Argue, explain and discuss

Argumentation is what drives a text. What is it that you want to say? What is the main point of the argument, and how can it be substantiated? Argumentation means clarifying what it is that you are claiming in the text, and what you are building this claim on. In other words, it is the justification of your claims. The film Saying What You Mean provides one example of how this can be done:

Argumentation: Simply put

A simple but usable definition of argumentation is claim + justification. This means explaining what your claim is, and then justifying it (with evidence, reasons, materials, etc.). This definition can be helpful in considering how to structure arguments in your assignment. When making an argument, the best way to back up a claim is by providing different examples. You will find more information on how to structure an argument below.

Explain and discuss

Many student assignments follow the formula ‘explain and discuss’. In these kinds of assignments, argumentation is typically focused on comparing, using and/or evaluating different approaches to a phenomenon (e.g. different theoretical perspectives). In the first section of the assignment, you should explain something you have read, while in the subsequent sections you should discuss what you have explained. This can be, for example, an explanation of a theoretical concept, which will then be applied and discussed in relation to a practical phenomenon. It could also be a discussion of two different theories or concepts, and comparing them with each other.

This raises the question of what it means to ‘explain’ something, and what ‘discussion’ is.

Explain with your own words

When you are asked to ‘explain’ something in an assignment, this typically means to ‘describe’ or ‘present’ something. When explaining, you are not being asked to take a position or give an opinion on the concept you are describing. There is no need to say whether you think it is good or bad, or to pose too many questions about it, at this stage.

In an explanation, you should summarise and reproduce what you have read, rather than expressing opinions. When you explain a theory, you should present the ideas of the authors in the most objective way possible. The test of a good explanation is that it would be approved by the author of the original text. Also, a neutral description at the beginning of an assignment lays the groundwork for you to go into more detail and provide a considered criticism later in your text, rather than giving either a negative or positive assessment right at the start.

The text will be clearer and more logical for a reader if you begin a new paragraph at the point where you begin to discuss concepts and ideas, following on from what you have explained and described so far.

Use your own language

Reproduce what you have read in your own words; you can then go back and check that what you have written matches up with the original source. By doing this, you will have a much better flow in your text than if you directly copied the language used in the original material.

It is important in any assignment to show that you have understood what you have read. You can do this by presenting the main points of a source or text in your own words. It is therefore more important that you write in a clear and understandable way than use advanced words and concepts from the literature.

Remember that when you are explaining or describing something, it is important that you write in a way that is acceptable to any reader, including those who do not necessarily share your opinions. Any explanation or description that you give should be balanced, comprehensive, and not influenced by your own views and opinions. Read more about reading and summarising.

Discussing: look for differences

In contrast to an explanation or description, a discussion should be based on the development of your own views through reasoning and argumentation. The substance of your discussion can be taken from your own earlier descriptions and explanations. An interesting discussion may for instance occur when you present different, opposing claims and interpretations of a source, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Remember that any claim you make in your text should be reasonable and supported by evidence taken from your original source material.

In order to create a meaningful discussion, it is important to be clear about what is being discussed. It can be sensible to start with a point of tension in the literature you have already described. An assignment is often designed so that you are required to discuss different approaches to the same phenomenon, for example you may be asked to discuss two different theoretical positions on the same concept. It is far more interesting to explore the differences between theories or perspectives than only seeking similarities, although you may wish to examine the ways in which theories are similar in order to highlight their differences. Examples taken from the literature you have read are often helpful for supporting your arguments.

Three tips for a good discussion

    1. Do not present too many questions

Remember that any time you raise a question in an assignment, the reader will be waiting for you to answer it. Asking a lot of hypothetical questions about a concept is not the same as discussing it. Many questions one after another can be very tiring to read.

    1. Work systematically

Use one paragraph per idea or theme, and finish one point before you move on to the next. Avoid mixing explanation and discussion in the same sentence. Everything you write must be understandable and logical to a reader.

    1. Draw relevant conclusions

Summarise or conclude with the main idea that you have tried to convey in your text. Do not write a bland or ‘empty’ conclusion that could work for any assignment. It should be clearly tied to the arguments you have built up in your text.

In some subjects, it is common to explain a concept first and discuss it afterwards. In other subjects, it is preferred that you discuss throughout your paper. Both structures can produce good texts – the most important thing is that you understand when and where you are explaining something, as opposed to when you are discussing something, and that you do not ‘slip’ from one to the other. For example, you should not reproduce an idea from the literature and at the same time say that you disagree with it: ’Author A claims that X, which I think is wrong.’


Look for argumentation and discussion in your course literature. See how the writer builds a claim by using statements and reasoning, and by setting different ideas (positions) against each other.

Structuring an argument: What is your reasoning?

The argument you make is backed up by your reasoning, and your reasoning is comprised of:

    1. A claim or a position - something you are arguing for.
    1. An argument, that is, how you are justifying this claim.
    1. An assertion that brings together your claim and your argument.

We create an argument that is easier for the reader to understand when we follow this structure of combining a claim with an argument justified by evidence. Philosopher and educator Stephen Toulmin breaks argumentation down into 6 different parts:

1) The main claim

In the main claim, you explain what your research question is, and what you expect the answer might be. There are several different ways that you can do this in your introduction, whether that is with a research question, a hypothesis, or a thesis statement. The main claim is whatever you have concluded at the end of the paper or assignment.

What is your main claim?

2) The argument (evidence)

The argument can be based on different forms of empirical evidence, such as references from established authors or other sources (historical sources, interviews, statistics, photos, maps, etc.). The evidence in your argument is how you justify your claim and position.

What is the argument in your text? How do you back up your claim? What evidence do you use to justify your argument?

3) Method of analysis

A method of analysis refers to the analytical methods you will use to gather and interpret your evidence and support your claim. It is important here that you make a connection between what theory, method, and data you use, and why it is useful for supporting your main claim.

Which method of analysis will you use for your research question and justifying your main claim? Which theoretical perspective will use in your assignment?

4) Limitations

In the limitations, you should analyse the limitations of your chosen method of analysis. This involves discussing the weaknesses of your method(s), and what impact these weaknesses may have on your work.

What weaknesses do you see with the methods? What problems might you encounter if you use them?

5) Justification

This is where you justify and support the method of analysis you have chosen. This can be done in a few different ways, including explaining how other researchers have used this method, or by drawing on texts and other established sources that support your chosen method.

What are the strengths of your method of analysis? Why did you choose it, despite the limitations it poses for your main claim?

6) Strength of argument

In the strength of argument, you address the degree of certainty with which you are able to make your main claim. This is done by discussing the different factors that might impact upon your main claim, and any other reservations you may have.

To what extent are you certain of your claim, its possibilities, or probabilities?

Exercise: Analyse one of your texts

Use these questions to analyse your text:

  1. What is the main claim?

  2. What is your argument, and what documents and evidence will you use to support it?

  3. Which method of analysis will you use?

  4. What are the limitations of your chosen method of analysis?

  5. What support is there for your chosen method?

  6. To what extent are you certain of your claim, its possibilities, or probabilities?

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