Debates for Engaging Students

Done by THNKR, Published on Oct 18, 2012

One of the techniques to get students engaged in classroom when the topic is controversial is to use debates. They provide many advantages as they require students to think fast and critically, and support what they say with strong evidences and factual information. It creates unique opportunities for students to develop empathy with other’s points-of-view, it may help students to understand how biases can cloud someone’s perspective about certain topic (Trujillo-Jenks & Rosen, 2015, May 27). In addition it ensures full participation of all students whether in preparation and research or as the debate members where each can find a role that match up with his or her personal trait and learning style.

Debate is not without its critics. There are four challenge I believe to be most significant. First, some students can feel a surge of anxiety with the competitiveness associated with the debate structure and thus strategy might not be suitable to some students. Second, some students might misinterpret debates and feel that it is a winning or losing issue and thus some might be biased to only the positive aspects that support their own argument. Third, the debate format involves two sides to validate a point of view; however there might more points of view to the story, this problem can be avoided with the correct choice of the topic. And finally, some students might misunderstand the strategy and can turn into fighting (Vargo, 2012). The following are few guidelines to incorporate debates effectively:

  1. Students are given a list of topics and the most voted for will be the topic of the debate. The research topics should be carefully selected to be an engaging topic to encourage dynamic and energized classroom discussion, and relative to course content.
  2. Students are randomly assigned to two groups, each one is assigned a position that matches his or her personal trait.
  3. Educators should determine whether students need background information before they conduct their debate and prepare them via lecture, reading, discussion or research (Barkley, 2010).
  4. Educator should provide a clear guideline and a set of rules for example, each statement is two minutes etc. (Barkley, 2010).
  5. Each group must prepare a position paper addressing how the group used theory and research from the course and additional sources in the literature to formulate their debate position, considered the strengths and limitations of their arguments, as well as those of the opposition.
  6. Educators must also provide rating rubrics and distribute it to adjudicators before the debate begins (Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, n.d.).
  7. After the educator announce that the debate is finished, educators should hold a classroom discussion and debrief the process and ask students to discuss how their thinking may have changed or developed over the debate assignment.

Though the strategy is considered to be student-centered, but the educator’s role is crucial to minimize its pitfalls. The educators’ ability to create a non threating environment, clear up the false debate image provided by media i.e. yelling at each other and to deliver the correct purpose of debate which is changing our biases and point of views about a topic or at least learn about other perspectives of a topic can ensure a successful, joyful  and unique learning experience .


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