposal and critically think through what evidence might be more effective than others within the context of any given argument than to define for students outright what should or shouldn’t be used.
Here are four ideas you can use to help students continually reinforce their understanding of how evidence can be used.
Just because you’re focusing on quality evidence with your students doesn’t mean that evidence alone makes a quality piece of argumentation. Remind your students that even though some evidence might have self-evident meaning, evidence never speaks for itself. Good evidence always requires combination with quality logic and explanation to fully be effective. When discussing argumentation, make sure that a focus on evidence does not upstage other ingredients of powerful rhetoric, including discussion of logic, style, and structure.
Additionally, because our evidence often comes from other sources, discussion of evidence is a prime opportunity to talk about the importance of citation. If students are citing an expert opinion, they should be able to identify to readers when or where that opinion was published. If citing statistics, they should be able to discuss what research those numbers come from. Doing so adds essential credibility and avoids the pitfall of making such information look “Made up.”
Finally, since you’re talking to students about how the quality of evidence matters, make sure to include consideration of how others’ evidence can be questioned as well. Just because someone throws in an expert opinion or inspiring statistic doesn’t mean the claim is valid. Here are some questions you can have students ask about others’ evidence (and their own):
When was this research conducted?
Was the research conducted in a way that we can trust the results?
Is there more recent/reliable information that contradicts these findings?
Does the person/institution publishing this data have any discernable bias?
The incorporation of evidence requires more than just an automatic “Copy and paste this quote” into an argument. We must instruct students that to support a claim, they must employ critical thinking to incorporate the strongest variety of evidence possible. They must also consider the effectiveness or limitations of the evidence presented to them in others’ argumentation.
Are there other forms of evidence you would consider including in this list? How do you help your students effectively incorporate evidence in their arguments? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.