Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Organizing in-class debates

Students often request that I organize formal in-class debates. I usually demur, largely because my past experiences have been fairly negative. Most students do not participate, and those that do are those who tend to participate in in-class discussion anyway. The result is simply an in-class discussion with the chairs rearranged.

However, last week, I organized a formal debate in my moral philosophy course and it went well. I'm trying to diagnose why it went well so that I can replicate the experience — but I'm also interested in what techniques others have found helpful in organizing such debates.So here are few things I did this which may (or may not have) contributed to the debate's success:
  • The debate was 'Utilitarianism: pro or con?" I began the class by having students indicate which of four statements about utilitarianism they agreed with (basically, the statements amounted to strongly favor the theory, favor with reservations, oppose with reservations, strongly oppose). I then had the students organize into three groups: strong proponents, strong opponents, and everyone else. The pro and con groups had 4-5 students each.
  • I gave them about 25 minutes to prepare for the debate. The 'everyone else' group I designated as inquisitors, responsible for directing questions at the pro- and con- sides. I asked the inquisitors to think beforehand about some questions they might ask each side. 
  • The format was for the pro side to present for about 7 minutes (any of the students could speak for their side), followed by 2 minutes for their opponents to prepare a 5 minute responses, followed by questions — directed at either side — from the inquisitors. The teams then switched roles. 
The students left the class discussing utilitarianism in an animated way, so I think the debate succeeding in engaging them. But again, this has been exceptional in my experience, so I'm interested to know if I can attribute this to luck or design. It was a valuable enough learning experience to make me think that if I can replicate it, I should. So how have you succeeded in organizing debates in your courses?


  1. I don't have an attempted in-class debate story to share, but I am curious:

    1. How many students were present in the class?
    2. How many students ended up on the strongly for and strongly against sides?
    3. You imply that unlike past attempts, there was broader participation, including students who don't usually speak up in class. Yes? (If so, that seems good.)

    My guess is that you gave some good structure and guidance--enough to get them off and going on their own--and that the topic was one where you could expect ahead of time that students wouldn't all crowd toward one position, that you were able to get them into groups where they would be defending their actual view. (I've heard tell of projects where students are urged to give arguments in favor of a view I disagree with, and I see some of the value in that, but without good guidance and context, of course, the exercise may end up being too artificial. And I worry that debates can sometimes have that air of artificiality (rhetoric rather than truth-seeking, as it were), and I also worry about framing philosophical thinking and discussion as a matter of "winning." But those reservations aside, your description of what you did is helpful and I may try it in the future on topics that seem well-suited to the activity. Thanks!)

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Participation was wider than normal, yes. The pro and con sides had 4-5 students each, leaving about 12-15 inquisitors.

    I should say that we didn't do anything to declare a winner. I chose to schedule the debate in the middle of our unit on utilitarianism, as a way of taking the students' temperature on the theory and helping me see what they understood well as well as what issues associated with the theory were most galvanizing. I did visit with the pro and con sides to help them get organized and identify some of the main arguments they wanted to offer in their presentations.

  3. I've had good results with in-class debates in my speaking+writing-intensive courses. I break the class into pairs and assign them readings. They choose a yes/no question from the reading. One of them presents the reading's position and the other criticizes. They then break the class into small groups and have them discuss which side of the debate they agreed with (or the groups can find middle ground), and finally the students leading the debate have a few of the groups explain their conclusions and why. This all usually takes 20-25 minutes which is longer than I would want to give up if it didn't serve any pedagogical purpose, but as they're discussing an important part of the reading it is worth the time IMO.

    Several things make this work. First, this is a regular part of my class, not a one-shot thing. Most students do it twice in the course of the semester. Another thing that makes it work is I really let the students lead the debate. I meet with the students during office hours to help them figure out what makes for a good debate topic, but in the class, I sit in a student desk near the back and don't interject myself into the discussion unless someone makes a pretty serious interpretation error or if the two options being presented aren't charitable enough IMO. It also works well because, since it's a special writing/speaking-intensive section, the class size is smaller and there's an expectation that a good bit of class time is devoted toward teaching or practicing communication skills. Given that focus, I tend to cover less breadth and make more room for the students to practice those skills. (The debates serve doubly as a way to get people thinking about what would make a good paper topic, and most of the students end up writing at least one of their topics on the question they debated.)

    Whether that would work for a bigger course, or one with a different pedagogical focus? I'm skeptical. But in my particular situation, it actually goes pretty well.

  4. I have a moderate sized class in Ancient in which I stage a very structured debate assignment in Hellenistic philosophy over the last half of the semester. Each student is assigned to one of four "schools," made responsible for preparing the class conversations in which we review the basic positions and arguments of the school, prepares for a variety of roles (responder to the question, critic of each of the other school, judge) in formal debate rounds the last week of class. About 1/2 really get into it and another 40% have consistently done better on the final exam covering Hellenistic positions than through previous mechanisms. It's a really fun assignment as well. I see evidence of a much higher level of engagement and involvement in the ideas when I do it.

  5. I teach high school philosophy internationally currently. I read around here every once-in-awhile and it's exciting to see University education having the same desires as high school education - observable participation and excitement of students in their educational trajectory. I try to structure a handful of "debates" using different structures every semester. The secondary education social studies literature is actually quite robust and teaming with good ideas that I think are applicable across secondary/ higher education divisions.

    -Discussing/ debating/ and deliberating are skills that hopefully encourage philosophical dispositions (like careful, rational thinking), so I always look at it as we as a class should get better over the semester. The first activity of the semester should be very structured, with direct prompts, and short, objective time requirements, and as the semester progresses, the students should take the lead more, with less structure, more open-ended prompts and more freedom with time. They need to be trained a little in the skill, and you need to figure them out, because every group is different.
    -To ensure full participation, you may try a two-pronged approach, by breaking students down into small deliberation groups, with teacher assigned "sides" of the debate, then open it up into a large, full-class debate. There is a common technique in secondary social studies called a Structured Academic Controversy that has some good ideas on a set-up of this kind.
    -Figure out what you want them to do first. There is a difference between discussing, debating, and deliberating, right? (check out Deliberating in a Democracy for a good activity on this) and each has different educational goals. I do a death penalty deliberation, where I follow a modified SAC and then have them come form a policy consensus, and a Problem of Evil debate, where we argue philosophically about whether evil and God are consistent. Both produce very different results, but both are great educationally too.
    -Preparation is a key for me. Students need to show they're prepared to be admitted into the activity that day - we call it an "entry ticket" in secondary lingo. Otherwise we're wasting our time if we all we accomplish is bullsh*t. Also, don't assume that students who don't participate aren't taking something from the activity. Encourage students to participate, but also provide an alternative for students who don't care to voice their opinion. I open every debate/seminar/... by saying I expect everyone to participate, and I'll be marking it down, but if for whatever reason you don't feel like voicing your opinion, you can always write down your thoughts and hand it in to me at the end - it counts just as equally. You'll be amazed what some students think but don't want to say - and they usually write quite a bit. Then afterwards you can have a conversation with them and encourage them to voice their private ideas because they are awesome and everyone should hear them.

    I liked your structure and inquisitor idea of the debate you outlined. You could further break that group down into more assigned roles, but this might be getting too heavy-handed/ secondary approach. Good stuff!


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