K. Ashley1, M. Falakmasir2

1University of Pittsburgh, School of Law, Learning Research and Development Center (UNITED STATES)
2University of Pittsburgh, Intelligent Systems Program (UNITED STATES)
Can online argument diagramming help students learn written argumentation skills? Students at Moi U. Law School (Moi) in Eldoret, Kenya, received free tablet computers through the U. of Pittsburgh School of Law (Pitt Law). As part of the NSF-funded ArgumentPeer Project, Pitt researchers created a learning module to teach legal argumentation skills to over 400 Moi students in three sections of a law course taught by one instructor. Two sections will receive a version that employs argument diagramming. The third will retrieve a traditional writing-only version. Objective tests and blindly graded written arguments will determine if/how argument diagramming facilitates learning.

Pitt Law has helped Moi develop its legal curriculum. Thanks to the generosity of a Pitt Law professor and a Danish philanthropist, Moi students received tablet computers, assembled in Haiti, to help them with their studies. Since Moi lacked online educational content for the tablet computers, Pitt researchers developed the argumentation learning module. It comprises 9 lessons (e.g, Introduction to Planning a Legal Argument in Support of a Claim, Supporting Arguments Pro and Con with Legal Rules and Citations, Applying Precedential Rule to Facts with Argument by Analogy). The lessons involve a writing assignment for the 2d semester of a year-long Torts course, the body of law that governs civil proceedings to provide legal relief for persons harmed by the wrongful acts of others (e.g., negligence). The lessons focus on making arguments in a hypothetical scenario involving the Duty to Aid. Since Kenya, like the U.S., is a common law jurisdiction, the law of torts and the manner of argumentation with rules and cases are similar.

The plan is to deploy the lessons over two weeks in May, 2015 via Moi’s Moodle-based e-learning platform to 480 Moi students in three sections taught by one instructor. All students in both groups will read the hypothetical, cases, and legal provisions. We provide a list of argumentation elements, which relate to the legal analysis of the hypothetical scenario. The students in each group will be randomly assigned to write an argument for one of two parties in the scenario. Students will construct their arguments by selecting and ordering appropriate elements from the list.

One group will use argument diagramming and a free 3d party, tablet-compatible app as a tool for planning how to assemble the elements into a coherent legal argument. This group will submit argument diagrams and draft written arguments. The writing-only group will use an exclusively text-based approach for constructing their arguments with their selected elements and will submit only final text drafts. Both groups will perform the work after class, probably at the law school where they have Wi-Fi access. The instructor will grade the final written arguments in a blind test. A post-test will assess students’ argumentation abilities. Given the large n, it should be possible to assess objectively how well students learn with each approach.

The goal is to determine empirically if students learn more about argumentation and about the substantive tort law from the argument-diagraming or the writing-only approach. A successful study demonstrating benefits to law students in this developing country has the potential to improve legal education in other resource-deprived regions.