Improving Argumentative Writing without Dramatically Changing Course Structures

Resource Title:
Active Learning - Lisa Young (Anthrarc)
Course Type:
Faculty Name Lisa Young
Course Archaeology 285
  • Scaffolded Writing Assignments
  • Media Texts
  • Active Discussion Techniques


Looking for ways to stay engaged after teaching the same course for ten years, Lisa Young added active learning techniques gradually to reinvigorate material and enhance the teaching of critical thinking and analysis without drastically changing the structure of the course in any one term.

Active Learning in the Course

Concerned with how students were recognizing and implementing argumentation and evidence in their reading and writing, the class was reorganized to center around article critiques. Lectures, assignment prompts, and feedback were all presented from the viewpoint of a single rubric, so students became comfortable recognizing, restating, and eventually making their own complex arguments. Over time, lectures became almost “flipped” in that students would watch a video together in class, and then through discussion, generate consensus around the claim, argument structure, and use of evidence in each case.

Thumbnail of assignment

Challenges and Solutions

Although students were more engaged in lecture working together to dissect the video clips, Young still finds it difficult to engage everyone evenly across the large course. By being explicit about the pedagogical benefits of being engaged, including presenting research on the impact of active learning, she is finding that more students participate. She actively works to create an environment in which students can feel comfortable contributing to the discussion, even if they are not “correct,” while still presenting a cohesive takeaway for each lecture. This requires balancing discussing student answers in real-time in class, but still leaving time to summarize and restate at the end of each session.

Changes in Instruction

When considering changing a class that has been taught for many years, it can seem daunting to “undo” all those years of work. Young stresses that active learning can be implemented incrementally: changing assignments, lectures, examples, rubrics, and other class elements individually rather than investing massive amounts of time to overhaul an entire course at once. Each change positively impacts student learning, so students are continually benefiting even if the course design still has room to improve.

Benefits for Students

Students demonstrate a marked improvement from the first article critique to the last (fourth) critique that they complete, proving that the skills can be taught and reinforced. Young also sees the students improving their communication skills overall, taking the knowledge they’ve built in her class to present nuanced critiques of arguments and claims that circulate outside the classroom.