“Argument mapping is about twice as effective at improving student critical thinking as other methods,” writes Jonathan Surovell (Texas State University). However, “there are obstacles preventing philosophy teachers from adopting it.”
In the following guest post, Dr. Surovell discusses argument mapping and its benefits, and introduces us a new app for teaching and learning it, Argumentation.io, that is user-friendly and meets accessibility standards.
An Accessible and User-Friendly
Argument Mapping App
by Jonathan Surovell
The more we learn about teaching argument mapping (sometimes known as argument diagramming or argument visualization), the more remarkable its benefits to students seem to be. Unfortunately, there are obstacles preventing philosophy teachers from adopting it. One of these obstacles is that, up until now, it’s been virtually impossible to teach argument mapping consistently with university accessibility standards. Over the past couple of years, my team and I have developed a new web-based app, Argumentation.io, that, we believe, will solve this problem while making argument mapping more intuitive and effective for all students. We’ll soon bundle the app with other materials that will make it easier for instructors to start teaching a fully accessible argument mapping course.
An argument map is a diagrammatic representation of an argument in which statements go in boxes and logical relationships are conveyed by the shapes and colors of these boxes and lines connecting them. Argument maps allow for the simultaneous presentation of reasons for and objections to a given claim, and so can perspicaciously convey multiple sides of an issue. Here’s an example:
Argument mapping is often taught in introductory philosophy courses that include a critical thinking component. I use it for the first five or six weeks of my “Philosophy and Critical Thinking” and “Ethics and Society” courses at Texas State University. My students and I then map the philosophical articles we spend the rest of the semester reading. Argument mapping is also taught in pure critical thinking courses and in various courses outside of philosophy.
Argument mapping is about twice as effective at improving student critical thinking as other methods:
|Course Type||Size of effect on critical thinking (standard deviations)|
|A year of college with the courses unspecified||0.16 over the course of a year|
|A semester of college with a mixed philosophy and critical thinking course||0.38|
|A semester of college with an argument mapping course||0.7–0.71|
Its effect is statistically “large,” whereas other teaching methods’ effects are “small” to just barely “moderate.”
Eftekhari and colleages (2016) found that courses that use a computer-based argument mapping app are more effective than those in which students map with pencil and paper. Dwyer and colleagues (2012) found that argument mapping retains its efficacy in online courses.
Argument mapping courses may also lead to:
- “[M]ore deliberate and fair-minded approaches to understanding” contentious issues and interpersonal challenges,
- Better essay writing (see here and here),
- Better scientific reasoning,
- Better mathematical reasoning, and
- Better recall of course content.
Why is argument mapping so effective? Some hypotheses:
- It involves dual visual-propositional modalities, which frees up memory for understanding logical relationships.
- The use of Gestalt grouping principles improves understanding and processing.
- Hierarchical ordering helps content enter into, and stay in, memory.
- Argument mapping is particularly amenable to scaffolding–typically, students learn one aspect of mapping at a time, starting with reasons and objections, followed by (not necessarily in this order) co-premises, independent arguments, sub-contentions (intermediate conclusions), and inference arguments.
Despite these impressive benefits, argument mapping isn’t widely used in higher education. Why? Presumably, lack of awareness plays a role.
There are two other likely factors. One is accessibility. Most colleges and universities require their courses to be accessible to students with disabilities. In fact, Section 508 of the American Rehabilitation Act legally requires most universities to make their courses accessible. But because argument maps are diagrammatic, and not purely text-based, a blind person can’t create an argument in a word processor (or with a pencil and paper), nor are existing argument mapping apps accessible to the blind.
Argumentation.io solves this problem. All the functions in our app are screen reader and key command compatible—even drag and drop editing. Instructors can use the app as their standard argument mapping app, for purposes of instruction and demonstration, without worrying about violating a student’s civil rights.
Another novel feature of Argumentation.io is its use of inference boxes: whenever a user adds a reason or objection to their map, a box representing the inference is automatically placed between the reason/objection and the claim it supports/opposes. In this map, box 2.1 is the inference box:
The inference box helps students learn about inference by providing a more intuitive representation of inferences and arguments for or against them. Conceptually, an inference is a connection between premises and a conclusion; an objection to an inference is an objection to a connection between premises and a conclusion. And in Argumentation.io, this is also what inferences and inference objections are spatially and diagrammatically. Here’s an example from Rachels’ “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”:
Another advantage of the inference box is that it increases the user’s ability to edit their maps: they can drag and drop onto the inference box to turn an argument for or against an inference and they can drag and drop onto (the top of) a group box to turn a claim into a co-premise.
Finally, we’ve made Argumentation.io as simple, user-friendly, and self-explanatory as possible. We’ve kept the buttons on the main control panel to what’s essential for argument mapping and have given the buttons self-explanatory, color-coded icons:
As a busy teacher, I know how important it is to minimize my students’ technological difficulties. It keeps them happier and more focused on course content and it reduces the time I spend explaining technology and answering questions about it. I used Argumentation.io for my Spring 2023 courses and had my lowest rate of student technological problems since I started teaching argument mapping.
At present, the app has the core features that are essential to teaching argument mapping. We’ll keep adding new features over time.
In the coming weeks, we’ll release a six-chapter argument mapping textbook (co-written by myself and Zachary Poston), a teaching quickstart guide on all aspects of teaching argument mapping accessibly, and PowerPoint slides. We’ll bundle the textbook with the app. Together, these materials will help instructors set up and run a fully accessible argument mapping course.
Users can create maps in our app for free. We also offer subscriptions, which give users the options to save their maps in Argumentation.io, share them through links, or use the save as pdf or png functions. A subscription will also give the user access to the textbook, once we release it. An individual subscription costs $5 per month or $25 for six months. Universities and colleges can sign up for institutional subscriptions. These give everyone at the institution a subscription.
Promotion Code and Contact
Daily Nous readers can enjoy a free one-month subscription to Argumentation.io. To do so, create an account by clicking the Main Menu button (the button in the upper left-hand corner with the three horizontal lines), then clicking Login, then entering your email and password, then clicking ‘Create New Account.’ Once you’re logged in, open the main menu again, select Subscribe, select Monthly, and use the promotion code ARG1 at checkout. Instructors who use Argumentation.io for their courses can continue to subscribe for free.
If you’d like to learn more about Argumentation.io or how to incorporate argument mapping into your course, I’d be happy to talk with you about it, over email or in Zoom. You can reach me at [email protected].