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Diagramming Arguments

Diagramming Arguments


Drawing students' attention to the logical steps involved in an argument can sharpen their awareness of how well arguments are actually constructed. In this activity, you break an assertion or conclusion down into its logical components as described by Toulmin's classic model of argument.

The activity

On the board or overhead, write a statement from an article or book. Next, diagram the following three essential components of an argument:

  1. Claim - The conclusion that the argument is supporting.
  2. Grounds/Evidence - The data upon which the conclusion is based.
  3. Warrant - The logical connection between the claim and the grounds/evidence. The warrant can be stated or assumed and tend to be of six main kinds:
    • Generalization
    • Analogy
    • Sign/Symptom
    • Causality
    • Authority
    • Principle

At first, this process can seem strange to students, so start with a simple argument that you diagram yourself and then try a more complex one in collaboration with the students.


From a Text:
"Teachers should do more than just lecture. Our studies show that students can do a passable job memorizing facts delivered in a lecture, but they learn very little about how to use the material in any meaningful way."

The Argument Diagrammed:

Claim: Teachers should do more than just lecture.


Unstated Warrant of Principle: It is better for students to be able to use the material in a meaningful way than just memorize them


Grounds/Evidence: Our studies show students can do a passable job memorizing facts delivered in a lecture, but they learn very little about how to use the material in any meaningful way


Because this can be a strange experience for students at first, it is best to (1) draw the arguments visually on the board or overhead and (2) make an effort to get everyone involved by using something like a Think-Pair-Share to increase the level of social engagement.


While the Claim, Grounds, and Warrant are considered the essential elements of an argument in Toulmin's model, there are additional elements which can appear within an argument and it can be helpful to graph them. Further information on Toulmin's model can be found here.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.