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6 Steps to Prep Students to Debate Either Side of Any Issue

Dr. Michael Pomante II shows students how to support their opinions in a civil debate. The key? Assign plenty of prep work—and know how to pick sides.

Educator

Michael Pomante II, PhD

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Jacksonville University in Florida

PhD, MA, and BA in Political Science

Michael Pomante II, PhD, loves to debate. No, he was not on a debate team, nor has he ever run for office. In fact, he has no formal debate experience to speak of. However, as an assistant professor of political science at Jacksonville University in Florida, he has found that the results of using this activity as a teaching tool are, well, undebatable.

For Pomante, debating creates an opportunity for students to invest themselves more deeply in a topic. More important, it requires students to demonstrate empathy for the “opposing” side and to try on a different point of view. “[Americans] can be egocentric in that we don’t think about the world outside of the United States,” says Pomante. “And I really try to get students thinking about other countries, issues that go on there, and how our actions affect them.”

To do this, he has created a series of assignments in his International Politics class for which students must present cogent arguments on a particular topic throughout the semester. “The idea is to get the students to apply international relations theory to current events and create an atmosphere where I’m not always the one talking—which is boring for students,” he says. “Plus, it gives them the ability to express their opinion and thoughts, and typically they like to do that.”

By helping students become capable of analyzing the perspectives of others, Pomante hopes to soften the lines of confrontation, so they can participate in political discussions in the future with a clear head and an open mind.

Context

“I think it’s good to learn how to communicate positions and understandings. It’s not ‘This is what I believe.’ It’s ‘I believe this, and here are the reasons.’ If students must debate a side they don’t agree with, at least they can identify the reasons people oppose them. There are two sides to every coin—and every argument.”

— Michael Pomante II, PhD

Course: POL208 International Politics

Course description: An examination of the ways nation-states interact in the world community. Students will explore international cooperation, conflict, and conflict resolution. Other topics include: diplomacy, economic-political interrelationships, the development and role of power in interstate and transnational relations, changing patterns of interdependence and dependence, and war. Lectures and discussions also explore the examination of theories of international politics and of contemporary challenges to world peace.

See resources shared by Michael Pomante II, PhD

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Lesson: How to set the stage for cordial debates

Pomante has been using in-class debates for the past 12 years, and most of what he shares below has been learned through trial and error. Sometimes, he admits, he has made adjustments midsemester. Fortunately, students are relatively adaptable, particularly if the goal is to increase engagement. “A slow discussion is just as painful for them as it is for me,” he says with a laugh. The approach has been so successful that, this year, he is also implementing it in his American Government course.

No hard-and-fast training is needed prior to implementing this strategy, says Pomante, but he offers these tips to help interested educators prepare their students to engage in discussions that are meaningful, not mean:

1. Divide the class into debate groups … then sides

At the beginning of the semester, Pomante randomly divides his class of 20 students into two groups of 10, either using Blackboard or, more simply, a coin toss. To keep groups consistent, prevent confusion, and help students become more comfortable with each other, group members remain the same all semester long.”

Then, for each of the nine debates during the semester, he splits each group again, this time placing each member on a “yes” side or a “no” side. Students do not get to choose which sides they will defend. “At first I tried to split the groups depending on personal opinions, so they would have more skin in the game,” says Pomante. “But there are too many topics where the vast majority of students are on one side.” (A recent such example was the topic of Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, in which each side had to read and defend a speech—one by former President Barack Obama and the other by Russian President Vladimir Putin—and most students would have chosen to back Obama’s speech.)

2. Introduce the topics and materials

Pomante spends the first two weeks of class introducing students to major theories and frameworks of international relations. The goal is to prep them for what is to come, so they can analyze their assigned opinion through the proper theoretical lens.

Then, for each of the debates, he has students read a case from Stephen Hill’s current edition of Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World Politics, which offers a point-counterpoint analysis of timely real-world events. “The way the book is laid out, there’s a topical question focused on current events, and then the editor has taken speeches or papers written by people on opposing sides and brought [the materials] together,” he says.

Each of the two groups is assigned a different topic to debate, and each group’s “yes” and “no” sides debate on the same day, so students are exposed to both sides of two topics in one class period (which is close to three hours long). This allows Pomante to cover more current events in one semester. “I pair topics of discussion with things that I’m lecturing on, so it corresponds with what students are reading and helps them understand the theory and the lens,” he adds.

3. Assign a pre-debate position paper

To ensure that students do a deep dive into the reading, Pomante assigns a 600-word position paper to be completed alongside it, and he requires that the paper be turned in online. “It’s imperative that it’s due before class, because otherwise students won’t do the reading, which makes it hard to have a discussion,” he says. The paper also gives students a safety net and a sense of security. “They tend to bring their paper to class, so they can reference it during the debate,” he says.

Pomante notes that the position that students take in their paper does not need to be the one they are assigned for the debate. This gives them an opportunity to express their own opinions, too.

He also says that he does not require students to read beyond the position they were assigned, though he welcomes additional research and information. And the better debaters tend to learn the main arguments on the opposing side so they can later refute them, point by point.

4. Talk about “backing” your opinions

Whatever argument students choose for the paper, it must be backed by at least three references to class materials (the textbook, a lecture, or the debate reading). During the debates, Pomante says it is common for a few students to dominate, but in such cases, he intervenes enough to try to draw out the quieter class members. One of his techniques for doing this is to require each person to provide five “quality statements” in order to receive full credit. This means:

  • The statement must include a specific reference.
  • The statement must be relevant to the topic.
  • The statement must serve to advance the existing discussion.

“I think it’s good to learn how to communicate positions and understandings. It’s not ‘This is what I believe.’ It’s ‘I believe this, and here are the reasons,’” he says. “If students must debate a side they don’t agree with, at least they can identify the reasons people oppose them. There are two sides to every coin—and every argument.”

5. Start the debate with no rebuttals

Pomante kicks off the debate by having each student deliver an opening statement, which no one is allowed to rebut until every student in the group has spoken. “I want every student to say something, because part of their grade is dependent on class participation,” he says. “It also opens the door to allow the students to say, ‘OK, that student said something that I can argue against.’”

As the semester progresses, Pomante says that even the quieter students tend to engage more fully in the conversation. Those who never get fully comfortable, he says, will continue to raise their hand or get his attention in some other way, so he will pause the debate to invite them to comment. That said, the majority of students rarely stay quiet after the opening statements have been made.

6. Set some rules to keep it cordial

Debates can sometimes get heated, which Pomante enjoys because it shows that the students have a vested interest in the topic. Generally, they do not devolve into yelling, and Pomante has a strict “no vulgarity” rule, which helps keep things mature. “The most I have to do is to ensure there’s only one person speaking at a time,” says Pomante. “They each have something they want to say and are eager to get it out there.”

Pomante attributes much of the good-naturedness of the class debates to the fact that positions are assigned. “They don’t personally inherently believe that point, so they’re attacking topics, not individuals,” he says.

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