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IES Grant

Title: Exploring and Assessing the Development of Students' Argumentation Skills
Center: NCER Year: 2019
Principal Investigator: Song, Yi Awardee: Educational Testing Service (ETS)
Program: Reading and Writing      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 Years (08/01/2019 - 07/30/2023) Award Amount: $1,399,578
Goal: Exploration Award Number: R305A190242

Co-Principal Investigators: Ferretti, Ralph; Sabatini, John

Purpose: This project will identify the malleable factors that predict the development of middle-school students' argumentative writing skills by exploring the students' abilities to generate oral and written arguments. Understanding and writing arguments is an important but difficult skill to acquire. However, research suggests that well-structured interactions, such as guided critical discussions, can help middle-grade students develop these skills, but it is not clear which student and instructional factors are most predictive of strong oral and written argument skills. This study will identify these malleable factors to help refine a theory of change that can lead to the development of better interventions.

Project Activities: The researchers will conduct a series of lab-based and classroom-based studies to see how different approaches interact with students' oral and written arguments. They will use an online, collaborative environment to present students with different discussion formats and different approaches to bridging from oral to written arguments. Results from these studies will lead to an improved model of argumentation and instruction.

Products: The products include peer-reviewed publications, an improved theoretical model of the malleable factors that influence argumentative writing skills, and workshops and presentations for practitioner audiences.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The research will take place in a large school district in Delaware.

Sample: Approximately 1000 sixth- to eighth-grade students from diverse schools will participate in the studies. The sample may include mainstreamed English learners or special needs students. The researchers will also collect data from about 40 to 45 middle school teachers.

Malleable Factors: By middle school, most students can identify different opinions and predict others' positions. However, they may struggle with choosing the most relevant evidence or explaining how it supports their position. By fostering critical discussions, teachers can help students practice these skills. Critical discussions are a particular form of argumentation that encourage students to use and explain their reasoning through guided conversations with same-side and opposing-side peers. In these conversations, students aim to resolve differences of opinion. This focus may help students develop more complex communication and reasoning skills that integrate social, conceptual, and discourse skills.

Research Design and Methods: In the first round of studies, the researchers will conduct a series of cognitive lab studies. These iterative studies will use technology-facilitated, small group critical discussions to identify logistical issues that may impact feasibility and practicality of the overall approach in more natural settings. The researchers will also use the results of these studies to identify the discourse features of students' oral and written arguments that are aligned with effective argumentative writing skills. In the second round of studies, they will explore how different critical discussion and discourse manipulations impact malleable factors of both oral and written argumentation skills. In the third and final round of studies, they will focus on whether different manipulations help students transition from quality discussions to improved written arguments. These studies will help identify how different sets of scaffolds support different students. In addition to gathering data from students, the researchers will collect information from teachers regarding the challenges and benefits of administering critical discussions and of other strategies that may help improve students' argumentative oral and written skills.

Control Condition: The researchers will use various control and comparison groups when testing their manipulations depending on the study. For example, one group may get a goal manipulation, and another may get no manipulation (control) or a contrasting manipulation (such as focusing on wining the debate vs. resolving differences of opinions).

Key Measures: Key measures include critical discussion transcripts, LP tasks, culminating essay from the critical discussion, and scenario-based assessments (including multiple-choice items, short responses, and essays).

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will use various analytic approaches including descriptive statistics of transcribed discussions and written documents and repeated measure, between factors Analysis of Variance models, to compare different manipulations.