Using Balloons to Explore Argument Structures at Master Level
So I wanted master students in the College of Social Sciences to understand the basic argument structure from premise to conclusion. Experiencing that it is not in all cases a straight forward logical structure.
The Prep Work
I found journal articles that are relevant to the students learning experience. Subject related articles.
Choose one or two paragraphs from these articles, that have a clear (or fairly clear) conclusion, with enough premises leading to this conclusion.
Wrote the conclusion on a balloon.
I had about 6 premises per balloon.
Printed the premises and intermediate conclusions on coloured paper and cut the premises up. Premise by premise.
Don’t forget to ask if anyone has a latex allergy!
I threw the conclusion balloons to random students, spread across the room.
Then I handed out premises—a mix from different articles to each student.
They then had to talk to one another and figure out, which of the premises (paper slips) belong to which of the conclusions on the balloon.
I observed the students and watched how they interact.
I used the exercise to reflect on:
- How clear was the connection between the premises and the conclusions?
- Were there actually any premises? (All I say is international law book! The best we got were intermediate conclusions.)
- How did you go about finding the right premises to the conclusion?
- How did you make these decisions?
- Was there a logical flow or was the logic lost with the literal cutting up of the argument?
I demonstrated to the students the link between building arguments in their own writing and how easy it is to actually ‘rip the arguments apart’ and lose meaning or lose the logical flow towards the conclusion. This exercise aimed to help both critically analysing text and writing stronger arguments.
The feedback from the students was very positive. A law student seemed to have been relieved that not finding premises in the papers she had to read was not due to her abilities but a result of this particular form of text. In general the students commented that having the experience of literally taking arguments apart helped to understand the principles and structure of arguments.
One student commented that I should not have colour coded the premises to increase the difficulty of the exercise. (I had blue paper to green balloon, pink paper to yellow balloon etc—without telling the students that there is such a colour code. One group found that out very quickly, in another group only one student discovered this code before the exercise was concluded.)
I put the balloons in a plastic shopping bag so they had a static charge and the paper premises stuck to them. This made handling the balloon-paper combination easier for the students.
Having an academic paper that does not adhere to the premise—conclusion structure provides a good talking point. This particular paper was flagged up by all students as really difficult to judge. They said the logic in the argument was missing, so it was after all a good example.