Author:  Lori Alden

Debating as a good way to help students improve their critical thinking and communication skills, master content, and explore and challenge their beliefs.  At least one study has found that debaters have better communication skills than students without debate experience.

Hoping to build on the success of competitive debating, several instructors have suggested ways to incorporate debates into a variety of college courses.  The formats they recommend are less structured than those for competitive debates, and typically include the following elements:  (1) Several debates are scheduled during the quarter or semester.  (2) Students are assigned to teams, which are asked to present either the affirmative or negative case for a debate resolution (e.g., “Resolved:  Colleges should pay student athletes.”)  (3) The teams are responsible for researching their topic, though the instructor may help by putting readings on reserve or meeting privately with them.  (4) The speeches are often timed and usually include three phases:  a constructive phase, in which each team lays out its position; a rebuttal phase, in which the positions of the opposing teams are attacked; and an audience participation phase in which any student can make comments or ask questions.  (5) Students are graded on their performance, either as individuals or as a team.  (6) The instructor assumes a largely passive role during the debates, evaluating student performance and serving as timekeeper. 

Problem s with Team Debates  

I incorporated team debates in some of my principles of economics classes, but several problems emerged:

  • The audiences were often bored.  The debates appeared to be a good learning experience for the speakers, but not for the audiences.  Many educators have argued that we should reduce the time that students spend listening passively in the classroom.   Having team debates requires students in the audience to listen to inexperienced and sometimes erroneous speakers. 

  • The debates had a chilling effect on the safe, relaxed classroom culture I’d worked hard to create.  Until the debates, I’d tried to coax shy students to participate in discussions by creating an unthreatening environment.  The debates forced students to stand before a large group and speak while being timed and graded.  It was like throwing non-swimmers into the deep end. 

  • It was easy for some teams to prepare for their debates.  I had hoped that the debaters would develop arguments by reading articles and discussing them with their teammates.  Some teams instead found websites that provided scripted talking points for their debate topics, which they reworded and recited with little effort.   

  • It was difficult to grade fairly.  I assigned team—not individual—grades in order to encourage cooperation, but I had no assurance that all team members had contributed equally to their team’s success.  I felt that many students’ grades were determined as much by luck as by skill and effort, since being assigned to a team with motivated students afforded such a big advantage.  I was also reluctant to give bad marks for poor oral presentations, fearing that I might reinforce the insecurity many students experienced when speaking in public.  

  • The debates consumed a lot of time.  I typically have 40-50 students in each of my classes.  Giving everyone a turn at debating required that I strike a difficult balance between having big teams and having a large number of debates.

  • I wasn’t able to moderate the debates effectively.   Since I was preoccupied with evaluating the performance of the teams, I didn’t have much control over the debates.  Some of them meandered, and weak arguments often weren’t rebutted.

I suspect that other instructors have had disappointing results with team debates; I examined 100 principles syllabi that were available online and found only three that included classroom debates as a graded activity.

A New Approach  

I’d given up on debates for several years, until my daughter began debating controversial issues in one of her high school classes.  She’d often talk with me afterwards about what she’d said and what she wished she’d said.   Her enthusiasm rekindled my interest in debates, so I resolved to try again.

I first devised a new format that I hoped would capture the advantages of debating while minimizing the disadvantages.  I scheduled five 30-minute debates over the semester in each of my principles classes and I posted numerous readings for them on my course websites.  On the day of a debate, each student was required to bring a worksheet containing (a) a signed statement certifying that he or she had fully read at least three of the posted articles on the topic, and (b) a list of at least three arguments that could be made during the debate, along with evidence to support each argument.  I gave a student full credit (worth about 1% of the total course grade) if he or she attended class that day and turned in a completed worksheet.  Verbal participation in the debate was voluntary. 

Before each debate began, I had students who favored the debate resolution sit on one side of the classroom, and those who opposed it sit on the other.  I then asked them to turn their desks so that each side faced the other, leaving an aisle down the middle where I could stand as I moderated the debate. 

I began each debate by having two students on each side present arguments.  After that, the debate was loosely structured.  As moderator, my primary goals were to get as many students as possible to speak, help speakers refine their arguments, elicit rebuttals, ensure that the overall presentation was balanced, and keep the discussion from meandering.  After the debate, I collected the worksheets.

I found that the open class debates worked much better than the team debates: 

  • Since the readings were selected by me and available online, students were able to prepare for the debates without expending much time.  As a result, compliance with the worksheet assignments was fairly high despite their small weight in the total course grade.  Of the 91 students who completed my two Introductory Macroeconomics courses last semester, 96% turned in at least three of the worksheets, 81% turned in at least four, and 56% turned in all five.  Choosing the readings also allowed me to introduce students to several engaging columnists, like Paul Krugman and Steven Landsburg, and excellent online sources, like The New Republic, Slate, National Review, and Atlantic Unbound. 

  • Many students read more than what was required, or provided more than the three required arguments on their worksheets.  Some of them wrote lengthy manifestos. 

  • The debates were passionate and lively.  There were usually several knowledgeable and passionate speakers on each side, and the students usually ran out of time before they ran out of things to say.  Many students relished the opportunity to persuade others to share their values and beliefs, and they seemed frustrated if they were unsuccessful.  I hoped that their frustration would cause them to brood on the debate after they left the classroom. 

  • Students talked more about their own experiences and values than they had in the formal team debates.  This suggests that they were constructing their own ideas about the topics—a key goal of active learning.  It also made their comments more interesting to others.

  • The debates gave some of my weaker students a chance to do well.  Some of those who were struggling with theory proved to be quite knowledgeable about policy issues. 

  • It was easy to evaluate student performance.  Students usually got full credit on their worksheets; those who lost points usually failed to provide evidence to buttress their arguments.  Since I wasn’t evaluating their oral presentations, I was able to assume the role of cheerleader during the debate.  By being unfailingly positive, I was able to make students more comfortable with speaking in public.   

  • Since I wasn’t distracted by the task of evaluating student performance, I was able to do a much better job of moderating.

  • Students often split into the same pro-con groups throughout the term, with conservatives on one side and liberals on the other.  This helped students better understand their own political identities and the values that underlie them. 

There was, however, at least one disadvantage to this approach.  Since I asked students to choose between the affirmative or negative side just before the debate, there was always a risk that only a few students would end up supporting one side.  In one of my classes, for example, only one student came out in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  I helped him by joining in the debate myself, but the time I spent talking crowded out student participation.   In the future, I will check opinion polls to increase the likelihood that the students will be evenly divided on the topics I select. 


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