Encouraging Students to Engage in Argument With Evidence by Michelle Monk

When I first began to shift my curriculum to support the Next Generation Science Standards, I was a bit overwhelmed! And frankly, I am still overwhelmed on some days when I work with my students to support their productive struggle and allow them to “figure things out!” I used to hear requests from my students like “It would be so much easier if you would just tell us the answers!” or “Would you please just lecture to us?” They quickly learned that the answer to both of those requests was “You will gain so much more if you work to figure it out!” We (my students and me) all know now that the shift to incorporate the science practices as identified by the NGSS into our classroom has transformed our teaching and learning space.

One of the practices I initially struggled to include was arguing from evidence. What exactly does that mean? How do you get students to productively argue their findings? How do I ensure that all students are learning and sharing their ideas?

In my opinion, the practice of arguing from evidence simply means that students must use evidence (data) found in their experiments, a video, an article, or another learning activity to support a scientific claim through reasoning. In my classroom, students develop the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) framework after much discussion with a partner, then a group, then a whole class.

I never really felt successful leading a classroom discussion using evidence until I was introduced to the process of “productive talk” to support the learning and ideas developed by students. Productive talk uses leading questions to allow students to show what they understand about a concept. After I was introduced to the idea of Productive Science Talk through the Talk Activities Flow Chart and Talk Moves while participating in an IMSP I-STEM initiative created to fully investigate and support the shift to the NGSS in Illinois, I became much more confident. This program was funded by a Math and Science Partnership (MSP) grant in Illinois from July 2015-July 2017. Our facilitator, Nicole Vick, introduced us to these tools, and they provided the support I needed to determine which talking strategy to use in class activities. I determine my end goal and purpose within the lesson, and I match the activity to the strategy that will best support the learning objective. I try to use multiple strategies to support the students’ discussions and learning styles.

When students start talking, they start learning! I have seen a dramatic increase in learning and retention now that I have incorporated productive science talk and talk moves into our learning activities.

In the beginning of the year, I must scaffold the learning activities so that the data to support the claim are easy to identify. I routinely remind my students that their claim must be supported by sufficient and applicable evidence as they work to figure out the lesson.

We work hard in the beginning of the year to develop this skill in small groups. My go-to talk move to encourage students to find the appropriate information and share is “Time to think” followed by “Partner talk.” I use this to allow students to first develop their ideas solo, then with one other person, then discuss them with their group of four. I tell the students to talk with one of “their people.”

The next steps in the discussion are organic. You will “feel” the right time to move on to table discussions, and finally, a class discussion. Developing this practice as a team is essential to ensure students are confident going forward. As I move around the classroom, I hear students asking one another which pieces of data would best support their ideas. If it seems that a student is on the cusp of the right idea, I will ask them to explain themselves, and I will use another talk move, “Say more,” in which I ask them to expand on their idea. Often when prompted, the students will figure out the right information.

We routinely use a claim, evidence, reasoning pattern to ensure students have their ideas ready to present before a class discussion ensues. After students have reached consensus within their table groups, we hold classroom discussions. Students are more motivated to share their ideas if they are confident in their responses.

When I first tried this, I was most worried about buy-in and participation from my reluctant learners. I also worried about meeting the needs of my special-needs students while challenging the highest-achieving members of the classroom! I wondered how in the world could arguing from evidence support all learners.

To ensure participation by and support for everyone, we establish classroom norms during the first week of school. I have students participate in two or three learning activities before we take a break from biological concepts and figure out how to best learn in this way. To have a productive discussion before developing group norms, I have each student independently identify 1) what they did to support the group, 2) what someone else did to support the group, and 3) what they could have done better while in the group. Each table group of four students then shares their ideas and develops “group norms.”

I then lead a discussion to establish a set of class group norms. When doing this, we find that everyone wants equal say and everyone also wants the whole class to contribute! Some groups also identify the need to stay on task and respect the ideas of everyone. I have found that my special education students are able to contribute to the smaller groups with more confidence after they hear that their peers trust them—and need them—to share their ideas. Once they share in a small group, it becomes easier to share with a classroom full of peers!

Encouraging all students to identify the pieces of data that then support their claim from a learning activity has actually increased the engagement of students of all levels in my classroom! It is exciting to hear my upper-level students interact with the students who struggle. They work together, they begin to ask each other questions, and they are able to develop appropriate and accurate conclusions when they verbalize the claim. Hosting class discussions to encourage students to “take a stand” has made my classroom more engaging. When students learn to support their claim with evidence and share their ideas, I hope they eventually use this skill in other areas of their lives for the rest of their lives!

If you have any suggestions for other activities we can use to encourage class discussions so students can learn to argue with evidence, I would love to hear them!

Michelle Monk has taught high school biology for 22 years and is currently teaching Biology 1 and Anatomy and Physiology at Eureka High School in Eureka, Illinois. She previously taught at Spring Valley Hall High School and Tremont High School, where she also taught AP Biology in addition to Biology 1 and Anatomy. Monk earned a bachelor’s degree in biology education from Illinois State University in 1998 and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from St. Xavier University in 2004. Her passion for helping students learn complex scientific concepts through collaboration is grounded in the idea that building relationships, followed by creating lessons with relevance, is essential to having rigor in the classroom.

Note: This article is featured in the September issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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2 Responses to Encouraging Students to Engage in Argument With Evidence by Michelle Monk

  1. James Wenman says:

    Ms. Michelle Monk,

    My name is James Wenman. I’m a fourth-year elementary education major from West Des Moines Iowa, currently studying at Wartburg College in Waverly Iowa. I recently read your article on the NSTA website intitled Students to Engage in Argument With Evidence.

    I find how this approach may be helpful in the high school setting, but I was wondering what your adaptations would be for the middle school arena? I enjoyed your statement on making a pattern of developing your ideas as a small group, and then moving into a larger discussion. It almost gives a debate style of conversation. My only fear is the subsequent student who is on the outside looking in. How do you find it best to place students so that like-minds will be paired together? Do you randomly assign and hope that all voices get heard, or is there a grouping process within your group making?

    I’d like to next discus the statement you made about verbiage; guiding students to ask more questions. I wonder if the best way to respond to this is a list of questions that students have to ask themselves before finishing their argument. I see this list as a guide for them to follow so that even if I don’t hear their discussions, they have the reminder to go back and ask, “why do I think this” or “how could someone else look at this subject?”

    How have you seen this work with your more reluctant students? Do you feel like this task is being taken seriously, or are their still students who naturally see group projects as a chance to sandbag?

    I love seeing that your SPED students are getting involved in this. I know for a lot of my students who are more reluctant to speak, this style of work allows them the chance to find a voice in their smaller group first, and branch out from there. I also appreciate that there is a peer and self-reflection piece to this. It really motivates the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in your students’ learning.

    I’d love to hear back from you on these topics and to see how you’ve continued to expand the technique with your students.

    Thanks again,
    James Wenman
    Wartburg College ‘20

    • Michelle Monk says:

      Thank you for your questions! Good luck with your final year of college!
      I think the science talk process looks the same with younger students — the phenomenon that they are working to understand are just different!! When I was first introduced to “talk moves” the videos that we watched and evaluated were of elementary and middle level students.

      The following link is of a middle school teacher utilizing talk moves with her middle school students.
      https://www.edutopia.org/video/encouraging-academic-conversations-talk-moves and here is a video from NSTA that showcases elementary students involved in science talk! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0-u0gMa-pU

      In the beginning of the year, the groups are random. I make groups for the first time with our third activity in Biology One which is about 1 1/2 weeks into the first semester. After meeting the students and learning their strengths and weaknesses I try to place students into heterogeneous groups. I find that when students are placed into these mixed-ability groupings that it encourages more students to get involved. This year I have had to remind multiple groups about our norms we established so that everyone is involved in the sense-making process.

      I think your idea of having a set list of question stems for your groups to reference if they are stuck is a fantastic idea.

      I definitely have reluctant learners as well! I just continue to work with them to persevere and pay attention to them a little more. I have one student in particular right now who is very reluctant at times. I have to “gently nudge” him to work and to use proper non-verbal and verbal language to participate in his group. I have found that my attitude towards students and constant encouragement is vital to making the process work in my classroom! This is an educational shift for all of us and we are constantly evolving in the classroom.

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