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Claims and the Research Essay

posted: 10.31.14 by Donna Winchell

A significant part of many argumentation courses is the research essay. We teach our students how to find and evaluate sources and how to use them to support a claim. When a substantial amount of time is spent on the research unit, a sequence of assignments based on the same body of research provides a way to use course time more efficiently and reinforces the differences among the different types of claims taught when using the Toulmin Model.

While students are researching a controversial subject, they can do an essay based on a claim of fact before they take on the more difficult task of supporting a claim of value or policy. That initial assignment is useful as well because it forces them to consider what the facts of the case are. Students, like the rest of us, are tempted to attend in their research only to those sources that support opinions they already hold. Writing a claim of fact paper on their subject won’t solve that problem entirely, but it will emphasize the difference between fact and opinion. A claim of fact essay might establish that a problem exists, what the results of past attempts at change have been, or how much change has occurred over time–for example, it might explore the side effects of a drug, the legal status of same-sex marriage in the U. S., the number of school shootings and the increase over time, or the effects of immunizing our children against childhood diseases—or not.

The next step in the sequence could  have the students take a stand, using the same body of research to support a claim of value or a claim of policy on their subject. They may even use portions of their previous essay for support. Practically speaking, having a second essay based on their sources also gives them a second chance to practice incorporating sources correctly. Students don’t learn as much from one large research paper returned on the last day of class or on final exam day as they do if they have two chances to get the documentation right.

A third assignment answers more directly the question of what can or should be done about a problem situation. I have even made this my final exam because by that time conscientious students have become pretty knowledgeable about their subjects. I ask them to write a letter to a person in a position to do something about the problem. I have to explain that this time they will not be using parenthetical documentation; any supporting information they provide will have to be incorporated into their own text.

To make this sequence work, I ask my students to speculate when they propose their topic how they will do these three assignments on that topic. That steers them away from topics that are not controversial in the sense that there is nothing to be done to change what occurred in the past: “Clinton should not have . . . .” They may revise their plan as necessary, but they are discouraged from tackling a subject that just won’t work and that will not lead to good writing.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Donna Winchell
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