Debates in the college classroom

This summer I decided to branch out and try something new in my Digital Media & Society undergrad course: I had them do formal debates about a current digital media issue. I’m not sure who was more nervous, them or me. I was worried I hadn’t prepared them enough for the debates or that they wouldn’t take them seriously. I was wrong. They did an awesome job, learned so much more than just writing a paper, and successfully incorporated a variety of skills including research, logic, oral presentations, collaboration, listening, and rhetoric. I will definitely be doing this again. I had a hard time finding resources/syllabi that incorporated debates into non-debate/communication courses. As such, I thought I’d share what worked for me and what didn’t. Hope it’s helpful.

1. Preparation

I spent one class period preparing them for the debates. Topics included:

  • a discussion about why have debates
  • structure of the debate
  • how to prepare and assign roles within the team 
  • how to take notes during debate
  • how to find good research
  • collaborative tools (e.g. Google docs, Evernote)
  • brief introduction to common fallacies & persuasive techniques
  • I passed out a worksheet to help them individually get started on the debate (this was not turned in, but was for their benefit).
  • One week prior to each debate I posted the resolution and included about 10 links to get them started with research. I also included a few key questions and perspectives they should consider. I did this to give them a jumpstart on research, but also so each side was initially starting with the same information (the links provided support for and against the resolution).

topics2. Topics

I knew the three debates would have something to do with the week’s general topic and would come at the end of the week so the whole class was somewhat familiar with the topics already. However, I didn’t choose the actual resolutions until one week prior to the debate. In part this was so each team had equal prep time (one week), and also because I was trying to choose topics based on students’ interests. The three broad weekly themes were: media regulation, digital privacy, and changing industries. After much deliberation and thought I chose the 3 specific resolutions based on students’ interests. They were:

  1. ISPs have the right to regulate internet traffic preferentially (i.e. network neutrality debate).
  2. The U.S. government should protect citizens’ online privacy.  
  3. Online radio services should pay lower royalties than they currently do (i.e. Internet Radio Fairness Act).

I was most excited about number two because privacy is one of my favorite teaching and research topics. However, as it turns out, that was the worst debate of the three. I was most nervous about the third one because I knew the least about it going into it, but it was hands down the best debate – from my perspective, but also the students’. It generated the most conversation and passion of any of them.

Keys to a good topic:

  • Students can find plenty of information supporting and refuting both sides
  • The topic is concise enough that they are less likely to go on tangents or approach the issue from completely different angles. That was the problem with the privacy debate – it was too broad and the two sides ended up taking very different approaches, which they were unable to really reconcile during the debate. IRFA was so specific it actually worked out the best because each side was really familiar with the other side’s perspectives too.
  • Timely (i.e. lots of sources and opinions out there) and relevant to students’ interests. With industry week, I was originally going to have them debate the Aereo TV case, but after reading their papers and discussing things with them, I realized they were much more interested in the music industry. I think this also led to the success of that particular debate. Although, I also had a couple students tell me they didn’t care at all about the issue prior to the debate, but they were really interested in it afterwards *success*

3. Structure 

I went back and forth on how to structure the debate. Overall, I think it worked out well and I won’t likely tweak it much. I had 30 students so it made sense to have 6 teams of 5 for a total of 3 debates. As such, I wanted each team member to only be responsible for one speaking part. You can see the details here.

  • ACTUAL DEBATE. Basically we had 2 arguments, 2 rebuttals, and one closing remark from each team. I also built in time for cross examination and gave them a couple recesses to prepare their rebuttals and closing arguments. The feedback was positive from students, overall I think they were comfortable with the structure and felt confident about it (even my quiet, shy students surprised me with their confidence during the debates). Being very structured and timed alleviates a lot of the anxiety for them.
  •  Q&A. After the debate, I opened up the floor for 10-15 minutes of Q&A with the audience. The debate members had to stay in “character” and continue to support whichever side they were on (i.e. not their personal opinions). The audience members demonstrated some great critical thinking skills and showed me just how engaged the majority of them had been during the debates. Students who came in not caring about the topic, suddenly had some pretty passionate opinions and questions.
  • AUDIENCE’S ROLE & DETERMINING A WINNER. Also, I had the audience members take notes on a flow chart (link coming soon) to help them identify primary arguments, persuasive techniques/logic, and fallacies. After the debates, the audience got into their respective teams of 5. As a team, they had to determine who they thought won the debate based on the arguments, not on personal opinions about the issue. This gave everyone an opportunity to share their thoughts and hear from others about the debate. Each team got one vote, so they had to come to an agreement (and thus try to convince each other if they disagreed about the winner). I also got one vote, for a total of 5 votes to determine the winner of the debate (the 2 debate teams did not get votes). I graded the notes (as part of their audience participation score) and gave a few bonus points to the winning team (as extra incentive to do well on the assignment). The first debate was a landslide 4-1 victory, the other two weeks were both 3-2 victories, which I think is a sign of a good debate.
  • INFORMAL DISCUSSION. After the votes were in, I opened up the floor to more informal discussion from audience as well as the debate team members (who no longer had to stay in “character,” but could voice their personal opinions). I also used this time to clarify any confusions and fill in anything that wasn’t brought up in the debate. I didn’t intervene during the actual debates at all except to keep time, remind them of the structure, and occasionally shut down a tangent during the cross-examination.

4. Outcomes 

Students learned way more about these topics than they would have had they written a traditional research paper or if I had just lectured or assigned a reading.

  • For one, they were forced to engage with both sides of an issue and really consider what was at stake for different parties involved (e.g. citizens, businesses, artists, the government, etc.). They had to more closely consider the logic and effects of each position and strategically look for fallacies and weaknesses in their own perspectives, not just the side they were arguing against. And of course we know pedagogically, students are much more likely to understand and remember something they actively participate in and discuss, rather than just listen to or read.
  • For students who are not good researchers or writers, I feel this exercise was particularly beneficial. We’ve all read that research paper that just didn’t hit the mark. The student didn’t do the research well, they failed to understand the broader context, and their paper was full of generalizations, fallacies, and missing links. These papers always leave me feeling a little downtrodden because I know the student didn’t really learn much from writing the paper and they leave my class still unclear about certain issues. With the debate, both the debate teams and the audience were presented with solid evidence, logic, context, and arguments. Because the presentations are oral (and I make them dress professionally), students tend to put a lot of work into their presentations (they don’t want to embarrass themselves or look unprepared up there). The stronger students were able to help the weaker students. And, unlike with papers, the whole class was exposed to the ideas (since with papers they don’t read each others).
  • I had some students who got really into it, you could tell they were excited about understanding logic, fallacies, persuasive techniques, and putting themselves into a position they otherwise didn’t agree with or know much about. I don’t know how many of them outright changed their minds about a topic (I didn’t explicitly ask), but I know they left having a more nuanced understanding and perspective of these topics. They left being able to more fully engage in debates and understand what’s at stake in all of these cases – as citizens, media producers, consumers, as a democracy, and economically. They all ACED the questions on the exam that were about the debates. Every. Single. Student. That’s saying something!
  • Of course, they also got to practice oral presentation skills and some impromptu speaking as well.

5. Tweaks

A few things I will do differently moving forward.

  • choose narrower topics similar to the IRFA topic
  • spend more time explaining the rebuttal part of the debate – a couple of students just reiterated their arguments, rather than engaging with the other side’s arguments
  • require a meeting with at least 1 team member prior to the debate to make sure they are on the right track. The primary problem with the privacy debate was that one team took it in a tangential direction it probably should not have gone in, I would have redirected this had I known. Several of the teams did come see me or email me, but it wasn’t a requirement. I will make it a requirement moving forward.

6. Grading

They were graded on:

  1. Written preparation they turned in the day of the debate. This allowed me to verify the credibility of their sources and the strength of their research. This was also a “safety net” feature for teams that didn’t do well at the debate, but who did actually prepare well.
  2. The actual debate itself – ability to present arguments, refute arguments, use of persuasive techniques, identification of fallacies, etc.
  3. As audience members, they were graded on their flow chart notes. This was mostly a participation grade and a way to ensure they showed up on debate days. Since I did not lecture about these issues (and in 2 of the cases did not assign readings), this was the one shot chance of discussing these issues so I wanted perfect attendance (and got it).

All in all, it was very successful, fun for me and the students, and a great way to engage with topics beyond just reading, writing, and lecturing. I think the students are more equipped to critically think about digital media from various perspectives – as citizens, consumers, producers, & distributors – and to consider what’s at stake democratically, economically, and ideologically in our changing media environment.

7. Resources

2 thoughts on “Debates in the college classroom

  1. This was easily one of my favorite parts of the class; much better than just reading and writing in essay format. I was on the team that was against ISPs throttling internet traffic preferentially. While, I felt we had a bit of an edge, with public opinion swaying our direction in real world politics, the opposing team I felt missed a few key points, but they made good rebuttals on the fly. Wish I could’ve taken this course during the normal semester rather than a condensed summer version, but at least I got to take it before graduating.


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