3. Moving Students from Course Materials to Inquiry and Argument


Whether or not you’re responsible for creating the assignment, you’ll likely be assisting students to translate a class assignment into their own individual inquiries. Students often report that they do their best work when they’re invested in the topic, and early low-stakes writing can help students move beyond simply picking a topic to testing out and discovering ideas toward meaningful inquiry. These exercises may be used in the sequence provided to scaffold the production of a thesis, or they may be used individually, or in other sequences. To help you generate your own ideas for working with them, each exercise includes variations, and following each you’ll find alternative strategies and additional resources.

Assigning Low-Stakes Prewriting to Encourage Inquiry

This resource comes from Integrating Low-Stakes Writing Into Large Classes, by Shelley Manis and Jennifer Metsker. This portion concentrates on the early stages of writing.

Sample Strategy: Writing about Paper Topics

Because students can often be more articulate when they are writing in low-stakes situations, writing done in preparation can help students avoid the confusion they run into when they articulate ideas for the first time in a high-stakes situation. This exercise encourages students to reflect on and evaluate the feasibility of their ideas. By sharing their topic ideas, they can observe how others are approaching the essay assignment and get more perspective on their own approach. You may also decide to read their low-stakes work ahead of time and gain greater insights into where they need help.

Assigning: After handing out and explaining a high-stakes writing assignment, assign students a freewrite for the upcoming essay that asks them to discuss the topic they are considering writing about, the argument they are considering making, and/or their reasons for choosing this topic. Let them know that this freewrite will not be graded based on the quality of the writing and that they should use the assignment as an opportunity to explore and test out their ideas.

Sharing: Ask students to bring their freewrites to class and share them in small groups. Provide a few guiding questions for the discussion, such as, What counterarguments might the student need to consider when writing about their topic? Does the student’s position seem too predictable? What could make it more complex or original?

Responding: After students have shared their freewrites, ask them what questions came up in their groups. You might also ask a student to share the ideas that came up in their freewrites with the full class before students share with each other, and your response to the student’s freewrite could model the kind of discussion that should happen in small groups. Collect the freewrites and check off that they were completed.


  • Students could freewrite about their topic ideas in class right after receiving the assignment prompt. These freewrites could help students identify what interests them and come up with a topic. After a period of freewriting, students could be asked to share their topic ideas and your response to those who volunteer could model how to expand on essay topics.
  • These could be assigned as more formal proposals. You could offer students a more structured set of questions as a prompt to guide their proposal. For an example of a proposal assignment, see the section on Pre-Writing Assignments in the resource Effective Assignment Sequencing for Scaffolding Learning.
  • Proposals or freewrites can be posted on a blog or onto the Canvas discussion forum so that the class can read about other students’ topic ideas. The wider audience will offer them incentive to take this activity seriously. Once they are posted, you may skim the freewrites or proposals and, using the comments function in the blog or Forum, respond only to those students who have questions or seem to be headed in the wrong direction. If you use the Canvas discussion forum, you may even assign points to these freewriting assignments (although you wouldn’t want to make them worth many points, or the assignment will quickly shift from low- to higher-stakes.) If you choose this method, be sure to let students know that you will not respond to everyone and that if they have questions about their topics and do not receive a response from you, they should visit office hours.
  • Students could tweet their working thesis, and their peers could retweet their posts with questions or concerns. For a handout with guidelines for tweeting a thesis, see Twitter Assignments.

Additional Resources:

A fuller discussion of low-stakes writing may be found on the Sweetland website at “Integrating Low-Stakes Writing Into Large Classes.” In particular, on that page, locate Writing in Preparation Strategy 2: Writing Before and after Reading.

Also, the following readings discuss the rationales and strategies for teaching invention and prewriting. You’ll see that they overlap somewhat, but provide usefully different perspectives on the topic.

Glenn, Cheryl and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. Teaching Invention. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 151-173. Print.

Hedengren, Beth Finch. Prewriting. A TA’s Guide to Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 24-35. Print.

Lindemann, Erika. Prewriting Techniques. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 3rd ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 105-125. Print.

Leading Students from Class Materials to Individual Writing

Also taken from Integrating Low-Stakes Writing Into Large Classes, this portion focuses on the link between reading and writing.

Sample Strategy: Round Robin

This activity can deepen student understanding about course material or brainstorm ideas for their essays. If you choose to ask students to generate questions for the activity, it will also challenge them to engage with course material from a position of inquiry.

Assigning: Come up with a series of three to four questions about the reading material assigned for class or about concepts that have been discussed in class. The questions should be written at the top of a piece of paper with plenty of blank space where students can write their answers. In class, ask that students divide into groups of three or four depending on the number of questions you have brought in. Give one question sheet to each student. Give each student 5-10 minutes to write an answer to the question, then ask that they pass the sheet to another student. The next student should read the question provided as well as the previous students’ answers, then formulate their own response. This process should continue on until each student has had a chance to read all responses and answer all of the questions in the group. If you have time, you can ask them to respond a second time to each question.

Sharing: Once this activity is completed, give students time to discuss what came up for them during the process in their groups. Then ask each group to share an important discovery they made together with the full class. You might consider leading a discussion on each of the three to four points and ask students to share the ideas that came up in their groups during the activity before directly addressing the material.

Responding: This strategy requires no response, though you may collect the sheets and read over them to see how well students comprehend course material. You may also give students credit for participation.


  • Instead of asking students to respond to questions, you may ask them to bring in ideas for paper topics and turn this into a collaborative brainstorming session. See the section on Writing in Preparation below for more strategies to help students develop paper topics.
  • Rather than developing the questions yourself, you could ask that each student bring in a single question.
  • These could be done on a blog or Canvas discussion forum, with students posting questions in a conversation group. Students could be required to respond to their group members a certain number of times to further their conversation through writing. Before class, you might consider skimming the posts and selecting examples from the exchanges to foster discussion in class, as well as to let students know that you are reading them.

Additional Resources:

The following texts are particularly useful at showing students how to dwell longer in phases of observation and evaluation before leaping at a topic. Whether or not you assign these texts, they provide helpful insights in how to teach inquiry. Writing Analytically contrasts productive and counter-productive habits of mind-time spent coaching students on these ways of thinking and seeing tends to pay off.

Booth, Wayne C. et al. Making Good Arguments: An Overview. The Craft of Research. 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003. 108-118. Print.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. “Basic Analytical Strategies.” Writing Analytically. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. 24-61. Print.

These resources are also summarized in the handout, “Strategies for Teaching Analysis and Argument,” though provide much less thoroughly context and discussion, of course, than the chapters themselves.

Leading Students from a Set of Ideas to a Specific Thesis

The following student writing guide was created by Paul Barron and Jennifer Metsker, and is available in the link below as a pdf. Since the guide is addressed to students, this is a resource you could share with them directly. However, it will be important to support their understanding of it in class. You could go through the handout in class, or have them read it at home then give them time in class to work in groups to identify the types of claim in the reading for that day. The exercise at the end of the handout asks students to generate thesis sentences which could then be further employed in small group peer review, asking, Which are the most compelling theses and why?

“How Do I Decide What I Should Argue?”


Most arguments fall into recognizable types, depending on which angle of an issue the writer chooses to emphasize. Most often the central claim of an argument is referred to as the thesis. You can begin to develop a potential thesis by asking yourself what you found most interesting or provocative about the topic you’ve chosen to address. Your thesis must present an arguable position. In other words, you should aim for an argument that could be debated or reasonably interpreted in an alternative way. It may also be worthwhile to aim for the unexpected. Making a familiar or predictable argument is unlikely to hold your readers’ attention.

General Considerations

The six most common types of claim are: fact, definition, value, cause, comparison, and policy. Being able to identify these types of claim in other people’s arguments can help you better respond in your own writing. You can also use them to brainstorm possible arguments you might make about an issue you have decided to examine.

Six Types of Claim

  • A claim of fact takes a position on questions like: What happened? Is it true? Does it exist? Example: Though student demonstrations may be less evident than they were in the 1960s, students are more politically active than ever.
  • A claim of definition takes a position on questions like: What is it? How should it be classified or interpreted? How does its usual meaning change in a particular context? Example: By examining what it means to network, it’s clear that social networking sites encourage not networking but something else entirely.
  • A claim of value takes a position on questions like: Is it good or bad? Of what worth is it? Is it moral or immoral? Who thinks so? What do those people value? What values or criteria should I use to determine how good or bad? Example: Video games are a valuable addition to modern education.
  • A claim of cause takes a position on questions like: What caused it? Why did it happen? Where did it come from? What are the effects? What probably will be the results on a short-term and long-term basis? Example: By seeking to replicate the experience of reading physical books, new hardware and software actually will lead to an appreciation of printed and bound texts for years to come.
  • A claim of comparison takes a position on questions like: What can be learned by comparing one subject to another? What is the worth of one thing compared to another? How can we better understand one thing by looking at another? Example: The varied policies of the US and British education systems reveal a difference in values.
  • A claim of policy takes a position on questions like: What should we do? How should we act? What should be future policy? How can we solve this problem? What course of action should we pursue? Example: Sex education should be part of the public school curriculum.

In Practice

Brainstorming Using Types of Claim

Below, six types of claim express different angles on the topic of violent media effects on children. By aggressively brainstorming and devoting sufficient time to this stage of the writing process, you could certainly come up with more additional claims for each type. You could then choose to pursue the options that seem most promising and devise a course of action for expanding upon your ideas.

Fact: There is no solid evidence that violent media affects children.

Definition: A looser definition of the word violence makes it possible to define children’s animated cartoons as violent.

Value: Violence in animated children’s films improves the quality of the entertainment.

Cause: Exposure to violent media causes children to solve problems with physical violence rather than by communicating.

Comparison: Exposing young children to violent media has greater repercussions than exposing a teenager to violence.

Policy: To limit children’s exposure to violent media, a new rating system should be put in place.

Combining Claims

Often two or more types of claims are combined to make a more complex central argument. By examining your issue through one type of claim, you may find it naturally leads to a second type of claim. This can lead to a more inventive and engaging argument. Remember that a thesis does not always have to be limited to a single sentence.

Claim of Cause + Claim of Value: Schools are failing because of a reduction of funds provided by the government; therefore, it is the government that is ineffective, not the schools themselves.

Claim of Definition + Claim of Policy: The definition of adult should not be based on age but on brain maturity. Given that the brain is still physically maturing until the early twenties, the legal adult age should be raised from 18 to 21.

Claim of Comparison + Claim of Fact: The similarities in math education between China and the US indicate that it is the cultural attitudes Americans have about math education, not how math is taught, that creates the difference in test scores.


First write down an issue you might address in an essay. Then brainstorm to find some original angles using the different types of claims.

Fact: Think about which aspect of your topic is in question and answer one or more of the following questions. Is it true/not true? Did something occur? How did it occur? Does the problem really exist?

Definition: Make a list of the various key words or terms associated with your topic that answer the following questions: What is the intended meaning of this term? How do you think it should be interpreted? Does the meaning change in a particular context?

Value: Consider the aspects of your topic that can be evaluated and ask yourself the following questions: Is it good/bad? Is it effective/ineffective? Does it have value? To whom? On what criteria should we base its worth?

Cause: Identify an aspect of your topic that is caused by something else or has effect on something else. Consider the following questions: Why did it happen? What caused it? What short and/or long term effect will it have?

Comparison: Consider your subject in light of another subject, or, if your topic has two elements, compare them to each other. Answer one or more of the following questions: What can be learned about A when it is compared to B? Why is A better or worse than B? What do the similarities or difference between A and B say about your topic as a whole?

Policy: Determine if your topic or part of your topic requires a solution and ask yourself the following questions: What should be done to solve this problem? How should we take action? Why is this solution effective? Is it a feasible solution?

Once you have answered the above questions, look over them to see if any can be naturally combined to make a more complex argument. Brainstorm various connections.


Wood, Nancy V. Perspectives on Argument. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.