What are Arguments-Lesson Bundle

Unit Overview:

This Curricular Unit is designed to help students develop a formal and rigorous understanding of arguments, as well as acquaint them with some important philosophical vocabulary. The emphasis of this unit is on in-class activities which encourage students to begin dissecting the parts of arguments, and rearranging statements to emphasize their logical relationships.

This will prove a useful foundation for students to assess the arguments they come across during their research, to help them identify missing parts of arguments when they write their own cases, and later will be used to help students develop a more rigorous understanding of refutation.

Component Lessons

This unit is taught over three lessons, two of which are in-class and activity focused, while one is an at-home video.

Lesson 1: Premises, Patterns and Post-Its

Lesson 1 should occur in-class and is activity based. It is designed to get students to begin developing their own understanding of argument parts. During the first class session students will be presented with isolated statements and will need to work collectively to identify the logical relations that turn the separate statements into coherent arguments.

By the end of this class students will have developed a recognition of certain patterns, and have a vague idea about the relationships between different claims.

Lesson 2: What Are Arguments-Video

Lesson 2 should occur out of class and is video based. It consists of watching an 18 minute video, and then completing a short quiz.  

The 18 minute video will introduce important vocabulary for thinking about arguments (this vocabulary should map onto some of the concepts students were beginning to develop in Class 1), and will also help students develop a better grasp of what makes for a good argument in debate.

The quiz will both help students take advantage of the ‘testing effect’ as well as help students begin to see what is involved in apply the concepts of the video to actual arguments. Students will  be able to see how they did on the quiz immediately, and receive feedback explaining the correct answer.

Lesson 3: Diagramming Arguments

Lesson 3 should occur in-class and is activity based. It is designed to help students begin to practically apply some of the lessons they learnt from the video in Lesson 2. It will have students break-down natural language paragraphs and arguments into component parts. Thus, this will also provide an extremely valuable transition activity as student begin to start their own research.

Lesson 1 - Premises, Patterns & Post-its

Activity Overview

Learning Objective: 

By the end of this activity students will be able to organize claims into arguments and begin to develop a spatial understanding of argument structure.

In particular, students will:

Needed Supplies:

  1. Post-It Notes in, at least, three different colors.
  2. A pen or marker that is easily visible on all the Post-It Notes (I prefer a black Sharpie).
  3. At least two fairly large vertically standing work surface. Classroom or hallway walls works well (and a decent sized wall will be big enough to act as two work surfaces).

Optional Supplies:

  1. Write-on-able work surfaces. Giving students the ability to draw on the ‘workspace’ is quite helpful. The easiest options are if your classroom is equipped with either a large chalkboard, whiteboard or windows.
  2. Chalk or dry-erase markers.


Preparation for this activity can be somewhat tedious. You need to create four stacks of Post-Its totaling 82 Post-Its. You can find what to write on these Post-It Notes in the Lesson 1 Appendix available under the ‘Resource’ heading. We also included, under the Resource heading, a template which will allow you to print the post-its if you prefer.

Activity Summary:

In this activity students will be given individual claims (premises and conclusions) written out on Post-It Notes. They will then need to, on their own, decide the best way to organize the Post-Its to convey the relation between the claims. 

In Phase 1 students will need to group together the premises of arguments with their corresponding conclusion (the conclusions will be on a separate color of Post-It), and find some way to visually represent that connection.  The focus is just to have them decide how they want to arrange the Post-Its. This will be important for simplifying Phase 2. 

In Phase 2 students will need to do the same thing, but this time with closely related arguments. For example, in the first phase they might need to differentiate one argument about dogs are better than cats, from another argument about why summer is the best season. In contrast, in Phase 2 they will have the harder task of differentiating the parts of two different arguments for the conclusion that the death penalty is immoral. Thus, they won’t be able to just use subject matter to organize them. Instead, they will actually need to think through what combinations would make for complete arguments.

In Phase 3 students will be given a third color, which will be premises that further support some of the arguments organized in Phase 1 & 2. They will then need to arrange these secondary arguments under the arguments they already have. This will both help students understand that premises of one argument can themselves be conclusions of others and help them realize that one premise can play a role in two different arguments.

In Phase 4 students will need to apply everything they have learnt together. They will be given an entirely new stack of post-its with a multi-level argument. All the Post-Its will be the same color, so they can no longer rely on the color to differentiate between premises. You also have the option of assigning this task as homework. 

Approximate Activity Time:

Depending on the size of the group (larger groups tend to take slightly longer, interestingly) this activity should take between 60 and 75 minutes. You can shorten this time considerably by assigning phase 4 as a homework assignment.

Activity Instructions

Phase 1:

First, randomly distribute the first stack of 68 Post-Its along one of the work surfaces. Then instruct the students to, as a group, organize the Post-Its in a way that best represents the individual arguments. 

As the students are organizing the Post-Its you should be randomly distributing the second stack of Post-Its along the second Work Surface for phase 2. 

Once the students reach a collective agreement about their organization quickly check it over. For now, all you need to check is that there are clear groupings such that the appropriate premises are with the appropriate conclusion. 

Phase 2:

Instruct the students to do the same thing with the second stack of post it notes, all of which are about capital punishment. This will likely be considerably more difficult, as the students will no longer be able to organize them just by appealing to the subject area, but instead must break down what would constitute a complete argument. 

Phase 3:

Give students the third stack of Post-It notes, and tell them to find the appropriate locations for these additional Post-Its. Students may have difficulty, at first, fitting in this third layer. This will likely force them to rethink how they organize the arguments. In the end they must develop a system that can differentiate sub-arguments from one another.

Two potential ways to that you could direct the students to are:

  1. Pyramid representations. This is the one I would recommend, because it will transition most naturally to the argument mapping software we will use later in the course. A pyramid representation would place a conclusion at the top, and then place a complete set of premises one step below  their respective conclusion. Thus an example would look like:

  1. Indented representations. A second way to represent sub-arguments is to simply indent premises under their respective conclusions within an overarching list format. Thus an example would look like:

A common mistake students make at this point, is they take the two separate arguments for the one conclusion (the two arguments for why debate teaches you academic skills) and just list them all as though it is a single four premise argument. You will want to make sure students realize why that is mistaken, and come up with some way to represent there being two separate and independent arguments (a useful way to help students see that, is to point out how even if one of the premises is false, there is still a complete reason to believe the conclusion contained in two of the other premises).

Two common ways to represent there being two separate arguments are a) building off the second argument in the opposite direction, for example, building a second pyramid up from the premise creating an hourglass shape. And b) using more space between arguments than they use space between premises within an argument.

Phase 4:

Finally, provide students with the fourth stack of Post-Its, and ask the to organize them. They should quickly realize that these are all part of a single story, though they may have some difficulty at first figuring out how to organize the arguments. The primary reason this is, especially, difficult is because they must identifying the relation between Post-Its without any color coding to tell them generally where the claims go. They will also need to differentiate the two independent arguments for the conclusion.

NOTE: as an alternative to doing phase 4 in class, it also works well as a homework assignment. To do so you will need to take the list of claims for phase 4 and randomize them (https://www.random.org/lists/). Then you you can simply assign them to, individually or with a partner, create a written out form of the maps we have been creating with Post-Its.

A nice advantage to this alteration, is that it provides an excellent assessment mechanism to make sure every student is learning the material (often a problem with whole class group assignments).

If you take this route, make sure you emphasize that this is extremely difficult, and thus they should not worry if they cannot get all the pieces right at this point. As they go through the semester they will develop more of the skills necessary to break down extremely intricate arguments.

Lesson 3-Diagramming Arguments

Learning Objective: By the end of this activity students should be able to breakdown arguments that they encounter into their premises and conclusions.

In particular, students will be able to:

Needed Supplies:

Students will either need either:

  1. An individual computer/laptop with word-processing ability (Word, pages, google docs etc.)
  2. Or printed worksheets (included in the resources folder), a pen & paper, at least two colors of highlighter (if they have access to more colors that is wonderful and will help differentiate subsidiary arguments).


Preparation for this activity is minimal. All you should need to do is prepare the worksheets to be distributed, either digitally or printed.

Activity Summary:

In this activity, students will take natural language paragraphs and break them down into the central premises and conclusion.They will need to identify premises and conclusions, put them into their own words, and organize them in a way that reveals their connections.

Approximate Activity Time:

You should allocate at least 30 minutes to this activity. You can easily set the limit on how long this activity takes, simply by choosing how many of the example arguments you have students work on.

Activity Instructions:

Start by distributing the argumentative paragraphs to each student (these can be found in the resources folder). Then proceed through the arguments in rough order (the examples are arranged roughly in order of difficulty). I recommend having students work on each assignment individually, then once they have an attempted answer to compare with a partner, finally review the argument as a group and identify the correct answer (Think, Pair, Share). Then move on to the second paragraph and repeat the process.

For each paragraph students should execute the following steps:

First, students should perform a preliminary read-through of the paragraph, familiarizing themselves with the argument.

Second, they should read through the paragraph a second time, and this time box, or underline, any premise or conclusion indicators they come across.

Third, they should read through the argument a third time and highlight the conclusion of the argument in one color, and the premises of the argument in another (they can highlight subsidiary arguments in a third color if they have it).

Fourth, they should write out the explicit statements (premises and conclusions) in their own words, and mark where it occurs in the paragraph.

Fifth, they should identify and write out in their own words any implicit premises or conclusions.

Finally, they should organize the premises and conclusion in a way that shows the logical order of the individual statements.


Filled out Paragraph:

[1]“Compulsory national service would seem to violate the 13th Amendment: [2]"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." FYI, [3]the definition of servitude: "a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one's course of action or way of life." . . . [this  is one] of the reasons that [4]I would oppose any vote to implement universal national service.[1]

Listed Premises and Conclusions:

Explicit Statements: 

  1. A program of compulsory national service would violate the Constitution. 
  2. The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude. 
  3. If one lacks the liberty to determine their own course of life, that is servitude. 
  4. The United States should not implement a program of universal national service. 

Implicit Statements:

  1. A program of compulsory national service would cause people to lack the ability to determine their own course of life. 
  2. The United States should not implement programs that violate the constitution. 

Organized Argument:

Conclusion: A program of compulsory national service would violate the Constitution. 

Premise 1: A program of compulsory national service would violate the Constitution.


                Sub-Premise 1: The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude.

Sub-Premise 2: If one lacks the liberty to determine their own course of life, that is servitude.  

Sub-Premise 3: A program of compulsory national service would cause people to lack the ability to determine their own course of life.

Premise 2: The United States should not implement programs that violate the constitution.

[1] From “The Case Against Universal National Service” published in The Atlantic on June 26th 2013 by Conor Friedersdorf.