Teaching Critical Thinking

Analyzing the Purpose of an Argument

The purpose for advancing an argument often differs from simple acceptance of its main claim. Consider the following examples:

Situation: Mayoral candidate Green speaking to Southside PTA
Claim: “I’m tough on crime.”
Purpose: Motivate PTA members to vote for Green.

Situation: Parent talking to teenager
Claim: “If you keep listening to your music that loud, you’ll ruin your hearing.”
Purpose: Get the teenager to turn down the volume.

As these examples suggest, an argument may successfully support a claim yet fail to achieve its purpose if those to whom the argument is directed don’t believe the claim provides a good reason to act as the arguer hopes they will. “Good reasons” are logically sound, but also embody values the audience believes are relevant and compelling.

When trying to understand and evaluate an argument, it’s wise to consider the intended audience and purpose.


Activities and Assignments
(L) Can be done in large section courses

Bumper Stickers

Assign students to jot down the exact wording of two or three interesting or funny bumper stickers they notice. In class, ask some or all students to share one of their favorites. Select one or two examples and discuss the following questions:

  • Does the bumper sticker state or imply a claim? (e.g., “You can’t simultaneously prevent and prepare for war” states a claim; “Get off my tail” does not.)
  • If it does, what purpose might be served by displaying the bumper sticker?
  • Who is the intended audience for the bumper sticker?
  • Would this audience’s acceptance of the claim be sufficient to achieve the purpose?

Following this discussion, have students answer the same questions regarding their remaining examples, either in writing or through class discussion. (L)

Letters to the Editor

Assign students to bring to class letters to the editor that state one or more claims relevant to the course (i.e., not thank you letters). In class, ask students to discuss or write about (a) the intended audience for each letter, (b) the purpose(s) the letter is meant to serve, and (c) whether the audience’s acceptance of claims made in the letter would be sufficient to achieve the purpose. Discuss students’ responses.

What Do the Critics Say?

Explain that reviews of works of art, products, restaurants, and so forth do more than state whether or not the critic liked whatever was reviewed. A reviewer may seek to promote the thing being reviewed, to influence the future direction of a field, or to comment on a larger issue. Then have the class read a review relevant to the course and discuss its purpose(s). If wished, assign students to read another review and write or discuss its purposes. (L)

Speech Analysis

Have students read or listen to a speech presented in a (now) well understood historical situation or, alternatively, in a novel, film or play. Have students research the situation or give them this information. Then ask them to write about or discuss the intended audience, the occasion or context, the speaker’s aims, and whether the claims he or she advances are appropriate in light of these factors. Discuss students’ responses.

Article Analysis

Have students read a scholarly article that presents an argument relevant to the course (e.g., theoretical pieces, criticism, articles reporting research findings). Ask them to underline the specific claims advanced in the article and swiggly underline the larger purpose the article is meant to serve. (In scholarly writing, both the claims and the larger purpose will usually be stated explicitly somewhere in the article.) If wished, compare students’ responses to a key provided by the instructor. (L)