A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

The Effect of Varied Task Prompts on Critically Reflective Argumentative Essays at the Tertiary Level

​Anil Kumar Nayak

Abstract

In India, ESL learners at the tertiary level who have been exposed to English for more than ten years, as part of their English course requirements, are expected to, but are often not able to write argumentative essays which reflect their critical thinking skills. Despite this inability, many of them are able to write essays with a critical perspective as part of their course requirements.  This implies that their non-ability to write essays that reflect critical thinking could probably be because of the nature of the task prompt. Essay questions in English examinations are worded in varied ways, from the very simple to the very specific. Writing prompts that expect students to write critically reflective argumentative essays therefore need to be worded carefully. The cognitive steps that learners have to take could either be explicitly stated, or the prompt itself could be such that it triggers critical thinking.

In this paper, I will attempt to explore how different task-prompt-stimuli influence the written responses of learners at the tertiary level. A set of three writing tasks (simply worded, complex task with stipulations and complex task without stipulations), were given to forty ESL undergraduate second year B.Sc. students. Their responses were evaluated and to enable comparisons across tasks, can-do descriptors, based on these responses, were created.  These descriptions focused on argument development, the nature of support in the form of examples, and the  nature of counter-arguments, logical reasoning and rebuttals provided. The written responses of the learners who were identified as advanced were coded and categorised to identify the prompts that enabled better construction of arguments in the response.

Keywords: Argumentative essay, critical thinking, nature of task prompts, variation in responses

Introduction

Indian learners, especially those who are from regional medium backgrounds, and also first generation learners, are underprivileged in terms of the availability of opportunities to use their analytical skills to the best of their abilities. This is largely due to poor instruction and an examination-focused instruction. Consequently, such learners lack the higher order thinking skills which will enable them to go beyond the mere memorisation or understanding of content and provide them with the capability to actually apply that content in real life.  As such, developing critical thinking skills in learners is one of the most significant goals of any educational program.  Critical thinking is defined as “asking vital questions,” “gathering relevant information,” “testing well reasoned conclusions and solutions,” “thinking open mindedly,” “recognizing and assessing” ... “their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences” and “communicating effectively” (Paul & Elder, 2001, p.1). The ability to think objectively, rationally and logically is a much-desired skill for any professional or student. In India, the National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005) recommends that the aim of curricula at all stages of education should be to develop learners’ critical thinking, among other skills. Research in this area suggests numerous ways in which learners’ thinking skills can be developed or assessed. There are studies which have used classroom activities such as debates, group discussions, questioning and role-plays to enable critical thinking (Goodwin, 2003; Dickson, 2004; Proulx, 2004; Osborne, 2005; Roy & Macchiette, 2005).However, in the Indian context, since essay-writing is pre-dominant in examination writing tasks in general, and argumentative writing tasks in particular, it seems to be the best modality that could be exploited to develop learners’ critical thinking skills.

Argumentative writing, as a genre, requires learners to use higher order thinking skills, as suggested in the Bloom’s taxonomy (revised) of mental processes crucial during the course of learning or thinking (Stapleton &Wu, 2015; Anderson & Karthwohl, 2001; Bloom, 1956). When learners respond to argumentative writing tasks, they need to understand and analyse the problem given in the writing prompt, relate it to their knowledge and experiences (apply), collate and evaluate the information from their schema (evaluate), take a stance, and justify their stance through a logical presentation of related arguments, claims and examples in the best convincing way (create). In the Indian education scenario however, since our learners of English are usually more proficient in reading and writing rather than in listening and speaking, argumentative writing tasks are likely to prove more constructive for developing learners’ thinking skills than the other domains mentioned earlier.

However, even though argumentative writing as a genre has the potential to trigger and develop learners’ higher order thinking skills, the nature of tasks given to the learners and learners’ interpretation of them influences both the quality of mental processing that happens while they attempt the tasks and the final outcome of these tasks. The ways in which writing tasks are worded, the subject domain involved, the task-familiarity of the learners, the nature of contexts provided and the type of instructions have a direct influence on learners’ performance in those tasks in the context of their background knowledge, cognitive abilities and language proficiency.. In the Indian context, there are writing tasks, which require learners to take a stance and justify it with succinct and cogent argumentation. Such tasks are generally part of entrance tests, summative examination question papers, public examinations and various international standardized tests such as IELTS and TOEFL. One outcome of such widespread use is that these tasks have a huge influence on the kind of argumentative tasks prompts used in classrooms by teachers to develop learners’ argumentation and writing skills. In fact, English teachers usually draw on these tasks and even use them as they appear in these examinations However, it is important to understand that at micro level  mere imitation of standardize task prompts would not be a  fit or suitable for our learners’ need or they may not understand at all.  Therefore, classroom teachers need to design, select, adapt or modify argumentative writing prompts in order to communicate the demands of the task to the learners in a language that they understand, while at the same time providing them with enough opportunities to use their critical thinking abilities optimally.

The Study

The present study is an attempt to examine the impact of three different argumentative task-prompt-stimuli on learners’ thinking skills, as gleaned from their written scripts. Through this study, I will attempt to answer the following research question.

Research Question

To what extent does the nature of task prompt in essay writing affect the quality of written responses produced by learners?

Methodology

Forty tertiary level students from a semi-urban area in Odisha were administered a set of three argumentative tasks with three different task prompts. All the students had a minimum of 10 years exposure to English. Most of them had done their schooling (from first to twelfth grade) from Odiya (L1) medium schools. The tasks were different from each other in terms of their subject matter, the instructions given and the cognitive challenge that they posed. The tasks prompts, along with a short description of the task demands are presented in Table 1 below:

Table 1

Description of Writing Tasks

Task Prompts

Description

Task1

What is your favorite colour? Why?

This is a ‘wh’ type simple task; it requires learners to engage in lower order cognitive skills. Learners were required to state reasons for selecting a stance, thereby giving them scope for creativity.

Task2

Imagine that your college has banned mobile phones in the college premises. What do you think of the decision of your college administration? Write an essay of about 150 words stating the advantages and disadvantages of using mobile phones on the college campus and also give your opinion on the issue.

This task is an adapted form of a standardised proficiency test; it requires learners to engage in higher order thinking skills. The task demands are clear and the prompts are also clearly articulated. Learners are familiar with the topic and instructions for organization of the essay is given in the prompt itself.

 

 

Task3

State your opinion for or against the common belief, “Black is Beautiful”. Write an essay in about 100 words.

This task demands cognitive complexity, but that is not explicitly mentioned; it also demands creativity because learners need to figure out their perspective and then decide how to write the essay. Unfamiliarity with the topic makes the task complex, both cognitively and task-wise.

 

When one looks at the descriptions of the three tasks, we find that task 1 can be accomplished with relatively lower level cognitive abilities. It requires learners to choose a colour they think is their favourite based on their preference, symbolism connected with that colour and their emotional and psychological attachment with it. After that, they have to state the reasons for liking that particular colour, either in the form of opinions, facts or arguments supported by suitable examples, evidence or logical and reasonable explanations. This could be described as a one-sided task as it does not involve opposing views.

By contrast, in task 2, learners are expected to exercise higher cognitive abilities. They need to hypothesise on a situation, analyse the possible causes and effects, and compare and contrast  the advantages and disadvantages. This task requires learners to evaluate their decision and to write about it with the help of some examples or evidence.   The task stipulations are clearly stated, making it easy for the student to write the essay.

The third, task, on the other hand, is carefully designed to include minimum stipulations. It requires cognitive complexity, but this is not stated explicitly. The task prompt can be interpreted in many ways, and a range of personal experiences and examples may be provided by the learner. This task is more complex because learners also have to provide a justification for the stance taken by them. Unlike the first task, this task involves learners in a two-sided argument which they need to compare and contrast, and then provide a plausible outcome.

The responses of the students across the three tasks were analysed to find patterns. Coding and categorisation was attempted wherever possible.

Results and Findings

Although the tasks were administered to 40 students, for this article, the responses of only 10 students who completed all three tasks were analysed in-depth.
A qualitative analysis of the ten responses to the first task showed that there was a common pattern across all learners. All of them were able to:

  • State their favourite colour
  • Give a philosophical reason/explanation
  • Connect it to personal experience/habits/ environmental factors/humanitarian grounds, but,
  • None of them were able to provide a conclusion

An in-depth analysis of some relevant excerpts from their answer scripts showed that all ten learners, without exception, were able to state their favourite colour “My favourite colour is green/white/pink/…) based on their preference. To substantiate their preferences/choice of colour, they gave a philosophical reason or an explanation and they all were able to attach a form of symbolism to their choice.  The actual references used by them and excerpts from their responses are provided in the table below, Table 2:

Table 2

Coding and Categorisation Task 1

Philosophical reasons/explanations/personal preferences

Learner number

Excerpt

Symbol of peace/ caring relationship

1, 2 and 3

-“Green is a good mark of relationship.”

-“It is a sign of peace/good and caring relationship-friendship.”

-“Friends are the lovely companions with whom we can share our feelings and emotions.

Point of view on the reasons/provide relevant examples/ personal experiences and choices

4, 5,8, 10

-“Black is a heart touching color, that is why I have black dresses.”-“I personally prefer white colour for parties because it creates a decent and good impression in others’ mind.”

-“I love green and I have green dresses.”

-“With my point of view, all human beings will love white and black not to hate the black colour [sic].”

Global view perspective/ Environmental factors/Humanitarian grounds

7, 2, 8,

-“The red indicates to [sic] danger but in this world all objects or things have positive and negative thinking.”

-“It is a sign of peace, I like to be in a peaceful environment because when we do violence most of the thing gets wrong and mostly destroyed in every case.”

“It represents a funny, and peace [sic] environment.”

 

The range of explanations provided in column three of the table, under ‘excerpts; suggests that learners are able to state reasons for their choice in the form of opinions, facts or arguments, and support them with the help of suitable examples or evidence of logical and reasonable explanations. In all these examples, the students were engaged in tasks that involved remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and even a little bit of creating. However, although the task required learners to argue and justify, it did not ask them to frame an opinion or a point of view on a controversial topic. It involved learners in one-sided argument as there was no opposite side to create a contrast.

The demands of the second task were slightly different from that of the first task. However, it leads the learners through the same cognitive processes such as remembering and recalling an experience, retrieving and reflecting on their preferences in life, collating information and classifying it into categories, analysing the categories to arrive at a decision, constructing arguments and using the collated information as evidence or examples to justify or support the arguments. The difference between task one and task two was that there was a lot of guidance provided in task two to the student by way of the instructions. A qualitative analysis of the second task suggested the following pattern across the learners. All of them had:

  • One or two  points of view
  • One point of view with data and conclusion
  • Two points of views with a good and strong rebuttal, or a
  • Flat description of both the sides

In this task, learners were expected to exercise their higher cognitive abilities. The majority of the students were able to take a stand. Learners were required to hypothesize a situation and apply it to themselves. Learner1 stated: “I totally agree with the decision of college banning the mobiles in the college premises.” A similar statement was made by learner 4 who wrote: “It is a good decision of our administrator that our college had banned the mobile phone.” This signifies that the subject domain, familiarity with the topic, and wording of the task had an impact on the learners’ interpretation of the task. Some of the learners were able to state both points of view. Learner 2 stated: “I agree with this decision of the college administration, because the students are using mobile phones in the classroom (first point of view). So in [sic] my opinion on this issue is administration should allow students but with some instruction”(second point of view). Some learners were able to state a point of view and support it with examples and a conclusion. Learner 3 stated that in her writing “In my point of view;[sic] the college administration has taken a very good decision, because mobile phone has[sic] so many merits and demerits, we can contact easily the person (first example to support the stance), book a train ticket (second example to support the stance).So, students must abide by the rules and regulation[sic]of[sic]college. Because[sic]it would be beneficial for their future” (relevant conclusion in support of the stance). 

Other learners who could not take a stance were able to provide flat descriptions of both sides of the argument without favouring either one. Learner 5 stated  in her essay: “Through internet they can know lot of things and also we contact with people through social networks(support for the stance), allow the mobile phones to college campus then the students can contact the parents to say about their problems when they late arrival to home” (support for the stance). Overall, the task required that learners argue and justify their opinion or point of view on a controversial topic. This kind of task involves learners in a two-sided argument, and they have to compare and contrast both sides of the argument to draw a plausible outcome.

The third task was carefully designed and yet had the minimum stipulations. It required cognitive complexity but this was not made explicit. The demands of the task would in all likelihood lead the learners through the same cognitive processes as in tasks one and two, but unlike the previous tasks it is open ended, less guided, can accommodate multiple interpretations, scope for creativity and demands learners to have both local /global understanding on the topic..A qualitative analysis of the third task suggested the following pattern across the learners. All of them were able to:

  • State their stance
  • Distinguish between with pertinent philosophical reasoning with examples
  •  Analyse cultural differences with relevant explanations and examples
  • Give an analytical reasoning of both sides with philosophical and real life examples
  • Enunciate a global perspective
  • Give examples from across the globe

In the third task, learners are expected to not only engage higher cognitive abilities, but also reflect on the perspective or stance adopted by them. The nature of the task prompt is very different from the first two tasks. The stipulations are not explicitly stated; moreover, it is difficult because most of learners may/may not have any prior concept/knowledge of the topic From the perspective of the subject domain or familiarity with the topic, almost all the forty learners  have attempted the first two tasks. However most likely the numbers dropped for the third task.  In the case of this task, the ration was 10:3. The ratio of the number of learners who attempted the task versus those who completed it was 40:10.  Task 3 was evidently much more cognitively challenging than the other two tasks, not only in terms of the sheer number of learners who attempted it, but also in terms of the change in the nature of written responses it received. . Creativity is something that is evident in their responses, made cross-cultural comparisons, contrasted with existing beliefs or system of beliefs, and showed local/global understanding of whatever prior knowledge they have, drawn examples and explanations from personal, professional, ethical, spiritual and mythical grounds, evaluated multiple perspectives, some of the learners have concluded with relevant justification.

In the first task, the majority of the learners were able to state their stance clearly. This is evident from this excerpt from learner1: “I assure [sic] black is beautiful.” Learner3 stated: “In my opinion black is beautiful.”Learner9,taking a stance against the argument stated: “Our elders say that black is unlucky for us.”  In this task, therefore, learners were at a higher cognitive level to justify their stance. For this they used stereotypes, myths and even commented on culture. Learner 2 actually used philosophical reasoning in response to the question: “When a person is good [sic]? At that time my answer it always the thinking capacity, understanding, knowledge in him makes him or her beautiful [sic].” Learner 6 substantiated her stand by using a quote: “Every blackboard makes students life.” She drew from the philosophical reasoning “Every man has some thinking we must always be positive way should be in god minded [sic].”Learner 2 used culture as an analytical base and stated: “We can never judge a person on the basis of colour, we should never think that black people are wrong and we should judge on his right attitude and correctness in work.” He then added some relevant examples to further explain his point: “We like the black jeans to wear [sic], like to use black kajol to look beautiful, black belt is given to the karate winners.” Learner 2 was able to provide analytical reasoning from both perspectives and supported her stance by stating, “The [sic] black coloured things are nice and pleasant see [sic]or watch”. She then backed it up with philosophical, real life examples “then why not the black people are respected in our society [sic]. Why there should be any discrimination at all.” To authenticate their stance and make it more comprehensive, some of the learners added a global perspective by quoting examples from across the border.Learner4stated:“We take an example of West Indies they are not good looking means their soul is not good [sic]”. Learner 2 stated: “Respect each and everyone in this society irrespective of colour, creed, nationality, etc.”

Overall, the task required learners to not only remember, understand, apply, and analyse the question, but also to evaluate their own stance, justify it and provide examples. This pushed them into the highest cognitive ability of creation. Learners had to argue and justify their opinion and present their viewpoint on a controversial topic. Being a controversial topic, it was two-sided; therefore learners had to compare and contrast both sides of the argument and then arrive at a conclusion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, through this study, I was able to successfully establish a link between the nature of task prompts and learner performances, as is reflected in the critical responses of the learners. When tasks do not use the appropriate prompts or words, it diminishes the chances of the learners engaging in the much required critical thinking, analysis and reflection about their own knowledge, skills, and abilities. In contrast, for some learners, task prompts do not make any difference as far as their critical thinking is concerned. They consistently deliver a high level of performance, producing critical and rich content across the task responses; learner 2 is an example of one such learner.

In this study, the majority of learners struggled to write their responses to the second and third task. The second task was the second most attempted task among the three tasks because of the nature of the task prompts and familiarity with the subject domain. It was also more guided and organized, and carried clear stipulations. Therefore, the written responses were more organized in terms of focus, planning, content development, argument, reasoning and logical presentation.

The third task was the most challenging task for all the learners. Here, the learners’ inability to understand the task became a crucial factor in making it the least attempted task among the three. Even those who attempted and completed it, showed signs of a struggle in terms of their organization, content development, reasoning, logical arrangement, rebuttal and most importantly conclusion. The majority of the learners across all three tasks did not include a conclusion in their responses.

Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that if the prompts of the tasks are cautiously worded, it will certainly help in validating the required skills i.e.remembering and recalling the experience; retrieving and reflecting on their preferences in life; collating the information and then classifying it into categories; analyzing those categories to reach judgments; constructing arguments and using the collated information as evidences or examples to justify or support the arguments.In other words, if tasks are worded carefully to reflect the demands of the task, the nature of responses would be more accurate.

References

Anderson, L.W.& Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (abridged ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Boston, MA:Allyn&Bacon

Dickson (2004). Developing “Real-world intelligence”: Teaching argumentative writing through debate. English Journal,94(1), 34-40.

Goodwin, J. (2003). Students’ perspectives on debate exercises in content area classes. Communication Education,52(2), 157-163.

National Council of Educational Research and Training. (2005). National Curriculum Framework 2005. Retrieved from http://www.ncert.nic.in/rightside/links/pdf/framework/english/nf2005.pdf

Osborne, A. (2005). Debate and student development in the history classroom. New Directions for Teaching & Learning,103, 39-50.

Proulx, G. (2004). Integrating scientific method and critical thinking in classroom debates on environmental issues. The American Biology Teacher,66(1), 26-33.

Roy, A., & Macchiette, B. (2005). Debating the issues: A tool for augmenting critical thinking skills of marketing students. Journal of Marketing Education,27(3), 264-276.

Paul, R. Elder, L. (2001) The miniature guide to critical thinking :concepts and tools Dillon Beach, Calif. : Foundation for Critical Thinking,  

Stapleton, P., & Wu, Yanming (Amy) (2015). Assessing the quality of arguments in students’ persuasive writing: A case study analyzing the relationship between surface structure and substance. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 17, 12-23

 

Anil Kumar Nayak is a doctoral research scholar at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Having presented research papers at several national seminars and conferences, his research interests include critical thinking, learning strategies, academic writing and academic thinking.

reehanshy@gmail.com