Running head: STUDENTS’ PERSPECTIVES
Students' perspectives on debate exercises in content area classes.
Communication Education 52 (2003) 157-163.
Iowa State University
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jean Goodwin (PhD where,
when), at the Department of English, Iowa State University, 223 Ross Hall, Ames, Iowa 50010.
Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to firstname.lastname@example.org. The author would like to offer
thanks to the students in the class reported here, and to Christopher Swift, who assisted in
teaching it. .
The recent movement to promote debate across the curriculum presumes that debate-like
activities in content-area classes can enhance disciplinary learning as well as core skills. Yet
students in such classes may resist debate activities if they believe (1) debate promotes hostility,
(2) debate disadvantages demographic groups preferring noncompetitive communication styles,
or (3) debate is too unfamiliar. The present study elicited end-of-term written evaluations of
debate-like activities in a seventy-student class on rhetorical traditions. Students in the class
worked in small groups to prepare debates on issues arising from lectures and reading. Teams
presented debates during weekly discussion section meetings; those not debating acted as judges
and wrote explanations of their decisions. Thematic analysis of the student responses indicated
that, while a few students expressed discomfort with the competitiveness of the activities, most
were laudatory. Results point to the value of debate across the curriculum for promoting small
group communication and for fostering divergent perspectives on course topics.
Keywords: debate across the curriculum, collaborative learning, small group communication,
Students’ perspectives on debate exercises
Teaching experience as well as empirical research affirms that debating helps students
develop content mastery, as well as argumentation and communication skills (Allen, Berkowitz,
Hunt, & Louden, 1999; Bellon, 2000; Williams, McGee, & Worth 2001). I therefore build debate
exercises into most of my courses. But I am not the most important person in the classroom.
Students learn. Far from empty vessels waiting to be filled with instruction, they bring to class
theories, attitudes, skills and habits that shape the success or failure of the activities they will
pursue there (e.g., Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Freire, 1970/2002). I've become curious,
therefore, to learn what students think about the debate exercises they undertake with me. Do
they find debating helps them learn? If so, what, in their experience, does it contribute?
In focusing these broad questions, my experience and the literature suggest three specific
concerns that warrant particular attention. These concerns pertain to three specific reasons
students may have for considering debate exercises unhelpful in content area classes:
First, since arguing requires open disagreement, students may associate it with negative
interpersonal or emotional qualities like hostility and fighting (Benoit, 1983; Tannen, 1998;
Trapp, 1986; Walker, 1991). In this case, some students would be understandably quite reluctant
to engage actively in debate exercises.
Second, some students may find the competitive nature of this specific form of
arguing–debate–to be intimidating or silencing. In particular, gender differences in argumentation
styles (Meyers, Brashers, Winston, & Grob, 1997) may mean that some women are
disadvantaged in debates. In this case, students could rightfully object that debate exercises are
Finally, students may simply find debate exercises to be unfamiliar. In this case, they
may resist the innovation, preferring instead activities such as class discussion and group projects
in which they already know how to learn.
I raise these questions out of my own teaching practice; I also raise them from an interest
in debate across the curriculum. As long as debate was confined to co-curricular activities and
courses expressly devoted to argumentation, students who chose to become involved could be
presumed to endorse the value of the activity (Williams, et al, 2001). But now that debate is
spreading beyond these traditional homes, students will encounter it more involuntarily, and their
attitudes toward it will matter more. As Bellon has noted, "advocates of debate across the
curriculum must produce strong evidence demonstrating pedagogical benefits if such initiatives
are to succeed" (Bellon, 2000, p. 161). At least some of this evidence should come from student
voices, representing students' perspectives on debate across the curriculum.
Instructional Context of this Study
In the spirit of classroom assessment propounded by Angelo and Cross (1993) I decided
to simply ask students what they thought of debate-like activities in one content-area class. The
class in which I collected these data was one that I was leading a and that incorporated some
features of debate across the curriculum. This 70-student, sophomore level course was intended
primarily to introduce communication majors to the rhetorical tradition stretching from the
sophists to the postmoderns. I focused each weekly unit on one enduring question in rhetorical
theory–for example, "Is science rhetorical?" and "Are emotions bad reasons?" Lectures and
whole-class exercises on Monday and Wednesday introduced the week's issue and reviewed the
Students also participated in smaller discussion sections of about 20 students meeting on
Fridays. Within the discussion sections, students were organized into four- or five-person work
groups. Each week of instruction culminated in a Friday debate between two of the work groups
in each discussion section. Assessment standards developed with the class encouraged the
debaters to organize their presentations clearly and to draw support from the course readings as
well as from their own experience. The students not directly participating in the day’s debate
were given the opportunity to question the advocates. They then decided the issue by majority
vote, and over the weekend these judge/audience members wrote two-page position papers
defending their decisions.
This class provides one model for "debate across the curriculum," since it focused
primarily on content mastery and used debate exercises only as a means to pursue that end. The
sort of material covered was not significantly different than that which might be found in any
humanities course with a theoretical bent—philosophy, or historiography, or literary theory. The
course had no prerequisites; in particular, no previous exposure to debate was required. And
there was no extensive instruction in debate. The teaching assistant and I simply enacted the first
debate ourselves, and then worked with the students to develop assessment criteria.
To find out what the students thought about the debate exercises, I asked them on the
final Friday of the term. This query was conducted as part of a broader review and assessment
of the course’s impact on their learning. An instructor began the data collection by leading each
section through a de-briefing in which students were invited to consider the strengths and
weaknesses of three ways of learning: "ordinary" discussion sections, debates, and small-group
projects. In particular, the instructor asked whether the competitive nature of the debates might
intimidate or silence students who might prefer more cooperative modes of communication. After
ten to fifteen minutes of whole group discussion, students were invited to take ten minutes and
write, anonymously, a brief essay articulating their views on the questions of whether, and (if so)
how, the debate format helped them learn. They were also invited to suggest specific changes to
the debate exercises. These written responses constitute the data upon which this report is
Fifty-two students, representing 73% of the class, submitted usable responses. I
performed a thematic content analysis of the essays, compiling phrases that related to the guiding
questions for this study.
Debate and negative interpersonal or emotional qualities. Only four students (8% of those
responding) voiced a concern about hostility, fighting, anger or other negative interpersonal or
emotional consequences of debate exercises. One explained, for example, that "once you have a
set position any attack on that position tends to be upsetting." Another commented on the
"tension" of debating. Each of the four nonetheless went on to express a positive overall
evaluation of their experiences.
Debate and competition. Despite the explicit prompt that directed students to consider
the competitive nature of debate activities, only 7 students (13%) mentioned competition or
intimidation. Four of these thought that competition was actually a good thing, "because it forced
people to prepare extensively." Another student denied being intimidated by debates. Only two
mentioned competition negatively, explaining that debating encouraged teams to "say anything to
win" or "to take extreme viewpoints." Even these students, however, did not express a feeling of
being personally disadvantaged or silenced by the debate format.
Debate and unfamiliarity. Only three students noted that the debates had initially been
unfamiliar; each went on to explain that "in retrospect it was a key element" in their learning.
More students, by contrast, took up the explicit prompt and commented on the relationship of
debate to other learning activities–class discussion and small group work.
The relative advantages of debate in contrast with "ordinary" class discussion received
comment from 17 students (33%). The bulk of the responses took debates to be equal to,
complementary with, or better than discussion for the following reasons. (1) Debates require all
students to contribute. (2) Debates bring forward a variety of different points of view. (3)
Debates require "rational format" (perhaps as opposed to mere expression of opinions). (4)
Debates force participants to know what they're talking about (as opposed to "BS"). One
Although I admittedly hated preparing for the debates and would have rather just had a
discussion section every week (to avoid doing the work), I certainly learned a lot more as
a result of the debates. When I have discussion sections in other classes, I simply reword
statements made by other members of the class so it looks like I actually know what I’m
talking about, when in fact I am completely unprepared. . . . The debate and the small
group preparation that preceded it was an extremely effective way to facilitate me
actually doing the work.
The relationship between debate and another form of classroom communication–group
work–was mentioned by more students (25; 48%). Again, all considered debate to be equal to,
complementary with, or better than small group discussion; only one student suggested that
group work replace some debates. A number of students spontaneously elaborated on the way
that small group discussion and whole-class debate had reinforced each other. Students explained
that group work facilitated the debates for many reasons. Their responsibility to other group
members encouraged them to prepare and to practice prior to the debate. The small group
meetings were a comfortable place to brainstorm, ask questions and "bring different thoughts
together." Group work enabled students "to expand our limited capacities," allowing them to do
better work together than any could have done alone.
Other students commented on the reverse effect, noting that the debates helped promote
good group discussion because "fear of shame and desire for a good grade" in the debate required
the group to "remain focused" and cooperate and because the debate allowed responsibilities to
be given to "everyone," as opposed to projects where "one person [is] helping others along." One
student articulated the correlation between the debates and the small group work thus:
I think that while the debates were certainly valuable to learning about the course
material, what made them so was the small group discussions that my group had
every week. During the debate, we tended to focus simply on one side as a
debater. We would often ignore or negate very valid points the other side/group
made. However, during the small group discussion, there was no need to do this.
We threw out ideas on both sides of the argument in order to help us prepare for
the debate and/or paper. We learned from each other because we were listening to
each other. I do not think that listening necessarily occurred when we were
involved in the debate. . . . Since the small group discussions happened because of
the debates, we should keep the debates. But the real learning happened in the
Debate and learning. All but one of the 52 students responding expressed positive
assessments of their debate experiences. Despite some drawbacks, the debates were described as
"fun,” “enjoyable,” “the most/very/helpful,” “very/useful,” “worthwhile,” “critical,” “essential,”
“the best option,” “excellent,” ‘good," and "a good idea." Moreover, students were able to
observe the value of the debate activities for the learning of disciplinary knowledge, that is, from
the perspective of debate-across-the-curriculum.
As to communication skills, nine students (17%) commented that debates provided a
valuable opportunity and incentive to develop their public speaking abilities. For example, one
Fridays were the best part of this class. . . . Not only does the debate format force
you to know your material it also helps you better your public speaking skills.
Clarity and eloquence help win an argument so while presenting the facts forced
you to discover the most effective delivery method.
Ten students (19%) thought the course had helped them become better at supporting their own
arguments and analyzing those of others. One of these reported gains on an even more
fundamental skill. In his words, "the debates were the main reason I learned that it is possible to
argue both sides of a question. This taught me that I shouldn't be narrow-minded and should hear
things out until I make a final decision."
The great majority of students (79%), however, focused on how the debates had
encouraged or indeed "forced" them to better learn course content. Three broad themes emerged in
First, students thought that the need to debate motivated them to engage the course
content deeply. "By having debates at the end of every week," one student commented, "we
would be thinking about the material all week long." Others echoed this view; debates encouraged
students to go "much deeper into the issues," to "really delve into the topic more," and "to take a
deep, detailed, and extensive view of the readings." This meant not only that everyone would do
the homework–"more importantly, for the most part, everyone enjoys doing the homework."
Second, students thought that the debates, or (as above) the debates in conjunction with
the group work, exposed them to a wide range of viewpoints and thus helped them engage the
course content broadly. Some students reported that this broad engagement happened as they
listened to the different sides during a debate. By the end, one said, "I’d often changed my mind
several times AND had been forced to think about things I hadn’t considered." Others explained
that they had to grapple with alternative views as part of preparing for debate, in order to be able
to meet the opposing arguments. For example,
The info that we would need to know would have to be that of both sides. This enforces
us to not be so close-minded about things. Having knowledge about both sides also made
our point much stronger, because we knew how to counterstrike when asked questions.
Still others reported that "it helped me think about things from a different perspective" in
particular "if I was debating [on] a side that I didn’t agree with."
Finally, students thought that the debates allowed them to engage the course content
personally. As one student admitted, "The debates helped me by forcing me to take a stance on
something and create argument(s) to support it. Had I not been forced to do this, I probably
would have taken a more passive role in the class." Other students echoed this view, noting the
"personal involvement" that debates promoted, which allowed students "to become intimately
involved with the material" and to "learn for him/herself." Further, since students were
encouraged to draw support for their arguments not only from the readings but from their
personal experiences, the debates also helped them "relate rhetoric to other areas of life," and
made what "we learned in class feel more applicable to our own lives."
Perhaps applying what they had learned about the value of competing viewpoints, 25
students (48%) articulated some negative features of debate in addition to their positive views.
These features were diverse, with none raised by more than four students. Some found that
listening to the debates was passive and uninformative. Several commented that some of the
questions being debated were poorly formulated—either unclear or unfairly favoring one side.
Several wanted more feedback. Two found the debates too highly structured; another, too
unstructured. While students did not find the competitiveness of the debate intimidating, they did
occasionally think that the element of competition prodded them to ignore the alternate point of
view, to become polarized, or to "artificially dichotomize an issue." And some voiced a sense of
frustration. During the debates, the issues often got lost, irrelevant points were made, and no
clear decisions were reached. As one student commented,
[S]ometimes the debates got confusing and the arguments got smeared with each other,
you didn’t know what was right or wrong or anything like that. Overall, I think debates
are good, but I think some course of action should be taken when arguments get
I came away from the study with a keener enthusiasm for deploying debate exercises in
this and other courses. In particular, the students’ comments largely relieved my three concerns
about the usefulness of debates. The debate exercises seem largely to have taken an end run
around the ordinary equation of arguing with fighting, to have avoided disadvantage to any large
segment of the class (i.e., women), and to have overcome any resistance to unfamiliar learning
activities. Among these three concerns, I am left with some residual uneasiness regarding negative
reactions to competitiveness. While some students did make negative remarks about
competition, there was no evidence that competition affected any one group of students
unequally. In other student cultures, perhaps ones in which females are less ardent advocates for
equity, the disadvantaging of some students might be more conspicuous. In any case, I am
determined to monitor student reactions to competition in classes where they debate.
Overall, this study warrants efforts to foster debate exercises in courses beyond
communication departments. The student voices articulated in this study highlighted two themes
of particular relevance to the cross-disciplinary value of debate. The first theme pertains to the
relationship between debating and group work. One reason I had originally organized the
discussion sections into teams was the logistical restriction that limited class time imposed on
individual debating. .I also was committed to the value of peer learning. As it turned out,
preparing for debates proved an excellent small group task, in that each individual conspicuously
benefited from the equal contributions of her peers (Cohen, 1994). In addition to their direct
effects on student learning, therefore, debate exercises seem to be an excellent way of
incorporating group work into courses.
The second novel theme pertains to generating diverse points of view on a subject.
Traditional teaching techniques like textbooks, lectures, and tests with right answers insulate
students from the open questions and competing answers that so often drive our own interest in
our subjects. Debates do not, and in fact invite scrutiny of the widest possible range of
alternative views on a subject. Students' comments about the value of disagreement also
offer an interesting perspective on the nature of the thinking skills we want to foster. The
previous research reviewed by Allen et al. (1999) has largely focused on the way debate can help
students better master the principles of correct reasoning. Although some students did echo this
finding, many more emphasized the importance of debate in helping them to recognize and deal
with a diversity of viewpoints. Students here seem to be articulating a perspective on critical
thinking surprisingly like that proposed by Deanna Kuhn (1991). As Kuhn pointed out, we only
begin to seek reasons at all when we understand that a proposition can be doubted–that is, when
we realize that others think differently about it. Kuhn's work documented that even college-
educated individuals can have trouble imagining, constructing arguments for, and refuting
positions other than their own. If this is so, then debate exercises may be an excellent way of
leading students to experience the central aspect of truly critical thinking.
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