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Teaching Strategies: All 3 Kinds of Evidence

Jordan Catapano

When we’re making an argument, how do we prove that our claim is true? Life is full of argumentation, and the most successful individuals are often the ones who can best articulate and support their perspectives. It’s essential that our students understand what constitutes a strong argument as well as what evidence within that argument helps to support the main idea.

The Common Core specifies students ought to use “Relevant and sufficient evidence” to support claims, coupled with intelligent reasoning. But what constitutes effective evidence, and what teaching strategies do we use to instruct students to identify and use for themselves evidence in argumentation? Students are great at making claims, but often have weaknesses when it comes to substantiating those claims with proof. I make it clear to my students with my teaching strategies that they are allowed to make any claims they like, but it’s unlikely someone will agree with them until they can furnish a well-supported argument.

There are three main kinds of evidence I like to walk students through so they can support any argumentation they make:

Data/Statistics. Data refers to numbers or facts. Usually, someone credible researched and presented a study that provides solid numbers. This could also refer to scientific fact or other generally proven concepts. All facts and data should come from individuals or institutions whose bias is small and credibility is large, and this research ought always be cited.

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Expert Opinion. Experts in various fields have their opinions, although these opinions might not be considered pure “Fact.” Their perspectives on their respective fields tend to be more credible than just anyone else’s thoughts, and their opinions could be cited as support for an argument. Who’s an expert? It depends on the topic. A respected doctor would make a great recommender of medicine; my grandma would make a great recommender of pasta sauce quality.

Examples. Our minds tend to think in pictures and feelings as much as in words and numbers. That’s where examples come in. There are seven broad categories of example interlocutors should remain aware of:

  • Personal story. Tell about a true event from your life that supports your assertion.
  • Someone else’s story. Nothing cool happen to you? Tell about a family members, friend, neighbor, or acquaintance.
  • Historical example. Find an instance from history where a situation related to your argument plays out.
  • Current event. Or find a situation taking place right now that connects to your point.
  • Hypothetical Situation. Use “Imagine if …” and talk about a made up situation to paint a picture.
  • Cultural connection. Use an illustration from a popular song, a piece of literature, a movie, law, politics, religion, or some other generally recognized component of culture.
  • Comparison/Analogy. Connect what you’re talking about to an illustration or analogy that your audience might be familiar with.

Can’t Prioritize One Over Others

Each of the above listed types of evidence holds merit for supporting an argument. Just listen to a politician’s speech, a TED talk, or any written argument and you’ll notice that a wide range of evidence is utilized to back up the claims being made. Sometimes, though, we focus on getting students to use just one kind of evidence, and this narrows the potential of their argument.

Often I’ve found in my discussions that we especially prioritize data/statistics over other forms of evidence. Using cold, hard facts is an important component of support, but it’s not the only one. Each type of evidence comes with its own strengths and weaknesses that we have to help students become aware of.

  • Data and stats are helpful in providing solid data points or relatively indisputable facts to prove an idea true. However, data can still be interpreted in a variety of ways, and the presentation of plain facts can often have little immediate human connection or emotional value.
  • Expert Opinions are powerful statements coming from alleged experts in their fields. Their words likely carry more weight than anyone else’s when it comes to certain topics. However, their opinions are just opinions and can be easily contradicted by someone just as credible in the same field. Furthermore, they are very narrow opinions, offering just one view in a likely vast field of opinion.
  • Examples provide what the other two usually do not: A Picture in the audience’s head. For some reason our minds respond so well to stories and illustrations that to not utilize them would be a mistake. The use of examples is also more likely to trigger emotions from the audience, which is an essential ingredient in argumentation. However, examples can also be narrow – an event in one person’s life does not make it a general fact.

When we think of “Research,” we think of finding data and stats. This is a problem. All three types of evidence can be found through research, and it’s important to teach students how to find, utilize, and cite these different evidences to support a well-rounded argument. Instead of dictating to my students to use only certain types of evidence, I have them ask themselves, “What kind of evidence(s) might help best support this argument?”

Follow Up Evidence with Explanation

Of course, evidence alone rarely proves a claim valid. If we teach our students to find well-rounded evidence, then we have done half our job. But simply presenting evidence to a reader is analogous to a prosecutor just laying a bloody knife, a boot print, and shards of broken glass in front of a jury and declaring, “Guilty!” There needs to be some kind of explanation.

So the other main ingredient in argumentation must be an explanation of the evidence. To ensure that their audience is following the logic, a student must not merely provide a claim plus a story (or plus a number, or plus an opinion). They must follow that evidence up with a clear interpretation of how the evidence proves the point.

When I assess student arguments, I look carefully to ensure that their claim, evidence, and explanation are each present. Without all three, it’s easy to get lost as a reader, and the argument thuds ineffectually.

Teaching Students to Identify and Use Different Evidence

I have a cousin who really loves food. When he eats, it’s as though he sifts each ingredient in his mouth. “I love the texture! What did you use? … Is that paprika?” He’s good at identifying the individual components that comprise the whole.

Ultimately we want our students to do the same thing with arguments. We want them to critically assess the types of claims and evidences others use, and we want them to effectively craft their own arguments. Here are a few approaches I focus on when looking at argumentation with students:

For Reading/Hearing Argumentation:

  • Teach students to identify the claim(s) authors are discussing.
  • Teach students to identify unsubstantiated claims.
  • Teach students to make sure evidence actually supports claims.
  • Teach students to discuss the strengths or weaknesses of explanations.
  • Teach students to consider counterarguments or evidence that might contradict argument.

For Composing Own Argument:

  • Teach students to carefully compose their claim.
  • Teach students to ask themselves which kind of evidence(s) is best support for claim.
  • Teach students to research and identify best sources.
  • Teach students how to incorporate different evidences for various arguments.
  • Teach students to carefully explain how their evidence proves their point.
  • Teach students to anticipate and address counterarguments.

Argumentation is a vast field of logic, reasoning, evidence, claim, and explanation, and there’s of course much more to it than I can lay out in this post. Argumentation is like an armwrestling match between minds. We want to ensure that we equip our students with the skills to include the best possible evidence to support their claims. We tell our students that their voices are essential; however, if we encourage students to make claims without revealing to them how to fully substantiate those claims with well-rounded evidence, then their argumentation may end up not fulfilling their potential.

How do you talk about evidence for claims with your students? Share your secrets in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.

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