Investigating critical thinking in the argumentative writing of English majors at a Mainland Chinese university : Implications for policy changes

Fulan LIU

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


Argumentation is generally perceived as a tool for critical and analytical thinking (Crammond, 1998; Walton, 2007). Empirical studies suggest that students’ argumentative writing is an effective vehicle for promoting student learning and critical thinking (Kuhn & Crowell, 2011; Stapleton, 2001). The present research project, comprising three successive studies, investigated critical thinking abilities in the argumentative writing of undergraduate English majors in mainland China. Study 1 examined students’ performance in and perceptions of written argumentation. It further explored what factors might have influenced students’ argumentative writing and critical thinking. The findings of Study 1 indicated that both typical classroom instruction and writing prompts, among other factors, did little to enhance students’ critical thinking in terms of acknowledging and refuting alternative viewpoints (counterargumentation) in their written argumentation. Study 2 investigated the effect of an instructional intervention in counterargumentation on students’ argumentative writing and critical thinking. Using a modified Toulmin model of argumentation (1958), the intervention aimed to improve students’ argumentative strategies, especially counterargumentation skills. A pretest-posttest design was used on experimental and control groups with 125 participants at a Chinese university. The control group received instruction in argumentative writing (which typically ignores counterargumentation), while the experimental group received instruction which included counterargumentation. The results of the study demonstrated the efficacy of explicit classroom instruction in counterargumentation. The inclusion of counterarguments and rebuttals was found to be significantly positively correlated with the overall quality of an argumentative essay, and the posttest score of the experimental group was significantly higher than that of the control group. Additionally, the experimental group displayed significantly improved critical thinking ability. To extend the inquiry into the area of assessment, a third study was devised to investigate how the writing prompt might be having an impact on students’ critical thinking in their argumentative writing. Study 3 consisted of two phases. In Phase 1, the prompts from three high-stakes tests, TOEFL, IELTS and TEM4, were investigated for two elements: rhetorical function and object of enquiry. Results revealed that both elements converged around a narrow set of functions and content. In Phase 2, control and experimental groups comprising 129 undergraduates in China wrote essays on a prompt deemed “conventional” by the findings of Phase 1, and an exploratory prompt respectively. Various differences between the two sets of essays were noted related to standardized indexes of writing quality, as well as other rhetorical and linguistic features including: use of metadiscourse, essay organization, and use of certain lexical items. The results suggested that conventional prompts tended to produce formulaic responses while prompts engaging problem-solving could stimulate high-order thinking. The findings of the three studies may have important implications for writing assessment as well as argumentative writing pedagogy in China and beyond. It is proposed that counterargumentation be considered in the writing prompts and rubrics of high-stakes English tests, and included in classroom instruction on argumentative writing. It is also contended that a wider range of prompts may broaden the scope of written language and forms of critical reasoning to the benefit of students. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The Hong Kong Institute of Education
  • STAPLETON, Paul, Supervisor
  • BENSON, Philip, Supervisor
  • MA, Qing 馬清, Supervisor
Award date31 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • English language -- Study and teaching -- Chinese speakers.
  • Critical thinking
  • English language -- Rhetoric.
  • Persuasion (Rhetoric)
  • Academic writing.
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Thesis (Ph.D.)--The Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2014


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