Argumentation as part of lab work

By Heather King - June 2013


Kind, P. M., Kind, V., Hofstein, A., & Wilson, J. (2011). Peer argumentation in the school science laboratory – Exploring effects of task features. International Journal of Science Education33(18), 2527–2558.

Argumentation in science involves the development, justification, and defence of evidence-based claims, together with the reasoned dispute of counterclaims. This process is the foundation for all scientific endeavours. Supporting the development of argumentation skills, therefore, is a key part of science education. Laboratory work is also as an essential part of science. Combining these two activities, therefore, would seem to be worthwhile. In this study, researchers explored the impact of three different lab-based tasks on the nature and quality of any subsequent argumentation.

The researchers note that lab-based tasks are often structured in such a way that they guide students from problem to conclusion without ever encouraging students to question the method of data collection or the quality of data collected. Acquiring the skills of argumentation, meanwhile, is commonly left to non-practical lessons. Further, argumentation in science education generally centres on socio-scientific issues, in which the role of data as evidence for contrasting claims is, perhaps, more easily understood.

However, as the researchers point out, “if students are doing investigations in the laboratory, these should include argumentation, because, unless they do, the activities portray a misleading image of science” (p. 2530). Data interpretation provides a ready-made resource teachers can use to introduce argumentation and scaffold students’ initial attempts. Because they are using their own data, students “own” the process, so that they may engage more deeply in argumentation.

Research Design

In an attempt to fuse the skills of argumentation and practical lab-based work, the researchers designed three lab-based tasks for students aged 12–13. Each task involved different forms of scaffolding to help the researchers explore how different forms of data and different questions prompted debate. No prior guidance on argumentation was given to students.

In the first task, students worked in small groups to measure the rate of cooling of water held in various containers. This task generates complex data that does not automatically point to one correct conclusion, and thus the data needs to be interrogated.

In the second task, students debated the plausibility of various conflicting hypotheses regarding the dissolution of salt at given temperatures before conducting their own experiments on this phenomenom.

In the third task, students first completed a practical investigation and then discussed it by comparing their own data with those of a fictional group of students.

The researchers analysed the effect of each task by measuring the frequency and quality of the argumentation, which was caught using video and audio recordings from a lapel microphone worn by one student. In assessing the quality, the researchers noted the presence or absence of rebuttals of claims. They also observed the behaviour of the students: Were they focused on data handling, on explaining the observed phenomena using scientific theories, or on coordinating and evaluating evidence as they drew conclusions?

The researchers’ found argumentation occurred most frequently when students were co-coordinating and evaluating evidence, and that this task also resulted in the highest quality of argument. In other words, the third task in which students conducted a post investigation discussion was most effective in enabling students to consider evidence.

However, the researchers note that students typically learn lab procedures mechanistically and consider all their data to be true. Students at this age have no concept of uncertainty, nor do they question the epistemological validity of their conclusions. They find it difficult to move smoothly from hypothesizing to experimenting to evaluating. Moreover, students do not have a clear understanding of how to evaluate their data.

The researchers advise that more scaffolding is necessary to help students understand the importance of questioning their data and justifying their claims. Their findings suggest that tasks that explicitly require students to engage in discussion of data are best at supporting argumentation. Like prior investigators, they argue that young learners can engage in argumentation if it is explicitly taught.

Implications for Practice

Classroom teachers often find it difficult to incorporate argumentation into practical laboratory work. Might argumentation be an area that informal science education (ISE) could seek to support? Lab-based activities in ISE settings often last longer than lessons in school. ISE practitioners thus may have more time to explicate the importance of interrogating data collected during lab work and to explain how students need to interpret and use data to generate claims. Tasks that require explicit analysis of data are probably easiest to replicate in ISE, but, with appropriate scaffolding, other activities could be possible.


The following briefs from Relating Research to Practice can serve as a starting point for further reading on the role and nature of argumentation:

Scientific argumentation approaches and orientations, brief discussing Cavagnetto, A. R. (2010). Argument to foster scientific literacy: A review of argument interventions in K–12 science contexts. Review of Educational Research. 80(3), 336–371.

The relationship of scientific questioning and scientific argumentation, brief discussing Chin, C., & Osborne, J. (2010). Supporting argumentation through case studies in science classrooms. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(2), 230–284.

Learning to communicate science as a persuasive endeavor, brief discussing Kuhn D (2010) Teaching and learning science as argument. Science Education, 94(5), 810–824.

The effect of inquiry-based instruction on students’ knowledge, reasoning, and argumentation, brief discussing Wilson, C. D., Taylor, J. A., Kowalski, S. M., & Carlson, J. (2010). The relative effects and equity of inquiry-based and commonplace science teaching on students’ knowledge, reasoning, and argumentation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(3), 276–301.