This one-year study, undertaken between September 2005 and August 2006, consisted of two parts: a systematic review of the research literature on effective strategies and methods for improving argumentative skills in undergraduates (see Torgerson et al. 2006); and a pilot study which aimed to clarify issues around the development of argumentative skills in first year undergraduates, as well as to explore which methods were best suited to further study in the field.
The pilot study examined practices, as well as the views of students and lecturers, in three disciplines: biology, electrical engineering and history. It operated at three universities: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US; Queen Mary, University of London and The University of York in the UK. A mixed methods approach was used which included a questionnaire survey of first year students, interviews with staff and students and document collection and analysis.
The tentative results of the study indicate that first year students believe argument to be important in their disciplines; that they feel the need for more explicit instruction or discussion of disciplinary argument; that they draw on argumentation skills learnt in the previous stage of formal education and that they generally do not report scepticism in their academic reading. The study also suggests that differences between institutions, disciplines and individual lecturers are highly significant when studying argumentative practices; that there is a mismatch between the way students and lecturers see argument and its place in learning; that whether argument is formally assessed is key to how highly it is valued by students; and that the term argument itself is contested in terms of its applicability to higher education in the disciplines.