What makes evaluating evidence and arguments hard?

April 5, 2016

What makes evaluating evidence and arguments hard?

We expect students to write cogent and compelling arguments and use strong evidence when they write class papers. When faculty describe critical thinking skills, they often identify two learning outcomes. Students should evaluate the quality of evidence. Students should support assertions and conclusions with credible evidence.

How do students learn these skills? Academics often expect students to acquire argumentation skills as a natural consequence of exposure to scholarly writing assigned in courses (von der Mühlen, et al., 2016). Students might not receive formal instruction about how to construct or evaluate an argument. Without direct guidance, students struggle to evaluate arguments when they read. And they struggle to build an evidence-based argument when they write.

Students use different strategies when they evaluate arguments than experts use (von der Mühlen, et al., 2016). Students tend to make assertion-based judgments about arguments. They compare information to their knowledge and beliefs and evaluate the credibility of the information based on intuition and opinion. In contrast, experts tend to make argument-based judgments. Experts create complex representations of arguments that use all the components of the argument (premise, conclusion, alternate explanations). They evaluate the internal consistency of the argument. They evaluate the relevance and credibility of the evidence an author presents in support of the premise, conclusion, and alternate explanations.

Students who receive formal instruction in argumentation might improve both as consumers of scholarly arguments and in their ability to craft an argument in a paper. Students need to understand that the credibility of an argument depends on three criteria (Voss & Means, 1991):

  1. Veracity: What is the credibility of the claim and the supporting evidence?
  2. Coherence: How well do the components of the argument relate to each other? Are the premise, supporting evidence, and conclusion logically consistent?
  3. Completeness: Have all relevant aspects of the topic been considered? Does the argument adequately consider alternate explanations and evidence related to these explanations, including rebuttals, counter-arguments, and the evidence relevant to the credibility of these explanations?

Consider designing learning activities that will allow students to practice and receive feedback on specific argumentation skills:

  • Identify strong and weak strategies for creating arguments.
  • Identify common logical fallacies used in weak arguments.
  • Evaluate the quality of evidence provided in support of a claim (or counter-claim); determine what “counts” as credible evidence.
  • Generate and evaluate counter-arguments and rebuttals to ensure that all relevant explanations have been considered.
  • Articulate why the evidence presented supports a particular conclusion.
  • Evaluate the internal consistency of argument components (premises, conclusions, supporting evidence, alternative explanations).


von der Mühlen, S., Richter, T., Schmid, S., Schmidt, E., & Berthold, K. (2016). Judging the plausibility of arguments in scientific texts: a student–scientist comparison. Thinking & Reasoning, 22, 221-249. DOI: 10.1080/13546783.2015.1127289

Voss, J. F., & Means, M. L. (1991). Learning to reason via instruction in argumentation. Learning and Instruction, 1, 337-350.

04/12/2016 gb