Author: Lori Alden
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.
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.,
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.
s with Team Debates
incorporated team debates in some of my principles of economics
classes, but several problems emerged:
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.
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
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.
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
teams instead found websites that provided scripted talking
points for their debate topics, which they reworded and
recited with little effort.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
participation in the debate was voluntary.
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.
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.
found that the open class debates worked much better than the team
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
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
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.
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
© Lori Alden, 2005-7.
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