Debates Can Help to Foster Online Learning (Part II)

13 min readDec 16, 2021


debates online learning Deel part 2

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University

This is the second article in a three-part series on the utility of debate exercises in online education.

In the first part of this series, I discussed the challenges to promoting engagement in the online classroom and how conflict through debates can help foster student interest. In this part, I’ll take a look at some models for debates and how they can be implemented in an online classroom.

There are many formats for debates. Some involve debates between individuals or teams. Other debates are held with or without audience participation and with or without interruption and dialogue from other debaters. Let’s look at two models that I use in my own classes and that I have found to be a fairly robust blend of different styles and strategies to bring out the very best in the debate experience.

Debates in Online Discussion Forums

Debates that are deployed in the form of online discussion forums are fairly simple and straightforward. Classes can be divided into groups based on the different sides of debate arguments.

Once the debate topic and different sides have been established, the next question becomes how to best divide students for the purposes of forming debate groups. There are several different strategies for approaching this question.

The most obvious would be to allow students to choose their own sides of the debate. The advantage to this model for the sake of the debate’s overall impact is that students may be more likely to invest themselves emotionally in a debate position that they truly and sincerely espouse. If you don’t truly believe in something, you’re less likely to take it very seriously.

However, the downside to students choosing their own debate positions is that they’re not motivated to think outside of their own pre-established points of view and explore new ideas.

An alternative method for debate team allocation would be to record student opinions on the debate topic beforehand and then intentionally assign them to the opposite side to that which their prior opinions would otherwise dictate. The clear advantage to this is that when students are assigned to debate positions that are not reflective of their personal views, they are required to research and prepare arguments for perspectives with which they are less familiar.

This strategy essentially demands that debaters “steel man” the opposing arguments. In doing so, students often discover different ways of looking at the world — a practice that is extremely healthy for intellectual growth and development.

I have observed students who actually changed their personal views as a result of being forced to research and defend different arguments. After digging through the evidence, they sometimes discover their previous views were indefensible.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. So the drawback to forcing students into adopting debate positions that clash with their personal opinions is that, if they find no epiphanies during their research and preparation work, they may be less enthusiastic when the time comes to defend the side with which they (still) disagree.

On balance, this exercise is nonetheless healthy. However, the lack of sincerity may impact the overall quality of the debate at hand.

But if you’re an online instructor who is adopting the approach of forcing students to see the opposite view, it’s obviously important to not share your team allocation plan with your students before questioning them and recording their opinions. If you tell them you’re going to assign them to the opposite debate team from their personal views, this knowledge may motivate them to give you insincere answers for the sake of manipulating your strategy to land on the side of the debate they actually want to be on, which defeats the purpose of the exercise.

One point of middle ground that I often utilize in my class debates is an arbitrary assignment of debate teams that pays no mind to the personal viewpoints of the student involved, one way or the other. For example, you might consider assigning students in your class whose first names begin with the letters A through M the “pro” position on a debate, and those students whose first names begin with the letters N through Z the “con” position, respectively.

Depending on overall class size and assuming a fairly even distribution of opinions, you’re likely to have a healthy mix of students on each side who a) agree with the perspectives they’ve been assigned and b) are being stretched to defend arguments which are foreign to them. And if you have multiple debate discussions over the course of a particular class, you can divide up the class using a number of different arbitrary schemes (e.g. first names, last names, phone numbers, genders, birthdays, etc.) so as to vary the debate teams and maximize the chances that each student will have an opportunity to participate from stances that are both natural and unnatural for them. In other words, they will have to take up positions they agree with and positions they don’t over the course of different debates.

For the discussion debate format, an additional question concerns how students should be expected to participate to earn credit for the assignment. There are many ways to accomplish this goal as well, but a common approach is to require a main post that addresses the central prompt of the debate topic and then request several peer responses that create threaded dialogues on various subpoints.

Minimum length requirements are optional, but it is usually a good idea to put a word count parameter in place for both pieces. Minimum length standards for main posts ensure that questions are thoroughly answered, and arguments are adequately explained.

Also, minimum lengths for the peer responses make certain that students don’t shortchange the conversation that is taking place with hollow contributions like “I agree” or “Good job.” What we’re after here is meaningful, substantive conversation.

On that same note, another helpful strategy is to require that a certain portion of the mandatory peer responses be directed at students who are on opposing sides of the debate issues. If a student only converses with his own debate team/group and makes no direct contact with the opposition, he loses a lot in terms of the opportunity to compare notes and test ideas. So while it can be useful to share thoughts among similar thinkers, far more beneficial is the time spent confronting points of discord.

Live Debates via Web Conferencing Technologies

Not all debates in the online environment need to be held in the written-only context of a discussion forum. For classes that have a synchronous component (i.e. live meetings), debates can be planned and coordinated to occur in real time. Debates of this type might sound like a complicated undertaking, but with modern web conferencing software, they can be accomplished with relative ease.

A question that emerges for these kinds of class projects is how such debates should be structured in terms of agenda. Much of the answers will hinge on how many live meetings a class has and how long the meetings last.

For example, if a meeting is only 30 minutes, one is more limited with respect to what can be accomplished as compared with a meeting that is an hour and 30 minutes. When I’m teaching online classes and given the option to structure these meetings as I see fit, I usually lean toward longer sessions (i.e. around 90 minutes) to maximize the different types of exchange that can take place.

In terms of choosing debate teams for live debates, selecting debaters is more difficult than dividing the class into debate teams for discussion-based debates. The reason is that while discussion forums allow for an unlimited volume of contributions and dialogue from participants, live debates don’t permit such freedom.

If you have a class of 10, 20, 50 or 100 students, imagine a live debate where everyone is vying to speak their mind at the same time. It’s just not possible.

So for this reason, teams for live debates need to be smaller. Usually, debate teams of two to five participants per team are comfortable for these contexts. With larger teams it becomes hard to allow each debater sufficient talk time to make meaningful contributions to the conversation.

So how does everyone get to participate if debate teams are only two to five students? It depends on how many students are in your class, how many live meetings you have available to use for debate purposes and how important debate performance from each individual student is to the overall purpose of the exercise for your course. For example, if you only have 10 students in your class, then two teams of five might mean that every student can participate in just one debate.

On the other hand, if you have 40 students in your class and you don’t view it as critical that all students actually present in the debate, then you might schedule maybe two or three live debates. You could then divide the class into large teams as needed and task the teams with selecting a few individuals from each that will actually do the presenting at the debates. Others could help in supporting roles by conducting research, preparing arguments and providing the intellectual firepower that the debaters will use in the arena.

However, this model, involving some students in the spotlight and some students in the background, inevitably results in a certain portion of the class “loafing” and allowing the rest of their teams to carry them, especially the ones who do not actually have to present at the debates. It also deprives those “background” students of the opportunity to practice public speaking and argumentation skills, which are at the heart of these assignments. For these reasons, I generally prefer — when the circumstances allow — to schedule the debates in such a way that all students have an opportunity to present.

For example, if I have 30 students in a class, then I might schedule three debate sessions with two teams of five students in each debate. In this fashion, every student will have to sit on the debate panel, and every student will have to speak and be heard. No one is allowed to hide behind the performance of others or push off their work onto teammates. Accountability is optimized, and everyone benefits from the lesson one way or the other.

I usually require students who are not participating in a debate to attend as audience members; their attendance is also important for their voting role. I usually serve as moderator for the debates for the sake of maintaining order and promoting the goals of the activity. The moderator governs the debate and interjects as necessary to ensure respectful decorum is maintained and move the conversation in directions that are helpful for the listening audience.

The Components of Live Debates

Generally, the following components are incorporated into live debates and in this order:

1. Uninterrupted Opening Statements. This portion of the debate is where debaters, in turn, have an opportunity to articulate their opening arguments on the topic at hand. Usually, these opening statements are not more than three minutes in length (again, depending on what overall meeting length will allow), and this time is uninterrupted.

Typically, the statements will be conducted in an alternating fashion, with one debater from the “pro” team speaking, followed by one debater from the “con” team and so on. No one disrupts the debaters during this time, including opponents and the moderator. However, students are advised as they are preparing for their debates that they should be mindful of two key points as it relates to opening statements:

a) When your allotted time (e.g. three minutes) has elapsed, you will be stopped promptly, even if you are mid-sentence in your arguments. Consequently, you should carefully prepare and rehearse what you are going to say (including practice by timing yourself), so as to make sure you do not run over your time. It won’t reflect well on the listening audience if you need to be yanked off stage, and it appears you’re incapable of being mindful of time boundaries.

b) You want to use your time wisely and strategically. You do NOT want to repeat what other members of your team are going to say in their own opening statements. You must communicate and collaborate to divide up the sub-points of your overall arguments in a way that makes strategic sense.

Talk to your teammates and understand what they plan to cover. Ensure that your contributions do not overlap in a way that seems redundant or pointless. Otherwise, the audience may wonder why you are there and they may question your preparation.

2. Open Moderator Q&A. Following the conclusion of opening statements, the moderator begins a round of question and answer with debate team panelists to drive the discussion forward. When I serve in the role of moderator on debate panels, I listen attentively to each of the opening statements from the student debaters.

Also, I take careful notes for the purpose of preparing questions during the moderator Q&A segment. My questions are designed not to take sides or reflect bias in any way, but rather to play “devil’s advocate” with each of the arguments presented by my students. The goal of the questions is to test how robust the arguments presented really are and how well the debaters prepared for their roles. Some examples of questions might include:

a) If a student debater cites a statistic in their opening argument, I might question where the statistic came from, how recent it is or whether it includes some key extraneous variables. I seek to probe into how well the student knows the material.

b) If a student debater offers an argument that directly contradicts a point from the other side, I may ask them how they would respond to the point for the purposes of addressing the “steel man” argument at hand.

c) If a student debater asserts moral superiority on an issue, I might draw analogies that infer hypocrisy or ulterior motives in order to see if the student can defend these attacks “on their feet” and in real time.

The moderator Q&A component is the first of two debate segments that are “open,” which is to say that debaters are free to engage each other in dialogue and direct argument within reason. As a moderator, my primary objective is to ask questions of the debaters for the purposes of furthering the conversation in meaningful ways and to make sure that each debater has an opportunity to address a question at least once.

However, beyond the scope of an initial answer, I usually allow for exchanges between the debaters and contributions from the rest of the panel, particularly the opposing side. For example, let’s imagine that a question is asked of a debater related to his or her opening statement, and then the debater answers that question.

If people on the panel have additional thoughts — critical or otherwise — that they’d like to share relative to the specific topic, then a few moments of sparring may be allowed between debaters in order to flesh out the debate. The moderator Q&A session usually lasts no more than 15–20 minutes or so.

3. Open audience Q&A. Following the moderator Q&A session, the floor is opened for questions and answers from the listening audience, which should be the rest of the class members who are not participating in the particular debate taking place. Like the moderator Q&A portion, this segment is open for dialogue and exchanges. Although debaters should first be given an opportunity to answer a question directed at them, other debaters on both teams should feel free to engage in sparring as time allows and insofar as such interactions help to further the conversation.

In order to promote thoughtful questions from the audience, I often require that each student in my class ask at least one thoughtful question during any of the debates for which they are a listening audience member. This requirement necessitates that the instructor keep a record of who asks questions to ensure that credit is assigned appropriately, but this record can be easily created with a class roster and a column where boxes can be ticked as questions are asked.

Recording the live Zoom sessions may also be helpful to ensure integrity in the process. I have had students allege that they asked a question even though I had no record of it on my roster, and so I’ve had to go back and review recordings to investigate the claims. The audience Q&A session usually lasts no more than 15–20 minutes.

4. Uninterrupted Closing Statements. Following the end of the Q&A sessions, the last segment of the debate is a round of closing statements where the debaters have a chance to share their final thoughts. Like the opening statements, these contributions are uninterrupted (no interjection or dialogue is allowed).

The time allotted for closing statements is usually shorter than that for opening statements — typically in the two-minute range. This requirement is because closing statements are intended to be the summaries of points already discussed in the debate.

Debaters are once again cautioned not to exceed their time limits, as they will be cut off when their time elapses, regardless of where they are in their thoughts. They are also coached in advance to carefully consider the dynamic between regurgitating information already cited earlier in the debate (i.e., they should not simply be recycling their opening statements) and forcing new information down the throats of the audience in a last-minute, rushed fashion. This is a balancing act that each debater needs to work out for themselves.

Also, it’s worth encouraging student debaters to be prepared to improvise a bit with their closing statements as may be appropriate. It’s good for them to come prepared with a set of main points, but the debate itself — and particularly the Q&A sessions — may bring up new points or counterarguments that warrant some attention in the final few moments that they have in front of their audience. So they should be prepared to make “half-time adjustments” and revise their closing statement plan as may be demanded by the debate proceedings themselves.

But how do we determine who wins and loses in such debates? And how do we apportion credit? In the final installment of this article series, I’ll offer answers to these questions as well as some final considerations around debate implementation.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is an Associate Professor with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.




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