Instructional Strategies

Debates as a Teaching Method or Course Format


Recently, I did some reading on using debates as a course format. I had been familiar with using debates as an instructional strategy, but not as the actual format for an entire course.

I was able to find a few examples of where this had been previously done, including the Genome 475 course at the University of Washington:

For this course, debates were used for all of the units. Each unit was broken into three parts

  1. A introductory lecture or discussion
  2. The debate
  3. An open discussion of issues raised in the debate

Other important pieces of information from this example were that

  • Class attendance is required and part of assessment
  • Before the first debate, two faculty members have a debate as an example
  • The students not involved in the debate act as debate judges

Another example of a course can be found in “Debate: Innovative Teaching to Enhance Critical Thinking and Communication Skills in Healthcare Professionals” (PDF) by Dawn Hall (2011).

I highly recommend that you check out this article – especially the Debate Format table (Table 2 Page 4) and the Debate Rubric (Table 3 Page 5).

An interesting note from this course is that the instructor does not provide specific debate questions; rather the instructor provides a topic, such as nursing. The students not involved in the debate are then responsible for choosing the specific issue within the topic, for example, patient abandonment.

Photo by World Economic Forum

Throughout my research I also looked at:

Throughout this reading, I was able to pull out common themes or findings:

  • Students need pre-teaching on debate skills
  • Students need ample time to prepare for each debate – at least some of this time should be provided in class
  • There must be an open discussion following the debate – debates often miss the middle-ground surrounding an issue because they focus on the two ends of the spectrum
  • Students need pre-requisite knowledge on the topics – either delivered through lecture in this course prior to the debate planning or from previous courses
  • Debate format will work best with a class of approximately 15 students
  • All students need a role in every debate – this may include being judges or being responsible for debriefing
  • Place students into their roles of for or against an issue – do not allow them to choose. This allows for greater growth and new learning

Debate is a powerful instructional strategy that forces students to become immersed in research to support their arguments. If you have a course where this could work, I would highly recommend trying this design. Feel free to contact us here at GMCTE for assistance!

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