Methods & Research: Argument Mapping & Mastery Learning


Argument mapping is a visual method of displaying how reasons work to support a claim. A map exposes the hidden structure of the argument so that everyone can see how all the reasons fit together. You can map objections to any premise, so you can see exactly where two people disagree. The process of mapping also exposes hidden assumptions (a.k.a. implicit co-premises), which are often the true source of disagreement. (You know when it feels like people are just talking past each other?)

Here are some practical reasons:
Here is a philosophical reason:
Democracy is built on arguments. Human beings are always going to disagree with each other. We can either resolve these disagreements with violence or with words. When we choose to fight, we get injustice. When we choose to argue, we can listen charitably to each other’s claims, and try to persuade each other by giving each reasons and evidence. This is hard work, but it’s the best tool we have as a species.
  • When students collaborate on mapping exercises, they’re energetic and focused. The process of talking about how specific reasons work to justify a claim is naturally engaging. Students own the vocabulary of arguments when they talk to each other about the best way to map a text.
  • Our mapping exercises engage students in deliberate practice with targeted feedback. A growing body of educational research shows that both of these elements (practice and feedback) are critical for building skills in any domain. 
  • The point isn’t to solve the puzzle correctly, it’s to think about how the reasons work together to support a claim, so you can explain to yourself and others exactly how the reasoning works. With argument mapping, it really is all about the process!


Students start building their skills by mapping other people’s arguments. This allows them to focus on how the reasons work together to support a claim – setting aside their personal biases and opinions. They can focus on the reasoning itself, rather than winning the argument. In order to accurately map someone else’s argument, they have to consider how the author themself would have mapped it. This instills a habit of intellectual charity that allows for more enjoyable and more useful discussions.

Students learn to critically evaluate an argument on its own terms, rather than simply endorsing or dismissing it based on their feelings or prior experience. Are the premises true? How strongly do they support the claim?

After students have learned to map other people’s arguments, they have the vocabulary and the skills to craft their own arguments with precision and rigor, thereby doing justice to their fantastic ideas!

Not exactly. Our goal isn’t that students walk around mapping arguments, but that they develop the attitudes and habits of a critical thinker. We help students engage the arguments coming at them more rigorously and precisely, as well as to craft and communicate their own arguments. It’s the process and the practice of mapping that helps you understand how someone else thinks about an issue, and decide where you should stand on it.

Argument Mapping Research

A growing body of research shows that practice with argument mapping significantly improves analytical reasoning skills. In fact, meta-analyses find that argument mapping courses yield nearly double the gains of standard critical thinking courses, and 5 or 6 times the gains of a standard semester at college.

Why is argument mapping so effective? Researchers cite many factors, including:

  • The visual representation of arguments reduces cognitive load and frees up working memory when analyzing arguments.
  • The process of identifying and exposing the structure of written arguments – including underlying assumptions and intermediate conclusions – demands precision, rigor, and intellectual charity.
  • Mapping naturally provides abundant opportunities for deliberate practice with targeted feedback – elements which are essential for developing any complex skill.
  • The activity of mapping prompts deeper and richer student interactions than a standard classroom discussion.

Using argument mapping to improve critical thinking skills

Tim van Gelder

“The conclusion we can safely draw from these numbers is that the “value add” of AM-based CT instruction, relative to just being at college, is around 0.6 (or 0.7 for high-intensity AM), which is somewhere between a medium and a large effect size. Or, put another way, AM-based CT instruction yields many times the gain in CT skills over one semester than is normally achieved by just being at college.

Final Report: Critical Thinking with Argument Mapping

Neil R. Thomason, et al.

“Argument-mapping-based critical thinking classes are much more effective (an average student improvement of roughly 0.75 standard deviation (SD) per semester) than regular critical thinking classes (roughly 0.35 SD per semester) which, in turn, are much more effective than undergraduate studies (roughly 0.15 SD per semester).”

Short Report on Initial Polarization/ Argument Visualization Study

Simon Cullen and Vidushi Sharma

“Partisan antipathy is rife among both Democrats and Republicans… Communicating political arguments using prose may contribute to this damaging political polarization.

[Participants] in the Visual Map condition saw their opponents as less morally evil than did [control group] in the Prose condition.”

Improving analytical reasoning and argument understanding

Simon Cullen, et al.

“We found that Seminar students improved substantially more on LSAT Logical Reasoning test forms than Control students (d = .71, p < .001), suggesting that learning how to visualize arguments in the seminar led to large generalized improvements in students’ analytical reasoning skills. Moreover, blind scoring of final essays from Seminar students and Control students, drawn from a parallel lecture course, revealed large differences in favor of seminar students (d = 0.87, p = .005). Seminar students understood the arguments better, and their essays were more accurate and effectively structured.”

The Use of Argument Mapping in Improving Critical Thinking

Eva van der Brugge

Argument maps help us organise and navigate complex information, they encourage us to clearly articulate our reasoning, and allow us to communicate this reasoning quickly and effectively…The process of mapping an argument, when practiced in the right manner, improves scores on standardised tests of critical thinking, and this improvement seems to transfer to situations in which one is not mapping.”

Assessing the efficacy of argument diagramming to teach critical thinking skills in introduction to philosophy

Maralee Harrell

“We determined that the students did develop the skills in which we were interested over the course of the semester. We also determined that the students who were taught argument diagramming gained significantly more than the students who were not. We conclude that learning how to construct argument diagrams significantly improves a student’s ability to analyze arguments.”

A scaffolding tool to assist learners in argumentative writing

Cheng-Yu Fan and Gwo-Dong Chen

“This included a total of 11 classes (272 students), which were divided into three groups: the argument map writing group, the concept map writing group, and the conventional argumentative writing group. The experimental results showed that the argumentative essays produced by the students in the argument map writing group were superior to those written by students in the other two groups.”

Can Software Help People Build Better Arguments?

Helen Lee Bouygues

“Online argument mapping provides benefits to teachers. In contrast to a lot of educational technology, the approach is fairly painless to roll out in a classroom, and argument mapping allows students to ‘engage in self-directed exploratory learning as they try out different argument structures to see what works best.’ … Some students show gains in critical thinking even after an hour of practice on an argument mapping tool.”

Effects of a computer-assisted argument map learning strategy on sixth-grade students’ argumentative essay reading comprehension

Kuang-Hung Chiang, et al. 

“The experimental results from 373 sixth graders showed that the argument mapping method enhanced students’ argumentative essay reading comprehension ability compared with traditional and concept mapping approaches.”

Cognitive and pedagogical benefits of argument mapping

Yanna Rider and Neil Thomason

“It clarifies thinking, deepens reading comprehension, improves critical thinking, and improves written argumentation. It can promote an enquiring classroom.

“…We are potentially looking at one of the most important innovations in learning, because LAMP (Lots of Argument Mapping Practice) can be used in many types of classroom…We need rigorous, sustained research if we are to realize these possibilities.”

Improving Critical Thinking Through Argument Mapping

Christopher Dwyer (for Psychology Today)

“Three large-scale experimental studies were conducted with the main results indicating that argument mapping (AM) can significantly facilitate memory performance beyond that of more traditional study methods and that the provision of AM-infused CT training can significantly enhance CT performance (Dwyer, 2011).”

The potential of argument mapping as a tool for teaching critical thinking in secondary school

Tim Lidåker

“This thesis presents a simplified digital argument mapping tool, developed in order to explore the feasibility of argument mapping for students in secondary school (aged 13-15)…The thesis has shown the argument mapping has potential for use in secondary school, and should be further studied.”

Improving first-year writing using argument diagramming

Maralee Harrell and Danielle Wetzel

“We found a significant effect of the use of argument diagrams, and this effect was stable even when multiple plausible correlates were controlled for. These results suggest that natural⎯and relatively minor⎯modifications to standard first-year composition courses could provide substantial increases in student writing ability.

An evaluation of argument mapping as a method of enhancing critical thinking performance in e-learning environments

Christopher Dwyer, Michael J Hogan and Ian Stewart

“74 undergraduate psychology students were allocated to either an AM-infused CT e-learning course or a no instruction control group and were tested both before and after an 8-week intervention period on CT ability using the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment. Participation in the AM-infused CT course significantly enhanced overall CT ability and all CT sub-scale abilities from pre- to post-testing.”

Argument maps improve critical thinking

Charles Twardy

“In short, I think computer-based argument mapping is the key to Melbourne’s success, and that it should feature centrally in any critical thinking course.”

Argumentation Step-By-Step: Learning Critical Thinking through Deliberate Practice

Ann J. Cahill and Stephen Bloch-Schulman

“Critical thinking classes … are crucial to a democratic society: being able to distinguish persuasive arguments from nonpersuasive arguments, to evaluate claims critically and fairly, and to recognize forms of persuasion not grounded in reason…Given that, as van Gelder and others have shown, “one semester of instruction based on argument mapping can yield reasoning skill gains of the same magnitude as would normally be expected to occur over an entire undergraduate education,” and given the effectiveness of teaching mapping through the step-by-step method, it is not surprising that teaching in this way has reminded us of how thrilling it is, as instructors, to witness moments of learning, to see our students move from confusion and inability to confidence and fluency.

Mastery Learning Research

Our mastery-learning technology ensures that every student learns the skills of argument mapping at their own pace and with as much repetition and practice as they need to achieve mastery on each conept.

Effectiveness of Mastery Learning Programs: A Meta-Analysis

Chen-Lin C. Kulik, James A. Kulik, Robert L. Bangert-Drowns

“A meta-analysis of findings from 108 controlled evaluations showed that mastery learning programs have positive effects on the examination performance of students in colleges, high schools, and the upper grades in elementary schools.”

The Effectiveness of Mastery Learning Strategies in Undergraduate Education Courses

Charlottk R. Clark,Thomas R. Guskey, Jacques S. Benninga

“Multivariate analysis of covariance showed that even after controlling for demographic and affective variables, students in mastery learning sections scored higher on a common final examination, attained higher course grades, and were absent less often than students in sections taught by more conventional methods. Implications for teacher training and college- level instruction are discussed.”

Synthesis of Research on the Effects of Mastery Learning in Elementary and Secondary Classrooms

Thomas R. Guskey, Sally L. Gates

“All of the 25 elementary and secondary school studies reporting achievement outcomes showed positive effects as a result of the application of groupbased mastery learning strategies.”