Differentiating Theories from Evidence: The Development of Argument Evaluation Abilities in Adolescence and Early Adulthood

Petra Barchfeld, Beate Sodian


An argument evaluation inventory distinguishing between different levels of theory-evidence differentiation was designed corresponding to the levels of argument observed in argument generation tasks. Five scenarios containing everyday theories about a social problem, and arguments to support those theories were presented to 170 participants from two age  groups (15 and 22 years) and different educational tracks. Participants had to rate the validity of arguments proposed by a story figure, to support the theory, to choose the best argument, and to justify their choice. The rating task proved to be very difficult for all age groups, with only 49% of the university students consistently rating valid evidence-based arguments higher than flawed arguments. Competence improved with age and educational level. In the choice task more than 80% of the adults preferred an argument that reflected theory-evidence differentiation over mere theory elaboration or flawed reasoning. However, only adults with a university education were able to also explicitly justify their choice. Overall, these findings imply that laypersons have similar conceptual problems in differentiating theory from evidence as it has been reported for evidence generation tasks (Kuhn, 1991). Performance on the choice task suggests that some implicit awareness of differences between theory and evidence may precede a full, explicit understanding. Implications for education are discussed.


argument evaluation, argumentation, development, theory evidence coordination, evidence evaluation

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.22329/il.v29i4.2906

ISSN: 0824-2577