In Class Debates

By: Mr. Travis Mitchell:

Classroom debates can be powerful tools that can improve analytical thinking, communication skills, and argument-construction; they can also promote classroom interaction, greater interest in the subject matter, and critical discourse. Dialogue with peers is paramount to the development of students’ understanding of concepts and ideas, and in-class debates can make students feel excited about their learning, as they feel some ownership of the subject.1

“I could see many different perspectives on one single topic. It was a great chance to be brave and express ideas.”

With this in mind, students in DEV304 (Development Management) were split into two teams on opposite sides of the classroom as they prepared their notes and arguments. They were taking part in a classroom debate over whether or not NGOs have a positive effect in Cambodia. Each team had three rounds to argue their position, with small breaks in between the rounds in order to discuss their responses as a team, and adjust their strategy in order to respond to the opposing team’s arguments. Teams could select as many speakers as they wanted, and students had to stand up and clearly articulate their team’s arguments in a persuasive manner.

The purpose for conducting the debate was multi-fold. First, the lecturer divided the class into two equal teams and assigned each team a position; thus, students had to learn how to research and advocate for a particular position, even if it did not align with their own beliefs. It was imperative that students learned all sides of the issue, whether that were political, economic, or social, so they could sharpen their own arguments.

Second, students were able to apply development theories that they had learned previously in class into the real world example of Cambodian civil society. Arguments concerning the struggle for sustainability, the impacts of self-interest, and the necessity for improving livelihoods took on personal meaning in the transition from the abstract to the specific. Their
1 Suzy Jagger (2013). “Affective Learning and the Classroom Debate.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 50: No. 1, pp. 38-50.

notes from class, combined with their research they conducted outside of class, formed the foundation of both their arguments and counter-arguments.

Third, in addition to altering the structure of the classroom, the debate provided an opportunity for students to practice unprepared spoken English, a quality necessary in order to succeed in the global economy. Students had been instructed to speak methodically with both clarity and poise in order to project the impression of confidence and knowledge. While a student was speaking, each member on the opposing team scribbled down notes in preparation for the following round. Thus, students had to balance listening to rapid-fire English with writing down logical, coherent notes (in English). They were pressed to challenge each other respectfully and keep all discussions civil, academic, and non-personal, a task that can prove to be difficult when emotions are involved and disagreements form the crux of discussions.

This student-focused and student-lead learning activity was welcomed by the majority of the students, as they were the ones in charge of their own learning; the instructor was simply the facilitator and ensured that the debate ran smoothly. The students were able to use the lessons that they learned in the debate (preparing a succinct, organized argument; gathering research from multiple sources; anticipating opposing arguments; combining theory with real world examples) for a research paper that was due at the end of the term.

In an informal anonymous questionnaire at the end of the term, 33 out of 34 students answered Question 17 (Did you enjoy the in-class debate? Why or why not?) in the affirmative; the one dissenting voice said, “I did not enjoy it much, as I failed myself to prepare to be more organized. This is actually my personal failure.” One student remarked that, “I could express my ideas and get new knowledge from my friends,” a theme that was echoed by twelve others. Nine students cited that they improved their confidence in speaking English. The variety of positive feedback is encapsulated by what one student wrote: “I could see many different perspectives on one single topic. It was a great chance to be brave and express ideas. I’ve also learnt a lot from the debaters’ speaking techniques and their rebuttals.”

For those lecturers who may be interested in conducting classroom debates, the following guideline may be helpful:
I evenly divided the class alphabetically in order to make the teams as unbiased as possible. I talked about the activity’s purpose, what I expected, and how they could be as successful as possible in the debate. Students then had one week to research their team’s position as individuals, and I allowed them thirty minutes of class time the following week at the end of the period to gather together and plan out their arguments. The next morning, the students arrived early on their own accord, and I gave them fifteen additional minutes of class time to tweak their strategies. Then, it was time to debate!

Students arranged chairs into two long lines on opposite sides of the room and I sat in the middle at the head of the classroom, holding onto a stopwatch. The first round lasted eight minutes, with the second round taking five minutes, and the final round lasting eight minutes; there was a five minute break between successive rounds when each team formed a small circle to quickly update their strategies. In terms of organization, the students had been instructed to open with their team’s position, logically lay out their arguments using statistics and/or theory, and then conclude with a quick summary of their team’s position. Meanwhile, I took notes and gave the speakers both a two minute and one minute warning so they could manage their time effectively.

Finally, after the conclusion of the last speaker, I declared a winner, based upon the effectiveness of the speakers, the strength of the arguments presented, and the ability of the team to respond to criticism. I then identified general issues that I had found and possible ways they could have improved their argument style; I also related how the lessons they learned from the debate could help them on future assignments. After polling both teams to ensure that every member fully participated in the process, I gave everyone the same participation grade for taking part in the activity.