Evaluate the arguments of others
What is an evaluation?
When you evaluate sources and arguments, you judge their quality, value or significance. You consider their strengths and limitations with respect to the examination you are undertaking or to a particular context.
Evaluation requires you to ask questions such as:
- What are the strengths and limitations of the source or argument?
- How well are the claims supported by reasons and evidence?
- What claims need further investigation?
- How does the quality of one source or argument compare with others that address a similar topic?
- What contribution to knowledge does it make?
- What is your overall assessment of the source or argument?
Evaluation is supported by analysis. Analysis allows you to break your sources into their component parts and see how they work. Evaluation then assesses the component parts as well as the entire source, and makes a judgement about their quality, value or significance. Without analysis, evaluation can easily become biased or flawed.
The ability to evaluate is a key critical thinking skill. Evaluating arguments made by others will improve your own critical thinking and allow you to develop stronger and more refined arguments.
How to evaluate sources, arguments, evidence and methodologies
When evaluating sources, consider the needs of your project or assessment as well as the conventions of your discipline. While you can use the evaluative questions listed above, some sources will require more specific evaluation criteria.
If you are writing a book review, an article review or a critical analysis:
- analyse your source and explore the sections below on evaluating arguments, evidence and methodologies
- learn how to develop your own argument.
If you are writing a literature review:
One effective approach to evaluating arguments is to begin by asking the following questions:
- How well does the argument address the problem or issue?
- Does the argument have a clear conclusion?
- Does the conclusion logically follow the reasoning and claims made in the argument?
- Are there any implicit claims that are not supported by evidence or reasoning?
- What is the quality and relevance of the evidence used in the argument?
- How well is evidence used?
- How well does reasoning support the claims made in the argument?
- Can you identify any bias or flawed reasoning?
After you have answered these questions (and any additional questions relevant to your assessment or project), you can start formulating your evaluation.
The example below shows what an evaluation of a simple argument could look like. The example builds on an earlier analysis and provides an evaluation of the argument’s evidence, reasoning and claim, as well as of the argument as a whole.
Evaluation of a simple argument, based on analysis
Evidence: approaching storm on radar map
Analysis: the author has used the link to the Bureau of Meteorology radar display. The radar display is 10 minutes behind real time, but it give a good sense of where the rain clouds are moving.
Evaluation: the argument is based on the best available evidence. The author could have also used the estimate of percentage of rain, which would strengthen their reasoning and overall argument.
Reason: it's likely it will rain
Analysis: the author assumes that rain clouds move in a predictable pattern, and predicts that it will rain in the area. The expression "likely" suggests more than 50% chance of rain, but not 100%.
Evaluation: the author's assessment of the likelihood of rain is mostly correct, although they could have used a percentage estimate provided by the Bureau of Meteorology. One limitation of the reasoning is that "likely" refers to anything more than 50%. A percentage estimate, e.g., 80% chance of rain, would strengthen their reasoning.
Claim: you should bring an umbrella
Analysis: the author assumes that an umbrella is a good thing to bring if there is likelihood of rain, and concludes that you should bring and umbrella.
Evaluation: overall, this is a valid claim. The evidence and reasoning do lead to the conclusion that it is likely to rain. A limitation could be the focus on umbrella as the only solution, since some people may prefer to use raincoats or driving to avoid rain.
Overall evaluation of the argument: This is a valid argument for bringing an umbrella. It is based on solid evidence from a very high-quality source, and it uses correct reasoning to predict it is likely to rain an conclude that bringing an umbrella would be useful. The argument could be strengthened by making the prediction more precise (e.g., use the percentage estimate of likelihood of rain), and by considering alternatives to an umbrella as a way of avoiding getting wet.
Another way of evaluating arguments is to follow a more systematic step-by-step approach. The following six steps apply the same principles as the questioning approach above.
This approach can be useful when you are evaluating complex arguments, or when you need to evaluate multiple sources by using the same criteria.
You can adjust the steps as needed to suit your assessment or project. As you follow the steps, you may find it useful to map the argument through analysis or to create a detailed argument map for complex arguments.
- Assess the main argument. The key message of a source is often put forward as a main or central argument which needs to be carefully considered in terms of its strengths and limitations.
- Investigate implicit claims or reasoning. Check if the argument is presented in a way that asks the reader to draw conclusions even though they are not explicitly stated.
- Assess the evidence. A valid claim is supported by reliable evidence from credible sources. Claims without any evidence could be assumptions or opinions and signal a weak argument.
- Appraise the reasoning. A strong argument will clearly explain the logical connection between a claim and the associated evidence.
- Consider the limitations. A well-reasoned argument will acknowledge its limitations and potential biases. To get a better sense of strong and weak arguments, you can explore other sources that present arguments on a similar topic.
- Formulate your evaluation. Your own evaluation should consider the overall quality of a source or an argument. It should also highlight its strengths, limitations and contribution. Assessment requirements about evaluation can vary, so read the assessment description carefully.
A general rule when evaluating methodologies and evidence is that reliable methodologies, when applied well, result in reliable evidence.
When you use methodologies or evidence from other sources, always question them to ensure they are credible, relevant and accurate for your purpose.
The criteria for deciding what is strong or weak methodology and evidence vary by discipline. When evaluating them, you should therefore keep in mind both the assessment guidelines and the standards and expectations of your discipline.
The following questions will help you determine the strengths and limitations of methodologies and evidence:
- What are the main strengths and limitations of the methodology?
- Is the methodology the most relevant, precise and accurate for the task?
- Is the methodology reliable? Is it a standard methodology used in the discipline?
- Is the methodology reproducible (i.e. would someone be able to follow the same steps to achieve the same outcome)?
- How does the choice of methodology impact the generalisability of the argument(s) it supports?
- How well was the methodology applied?
- Is it possible that the methodology or evidence could be influenced by bias or incorrect reasoning?
- How accurate and precise was the generation, collecting and processing of data or evidence?
- What are the main strengths and limitations of the evidence?
- Are there any gaps, inaccuracies, inconsistencies or errors in the data or evidence?
- Is the evidence open to multiple interpretations?
- How might evidence affect the argument(s) it supports if viewed from a different perspective?
Check your understanding View
Below is an example of a radiography student’s evaluation of an academic journal about chest computed tomography in children with COVID-19 respiratory infection.
Click on each information point to see how the student has evaluated the academic paper.