Holding Debates

Holding a debate is a great way to encourage student involvement in the class. Students must read course materials in depth and critically consider them in order to lead an informed debate. For an effective debate, students need to consider both sides of an issue and must not only have valid arguments for their side, but be able to predict the opposing arguments to prepare counter-arguments.

Significant advantages to holding a debate in your class

  • Because a debate is student led, your own personal views will not leak through, allowing them to form their own opinions free of influence.i
  • Materials are better reinforced as students not only need to prepare in advance for the debate, but spend a class logically arguing through relevant points.ii
  • It improves speaking skills among the students, teaching them how to form well-structured and coherent arguments, as well as encouraging quieter students to speak up and express their opinions.iii

Of course, as with any style of teaching, you must remember to be conscious of a few things

  • Debate can foster the idea that there are only two sides to an argument, when there may in fact be many more.iv To decrease this bipolarization of ideas, many instructors who choose to utilize debate in their classroom will have a student play the “conciliator.” This student’s job is to step in 2/3 of the way through the debate and offer a compromising or alternate position to the ones being discussed.v
  • In order to avoid strengthening students pre-existing biases, it is important that students are often put on the side of the debate that they do not personally agree with. This will help broaden their views on the subject.vi

Debate may seem more daunting or difficult to structure and mark, but there’s a few things that you can do to make it simpler

  • Adding a student with the role of “Questioner” can help move the debate along without you having to interfere. This student’s role is to ask pertinent questions during the debate, and raise other considerations when an argument has run its course.vii
  • In order to have students experience both sides of a debate position, you can have them argue in the debate for one side, but write a report for the opposing side.viii
  • Alternately, some instructors request students research both sides of a debate and then arbitrarily assign them a debate position in-class on the day of the debate.ix
  • By requesting that any students not actively participating in the debate write a summary, or comparison paper, you can ensure that all students learn the prerequisite knowledge for the debate.x
  • When marking the debate itself, there are a number of factors that you can choose to mark. Some of these include, but are not limited to: participation, organization of facts, use of evidence, structure of the argument, etc.xi

Sources

  1. Budesheim, T. And Lundquist, A. (1999). Consider the Opposite: Opening Minds through In-Class Debates on Course Related Controversies. Teaching of Psychology, 26(2), 106-110.
  2. Kennedy, R. (2007). In Class Debates: Fertile Ground for Active Learning and the Cultivation of Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Skills. International Journal of Teaching and Learning, 19(2), 183-190.
  3. Musselman, E. (2004) Using Structured Debate to Achieve Autonomous Student Discussion. The History Teacher, 37 (3), 335-349.
  4. Tumposky, N. (2004) The Debate Debate. The Clearing House, 78(2), 52-55.
______________________________________
iKennedy, 2007, pg 185
iiKennedy, 2007, pg 185
iiiKennedy, 2007, pg 184
ivTumposky, 2004, pg 53
vMusselman, 2004, pg 341-342
viBudesheim & Lundquist, 1999, pg 106
viiMusselman, 2004, pg 341
viiiKennedy, 2007, pg 186
ixKennedy, 2007, pg 186
xKennedy, 2007, pg 186
xi Kennedy, 2007, 188

Debate Question and Answer Sheet

Debates are an old and often utilized teaching technique. They force students to heavily research issues, and create competent arguments for each side. Within the debate, they must anticipate the other team’s argument and prepare counter-arguments, forcing them to plan ahead. Because of the student involvement in debates, professor’s personal opinions don’t leak through.

However, debates can be tricky to plan out and manage. Here are a few of the more common questions, as well as some suggested solutions.

Q: Debates only represent two sides of an issue when, in fact, there may be many more. Won’t this discourage students from seeing other points of view?

A: It’s true that traditional debates only raise two sides of an issue. To mitigate this effect, many professors assign a student to be a “conciliator.” This student’s job is to step in 2/3 of the way through the debate and offer a compromising or alternate position to the ones being discussed.

Q: Can’t debates reinforce students’ pre-existing bias?

A: They can, so to avoid that teachers will often ask a student to support the argument that they are not in favour of. This helps the students broaden their views on the subject, and understand both sides, not just the one they personally believe in.ii

Q: Should I act as a facilitator/arbitrator during the debate?

A: You can, but it is better if you assign that role to a student. This student is called the “questioner.” Have this student keep the debate moving forward by raising pertinent questions, and changing topics when an argument has run its course.iii

Q: How can I get students to investigate both sides of an issue instead of just the ones that they are assigned?

A: There are a couple of ways to do this:

i.    Have the students take part in the debate for one position, but have them write a report for the other position.iv

ii.    Instruct students to research and be ready to defend both positions, and then on the day of the debate randomly assign sides.v

Q: In large classes, not everyone can participate in the debate. How can I include the other students?

A: Have the students who are not actively participating in the debate write a report or essay on the relevant points raised in the debate. This will ensure that everyone shows up and pays attention to the debate, even if they are not a participant.vi

Q: How can I mark a debate?

A: There are a number of ways that you can mark a debate. The easiest way is to mark participation in the debate. However, sometimes you may want to have a more detailed marking scheme if you want to assign a significant percentage of their grade to the debate. In these cases, creating a rubric is the best option. The rubric should include such things as participation, organization of the facts, use of evidence, thoroughness, argument structure, etc.vii

Many people choose to not mark the debate itself, but have the students write a paper on the issue debated. Yet others consider it best to take in the students’ preparation sheets where they organized their arguments for the debate and mark that.viii

Sources

  1. Budesheim, T. And Lundquist, A. (1999). Consider the Opposite: Opening Minds through In-Class Debates on Course Related Controversies. Teaching of Psychology, 26(2), 106-110.
  2. Kennedy, R. (2007). In Class Debates: Fertile Ground for Active Learning and the Cultivation of Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Skills. International Journal of Teaching and Learning, 19(2), 183-190.
  3. Musselman, E. (2004) Using Structured Debate to Achieve Autonomous Student Discussion. The History Teacher, 37 (3), 335-349.
  4. Tumposky, N. (2004) The Debate Debate. The Clearing House, 78(2), 52-55.
______________________________________
iMusselman, 2004, pg 341-342
iiBudesheim & Lundquist, 1999, pg 106
iiiMusselman, 2004, pg 341
ivKennedy, 2007, pg 186
vKennedy, 2007, pg 186
viKennedy, 2007, pg 186
viiKennedy, 2007, pg 188
viiiKennedy, 2007, pg 186

-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011