Teaching Argumentation in Higher Education: Narratives From Composition Writing Classrooms in Kenya

Teaching Argumentation in Higher Education: Narratives From Composition Writing Classrooms in Kenya

Alice Wanjira Kiai (The Technical University of Kenya, Kenya) and Peter Getyngo Mbugua (United States International University Africa, Kenya)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1461-0.ch019

Abstract

This study examines teaching methodologies used by composition instructors in a private university in Kenya where composition is taught to all undergraduate students. The study adopted a qualitative approach in the form of narrative inquiry to explore challenging topics in teaching and learning argumentation, methodological interventions, instructors' use of technology, and to suggest strategies for addressing problem areas. Purposive sampling was adopted, resulting in narratives from three experienced course instructors. Learner-centred approaches were prevalent, especially in addressing challenging topics such as formulation of claims, supporting arguments with evidence, recognising fallacies and appeals, and documentation of sources of information.
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Introduction

English is an official language and the main medium of instruction in Kenyan schools and universities. Ironically, although it is at university that students are expected to engage in increasingly sophisticated discourse in written (and spoken) academic English, it is precisely at this point that English language instruction and support takes a generally downward trajectory. Few universities offer specific support that can effectively scaffold students towards meeting the demands of written academic discourse. In the course of their careers, the researchers have taught undergraduate students in both public and private universities in Kenya. In public universities, first-year undergraduates are generally offered Communication Skills. This is a common course, intended to prepare them for academic life, and it generally comprises content on study and examination skills, listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Writing skills are included in the course content, but do not constitute an independent course. The teaching and learning of Communication Skills is similar across universities in Kenya. Students from different departments learn the course together in large classes, and instructors mainly adopt the lecture method. The instructors/researchers experienced a different model at the private university under study, where composition is taught as a unique course.

The researchers’ experiences in teaching composition within this institution stand in sharp contrast to their experiences in teaching Communication Skills elsewhere. The two courses are comparable to the extent that both are offered to all undergraduate students, and both are intended to prepare students for academic life. The teaching of writing for academic purposes is a common denominator in both courses; however, in the context under study, writing is taught independently, and in greater detail than is to be found in Communication Skills.

This study adds to the body of literature on the pedagogy of argumentation arising from a contextually unique teaching and learning context where composition is keenly focused upon and taught across the curriculum. It captures narratives of experienced instructors, who have taught the course in the institution for over five years, with a focus on their pedagogical practices and innovative classroom strategies in addressing problem areas. The following are the objectives of the study:

  • 1.

    To discuss methodological interventions to challenging topics in argumentation.

  • 2.

    To explore composition instructors’ use of technology in teaching argumentation.

  • 3.

    To recommend effective practices in composition instruction within the specified teaching and learning context.

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Background

The Teaching and Learning Context

Writing is taught at two levels – Composition I and Composition II, as part of General Education. The courses are taught by various course instructors. In order to achieve a level of uniformity in teaching and achieving the expected learning outcomes, course instructors are guided by a uniform course description from which individual course outlines/syllabi are developed. The topics for the course were discussed by faculty and accepted in a series of workshops held between 2003-2006 (Personal communication). From this template, each course instructor develops individual course outlines.

Class sizes are intentionally kept relatively small, with about 30 learners, and classrooms are equipped with multimedia facilities. It is an institutional requirement that course instructors use the e-learning platform (BlackBoard) for engagement and assessment of learners. Teaching is supported by the availability of multimedia facilities in all classrooms and a modern library.

Argumentation forms a major part of the second-level composition course. In order to take the course, learners are required to have passed the earlier course – which focuses on expository writing and the mechanics of writing - with Grade C (70-73%) and above. These courses are offered to a diverse, international student body, comprising first, second and foreign users of English, pursuing various degree courses in the humanities, social sciences and related disciplines, as well as health sciences.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Intensive Reading: Detailed reading, with specific objectives.

Extensive Reading: Wide reading for enjoyment and improving reading and interpretation skills.

Reflective Practice: Process of engaging in reflection through monitoring and critiquing one’s actions, leading to self-awareness and personal-professional development.

Learner-Centred Approach: Instruction that encourages learners to be active, interactive and responsible participants in their own learning, while teacher models, facilitates and monitors the process.

Argument: A reasoned claim, supported by evidence.

Critical Thinking: Objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form reasoned judgement.

Evidence: Body of facts or information that supports a claim.

Claim: A statement capturing one’s position in an arguable topic.

Technology: Systems and devices which arise from the practical application of scientific knowledge.

Appeal: Persuasive devices used in an argument that rely on logic, emotion or ethics.

Fallacy: Faulty reasoning that leads to an unsound argument.

Higher Education: Post-secondary education, at degree level.

Composition: Activity of structuring a piece of writing.

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