Scientific argumentation is a social and collaborative process that is at the heart of scientific inquiry (Duschl & Osborne, 2002). It examines the question of whether the explanation is valid – that is, whether it succeeds in generating understanding and whether it is better than competing accounts (Osborne & Patterson, 2011). Argumentation includes any dialog that addresses “the coordination of evidence and theory to support or refute an explanatory conclusion, model, or prediction” (Osborne, Erduran, & Simon, 2004, p. 995). Argumentation often consists of three major components (Osborne, et al., 2004; Toulmin, 1958):

  • Claims: Statements in the form of declarative sentences that answer a controversial question.
  • Grounds: Data, warrants, and backings.
  • Rebuttal: Attacks on the grounds of a claim or attacks directly on a claim.

We intentionally treat argumentation and explanation as distinct practices. Consistent with Berland and Reiser (2008), we believe the practices of explanation and argumentation are complementary. Explanation provides a product around which the argumentation can occur. However, argumentation creates a context in which robust explanations are valued. Given that explanation and argument at are closely related, we apply the claim, evidence, and reasoning framework to both the practices of constructing explanations and constructing arguments.

Nevertheless, there are several significant distinctions between explanation and argumentation. In argumentation, it is important to include rebuttals. Additionally, the context of an argument task is open-ended and does not suggest an absolute correct or incorrect answer, whereas the context may be more closed for an explanation. Another key difference is that argumentation moves to interchanges in a social context; therefore, when students engage in argumentation activities, they may find themselves defending, debating, or critiquing products or ideas of their peers, whereas when a student is constructing an explanation, that student may not considering to the ideas of another person.

Unfortunately, students in most classrooms have little experience engaging in argumentation. Thus assessments that attempt to probe students’ ability in this area are likely to require multiple opportunities for students to encounter alternative ideas and a social context to communicate ideas. In assessment settings, particularly assessments taken by individual students, one possible approach to assess students’ argumentation ability is to present a student with multiple alternative opinions from virtual students and ask the student to critique them. Another more authentic approach is to log the dialogue or interactions between students when they engage in critiquing or defending each other’s ideas and then score those conversations or interactions.

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