Argument Mapping: Optimizing Students’ Cognitive BandwidthSubmitted by Brett Fulkerson-Smith

In recent years, the scientific community has become increasingly focused on cognitive bandwidth, or what might be described colloquially as “mental space”. Thankfully, the issue has more recently been taken up by educators. And at Harper, fruitful conversations between faculty and administrators abound about recovering our students’ bandwidth lost to adversity, trauma, and microaggressions.

Bandwidth recovery is certainly an important step in ensuring our students’ academic success. But, so too is bandwidth optimization. Did you know that argument mapping is an easy way to optimize your students’ cognitive bandwidth?

Argument mapping is a method of diagrammatic representation of arguments designed to simplify the reading of an argument structure and allow for easy assimilation of core propositions and relations. And, in an important study, researchers found that using argument mapping as a classroom learning tool significantly improved students’ recall of the details of written arguments as compared to traditional methods (Dwyer, C., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2010)). The researchers explain this result in terms of cognitive bandwidth.

Learning doesn’t happen if information cannot be encoded into long-term memory. And long-term memory is constrained by limitations in working memory. So, the key to learning is optimizing working memory.

Working memory is best understood as a space for both the storage and manipulation of information (Baddeley, 1986). And so the question is: what is the best way to manipulate information to ensure its indelible encoding into working, and then long-term, memory? The best evidence suggests that the answer is visual organizational strategies that encode information hierarchically.

This strategy contrasts with traditional methods of text-based study and analysis. As Dwyer, Hogan, and Stewart (2010) point out in the context of learning an argument:

the problem with traditional text-based learning is that it does not allow one to readily connect statements that support and dispute specific reasons. The learner must engage in a cognitively demanding process of linking propositions that are located in different paragraphs, on different pages, and so on. When reading a text-based argument, the reader must mentally construct the argument, thus switching attention away from the information presented in the text. In a series of seminal studies, Pollock, Chandler & Sweller (2002) found that learning is impeded when instructional materials require a high degree of attention switching, for example, between text and figures. They concluded, more generally, that encoding environments that increase the cognitive burden (or load) placed on the reader tend not only to slow the learning process, but also reduce overall levels of learning.

Strategies that visualize the hierarchical relationship between information are not as cognitively burdensome as traditional text-based learning. They optimize students’ cognitive bandwidth by freeing it up so that it can be used for the most-important tasks at hand. And, as the authors demonstrate, argument mapping is the best of these strategies. Argument mapping removes “obstacles to learning related to the need to simultaneously read the text of an argument and mentally visualize the relational structure of the argument being presented.”

Upcoming Workshop – Professional Development Opportunity

If you are ready to use argument mapping in your classes, then you should enroll in How We Argue: A Workshop in Argument Mapping for College Faculty! Sponsored by the Critical Thinking Community of Practice—in association with the Learning Assessment Committee—and facilitated by Nathan Otey (Fellow in Philosophy, Harvard University, and Lead Instructor, ThinkerAnalytix) the workshop will be held Friday, April 17, 2020 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Lunch will be provided, and participants can register for the morning session (0.3 CEUs), the afternoon session (0.2 CEUs), or both (0.5 CEUs).

Workshop participants will develop the fundamentals of argument mapping: both as a tool for analyzing existing and creating one’s own arguments. Special emphasis will be given to strategies for teaching argument mapping to students. Participants will leave this workshop with classroom activities, lesson plans, assessments, and other resources to improve the rigor and precision of students’ thinking, and written and oral communication!

Learn more about the workshop and register.

You can also contact Brett Fulkerson-Smith ( for more information, or if you have questions. He facilitates the Critical Thinking Community of Practice, serves as Vice-Chair of the Learning Assessment Committee, and uses argument mapping in all of his classes.