Debates Can Help to Foster Online Learning (Part III)

11 min readDec 20, 2021
debates online learning Deel part 3

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

This is the third 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 the second part, we looked at some models for debates and how they can be implemented in an online classroom, including an overview of how to structure live debates via web conferencing platforms.

But how do we determine who wins and loses in such live debates? And how do we apportion credit fairly to students? In this third and final part, we’ll look at class voting as a means of measuring debate performance and an overall strategy for grading students on these projects.

Voting on Live Debates

At the conclusion of live debates in my classes, the listening audience (the rest of the class) is asked to vote on which team they believe “won” the debate. The word “won” here is in quotations because I have found that the instructor needs to carefully explain to the audience how their vote should be determined, lest ambiguity could skew the outcomes.

For example, suppose the debate topic is “Should drugs be legalized in the United States?” Now, each member of the audience will probably have an opinion on this topic before sitting down to listen to the debate.

One way of establishing “winners” and “losers” in a debate context is to poll the audience before and after the debate and assess the net change in audience opinion (i.e., which way opinion shifted during the debate if at all). Then, victory can be awarded to the team that represented the side of the debate that received more support after the debate was over.

However, some fair criticisms emerge with this method. For example, suppose that you’re teaching a class of 100 students. At the onset of the debate, the distribution of opinion is heavily lopsided — 95 students for the given proposal and five students against it.

In this kind of a context, it could be viewed as more of an uphill battle for the “for” team to keep all 95 of its supporters from the beginning and sway at least one of only five members of the audience who disagreed with them. In other words, it seems they have everything to lose and a very small margin for gain in the distribution of opinion.

That makes a victory more challenging than for the other team, which needs only convince any one of the 95 “for” people to change their minds to win the debate. There are obviously many more paths to victory for the “against” team.

Also, we know from social sciences research that opinions on many topics are firmly entrenched in individual beliefs and virtues, particularly if the debate topic is perceived to be ethically, politically, or religiously hinged in any way. So the margin of actual movement on audience opinions is usually small, which can complicate the determination of winners through opinion shifting even more.

Believe it or not, I have moderated debates where there was zero net change in audience opinion pre- and post-debate. What do we do then? I am usually forced to declare a tie.

Instead of polling shifts in opinion, what I generally prefer to do is instruct the audience to vote for the team that they feel performed the best in the debate. So rather than casting a vote for the team they agree with, they are asked to vote for the team that they feel did the best job of presenting evidence, defending their arguments and offering persuasive points on the topic. In this sense, the “winning” team is awarded based on some assessment of effort — subjective as it may be — rather than on the openness of the audience to persuasion.

While many aspects of debates are made more logistically challenging by the online environment, voting is one component that can be made easier. Many online web conference platforms, including Zoom, offer polling or voting tools built into their software. Collecting votes on debates from the audience can be as simple as clicking a button.

Credit Apportionment in Live Debates

But why take votes at all? One benefit is that voting allows student debaters to see how their efforts stacked up against their competition.

But victory can also be made a component of credit for the debate assignment in the class. It certainly shouldn’t be made so large a portion that a loss could destroy a student’s chances at a good overall grade in the class.

In any team project, there are many variables outside the scope of any one individual’s control, so students should not necessarily be handcuffed to the fate of others who might drive their team’s performance off a cliff. On the other hand, the credit tied to winning or losing should at least be enough to motivate students to try their hardest with the assignment.

Here is an example of how credit for a debate project might be apportioned in a typical class:

● Preparation (as assessed by teammates) — 20%

For this portion, the instructor asks students in each debate team to rate the effort and performance of their individual teammates. Students are asked how much credit each team member deserves, and the averages of these scores determines the final weighting. This element obviously encourages students to play well with their team and put in a concerted effort to help everyone succeed.

● Opening and Closing Statements (as assessed by instructor) — 30%

For this portion, the instructor assigns a grade for the student’s performance on opening and closing statements that reflects preparation and effort.

● Q&A Participation (as assessed by instructor) — 30%

For this portion, the instructor assigns a grade for the student’s performance in the question-and-answer segments of the debates that reflects ability to answer questions competently in real time and engage in dialogue with the panel.

● Ask a Question as an Audience Member — 10%

For this portion, the instructor awards credit if the student raises a hand as an audience member in any of the debates and asks an intelligible, coherent question that reflects adequate attention and thought on the subject matter.

● To the Victor Go the Spoils — 10%

This last 10% is awarded to each member of the debate team that “wins” their respective debates as defined by the instructor. The losing teams do not receive this credit.

Again, when apportioning credit, it is recommended that the portion awarded to the debate winners not be so substantial that if a student loses the debate, he or she can’t still earn an A in the class. This grading obviously requires consideration for the weighting of the debate project relative to overall course credit. For example, if an instructor uses the model I suggested and weights the debate project as, say, 40% of the overall course credit, then a loss of 10% debate credit would only amount to 4 points on a student’s final course grade.

So if a student could still (hypothetically) earn an A grade with 96% course credit (which is the case at most colleges and universities), then the credit tied to winning or losing will not prevent that student from earning the best course grade possible. In my experience coordinating these projects in my classes, students generally recognize this model as a fair approach to evaluation and grading. They respect the value of friendly competition built into the win/loss component.

But they also appreciate the fact that they can still do well in the classes overall, notwithstanding the debate teams to which they are assigned and the sometimes unpredictable way that everything might shake out in the end.

Some Debates May Have More than Two Sides

It’s worth pointing out that not all debate topics are merely dichotomous; some may in fact have more than two sides. For example, a debate on whether to legalize marijuana is a binary question, and as such the debate would have just two sides (for and against).

But if a debate topic concerns more than two potential viewpoints — such as discussions concerning an analysis of a continuum of ideas (e.g., best ice cream flavor, best political ideology, best economic system, etc.) — then more than two groups or teams would obviously be needed.

When this is the case, there are also important implications for voting. For example, when an instructor is trying to establish a “winner” in a polychotomous debate context, it may be useful to utilize a ranked choice voting paradigm, so that all votes among an audience are fairly weighted in the final outcome.

Promoting Respectful Disagreements and the Challenging of Ideas

An important consideration when coordinating any class debate — be it in a discussion forum or a live presentation — is the maintenance of respect and the encouragement of challenge in the classroom. In my experience, there is a healthy middle ground through which students can engage with each other vigorously and learn a lot along the way. But some students will tend to lean toward one of two extremes — confrontation aversion and disrespect/hostility — that can distract from the process or derail it altogether.

Confrontation Aversion

On one side are the students who are averse to confrontation — those who are too timid or shy to challenge or openly disagree with the viewpoints of other students, even if only for the purposes of an assigned debate task. This hurdle is common and understandable.

Many people feel uncomfortable in the face of conflict, and it becomes exponentially worse when they have to actively argue with another person (or people) in the presence of others looking on. But this is an important skill for every student to hone in the course of their professional development.

The courage to challenge authorities and ideas is something that can be learned and improved, but it requires practice and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. So instructors who utilize debate projects in their courses should be prepared to support these students as necessary.

Often, it requires a private one-on-one conversation so as not to embarrass the student in a public forum. The instructor can share observations in a respectful way and offer some tips to help the student rise above their apprehensions, such as:

  1. Recognizing that the debate is about ideas and not people. Comments and arguments should remain focused on the ideas, and there should not be personal feelings invested in the engagement. We can disagree on ideas — even ferociously — and still remain friends at the end.
  2. Reminding the student that the only way we learn is through challenges to what we think we know. If we agreed with everyone all the time and surrounded ourselves with only people who agreed with us, we would never learn anything new because we’d never encounter challenges to our preconceptions.

It is only through challenge that we discover where we may have erred and where we can reconcile our worldviews with the benefit of new information and new perspectives. So (respectful) argument is an important means of course correction and learning.

Disrespect and Hostility

On the other end of the spectrum are those students who may be too easily provoked by confrontation. They take challenges to their ideas as attacks on their characters and view these exchanges as personal affronts. These people are the “hotheads.”

With these students, a civil conversation can quickly devolve into mudslinging and chaos. So in this case, the instructor must assume the role of referee in ensuring that interactions between students always remain civil and respectful.

Again, it’s important to point out for these students the difference between challenges to ideas and challenges to people. The two should not be confused.

Debates should be about ideas, and personal character attacks have no place in these environments. It’s perfectly acceptable — even encouraged — to zealously defend one’s arguments.

But when lines are crossed as it relates to decorum and respect, the instructor must step in to maintain order. Fortunately, this devolution into character attacks does not happen too often, but when it does it is important for the instructor to act quickly before hostilities escalate.

Verbal arguments that turn nasty can quickly grow into more serious conflict if not addressed. This fact is doubly true in the online environment and especially with debates held in discussion forum formats.

The literal distance and lack of face-to-face tension can embolden people to behave in ugly ways; one need only peruse comments sections on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube to see how nasty people can be on the internet. So it’s important that we as instructors enforce the expectations of “netiquette” in our online classes.

Here’s a helpful tip: Whenever students are randomly assigned to debate teams in class projects, a strategy for diffusing tension or hostility in dialogue is reminding all students that the views being represented in debate discourse are not necessarily the sincere opinions of those individuals who are offering them. In utilizing this strategy, students remember that they are simply engaging in an exercise, and the argument they are having may not be reflective of actual feelings. This tactic tends to de-escalate the stakes involved and promote more respectful exchanges because students recognize the dynamic as a kind of role playing.

Those Who Learn Never Lose

One final point of encouragement for students engaging in debate assignments is a reminder that there is no shame in being wrong, changing one’s mind, or learning something new. This message echoes Carl Sagan’s third virtue — humility.

The late Nelson Mandela famously said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” In this spirit, we must remember that whenever we walk away from a conversation or argument with new information or wisdom that we did not previously possess, we benefited from that interaction and we are better for it. So while winning is a natural and understandable aim, we should not become so myopically focused on victory that we lose sight of the larger goal, which is to learn.

One criticism of professional debates held before a live audience is that the pressure on debaters to “perform” can make for intellectually dishonest conjecture. Even when an opponent makes an excellent counterpoint to our arguments — and even when we recognize it as such — there is all too often a feeling of vested interest in not acknowledging it. To do so would be to weaken our own position and sabotage our chances of winning.

This way of thinking makes sense insofar as competitive strategy is concerned, but it’s counterproductive to the extent that we care about the overarching goal of learning. We should enter every conversation — debates or otherwise — with learning as the primary objective.

If a point of conflict arises and we’re shown through dialogue to be right in our views, great. If we’re shown to be wrong, then the interaction allows us an invaluable opportunity to correct ourselves, and we should be grateful for that.

The spirit of learning permeates throughout all we do. We should embrace learning as a sacred virtue, never to be subordinate to winning or any other objective.

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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