Supporting undergraduate students’ acquisition of academic argumentation strategies through computer conferencing

Hewings, Ann; Coffin, Caroline and North, Sarah (2007). Supporting undergraduate students’ acquisition of academic argumentation strategies through computer conferencing. Higher Education Academy, UK.



Executive Summary
This research grows out of work on the importance of argumentation in developingstudents’ critical abilities. It focuses attention on how students argue in computer mediated conferences as opposed to traditionalwritten assignments, investigating the way in which argumentation is realised within the relatively new context of
computer conferencing which allows extended written discussions to take place overa period of weeks. Such text-based asynchronous conferencing is typically
characterised by features of both spoken and written modes.

The main aims of the project were:
• to investigate the argumentation strategies used in asynchronous text-based computer conferences;
• to compare the argumentation strategies developed through conferencing with those used in the writing of academic assignments;
• to examine the strategies used by tutors to encourage and facilitate argumentation in text-based computer conferences.

Data was collected over two years for the distance undergraduate course ‘Perspectives on Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ at the Open University.Qualitative data was obtained through interviews with the course chair, tutors and students, and through a student questionnaire. Assignments and computer-mediated
tutorials were collected for textual analysis, although the timing of the assignments meant that analysis has only just begun on the essay data. To analyse the argumentation in the computer conferences and assignments a method of
categorising, coding and tracking argumentative discourse was developed building on earlier work by the authors. In addition, computational searches were carried out to compare linguistic features across conference and assignment data.

In tutorial conferences, student discussion tended to take the form of collaborative co-construction of an argument through exchanging information and experience to
substantiate a position. However, students were also prepared to challenge other viewpoints. In both cases, they frequently drew on personal and professional
experience to support argument claims. The use of these strategies suggests that text-based conferencing lends itself to the collective combining of diverse sources of
information, experiences and ideas.
Conference discussions were often personalised with fewer explicit logical links marking argument structure. They were also marked by complexity of argument strands, many of which reached no conclusion. Preliminary analysis of argumentation in assignments suggests that this did not, however, adversely affect students’ ability to create a more traditional, linear argument in their essays. Further analysis will be undertaken to compare argumentation strategies across the two sets of data. Tutors expressed concern about levels of participation in the tutorial conferences, which varied quite considerably. They also felt uncertain about their own knowledge of appropriate pedagogic strategies which would encourage students to participate in a collaborative yet critical way, and tended to rely on strategies from face-to-face teaching. Analysis of the conference discussion showed that tutors made fewer claims than students and were also less likely to provide information in support of their claims. There was, therefore, little modelling by tutors of the basic type of argumentation that would be expected in formal written assignments.Despite these concerns, student responses indicated that having a tutor and a group
of peers to interact with, or just to observe, was valued as a supportive feature of this form of distance learning. No clear picture arose of how to make conferencing more
interactive for more students, and this reinforces the sense gained from the tutor interviews of the difficulty of proposing a model of tutoring in computer conferences
that will necessarily engage all students or raise the level of discussion and debate.

Our study suggests that text-based conferencing has an important role to play in developing students’ argumentation strategies and understanding of academic
discourse and conventions. In view of its hybrid nature, somewhere between spontaneous speech and formal academic writing, course designers and tutors should aim to take advantage of both aspects – on the one hand, the informal
dialogic exchange of opinions and co-construction of knowledge, and on the other,the opportunity for consolidation, reflection and re-positioning.
Our findings reinforce the view that students’ willingness to exchange ideas freely and openly is partly a consequence of how personally engaged, at ease and
confident students feel with one another and their tutor. In particular, it seems that there is a role for the interpersonal and, to some extent, the chat and the frivolity, which in some other studies discussed in the literature review have been regarded as negative influences.

To facilitate students’ development of argumentation and learning more generally,tutors need greater awareness of the ways in which academic argumentation operates in computer conferencing as compared to written assignments. Since pedagogic strategies developed in other contexts may not transfer well to computer conferencing, there is a need for targeted professional development, focussing in
particular on:
• Choosing topics for discussion and designing effective task prompts;
• Supporting weaker students;
• Encouraging challenging of ideas;
• Finding the right tone to facilitate peer discussions.
Some specific suggestions are made within the report, but our recommendations at this stage remain tentative as we still have to complete the analysis of the assignment data and draw conclusions about the impact of the computer
conferencing on the quality of written argumentation within this more formal context.

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