“Arguing” with Arguments: An Assignment on Academic Debate for Bachelor and Master Students

By Karin Bijsterveld & Sophie Vanhoonacker

In times of increased societal polarisation and cultural diversity, an open academic debate with mutual respect for differences in opinion cannot always be taken for granted.

With its emphasis on active learning, Problem Based Learning (PBL) provides ample room for both formal and informal debates in the classroom. Often focusing on areas of controversy, debates are seen as a useful pedagogical tool to sharpen students’ analytical and communication skills. However, in times of increased societal polarisation and cultural diversity, an open academic debate with mutual respect for differences in opinion cannot always be taken for granted. This makes it more important than ever to agree on the rules of the game prior to the discussion. We suggest to have these developed by the students themselves in the frame of a PBL assignment on the practice and meaning of academic freedom and academic debate. Course coordinators could schedule such an assignment at the start of all BA and MA programs. Our proposal draws on similar, successful exercises in the research master MSc Cultures of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST) preparing students to perform peer review and do presentations.

More specifically, the assignment invites students to come up with do’s and don’ts for how to discuss contested or sensitive research topics in class in an academic manner. The idea behind the assignment is that instead of pre-defining basic rules of free academic debate for students, it may be more effective to discuss the idea and practice of academic debate with students, inviting them to formulate common rules of such debate together as it is expected to increase ownership and clarity.

We would like to suggest two versions of the assignment, a 1-hour and a 2-hour option. The first would be particularly well suited for the opening tutorial of a course, which usually has no post-discussion, leaving some time for the exercise we have in mind. The second option has an additional assignment for work in between classes.

The first option is quite simple. It asks students to sit down in twos, and make a list of “do’s,” “don’ts” and “’what can go wrong” when discussing politically or emotionally sensitive issues in class. The twos type their list in a slide in Canvas that distinguishes between the three categories (for the original CAST example, see illustration). After about 15 minutes, each pair of students presents its list to the other students, which takes another 15 minutes. A note-taker makes notes on the whiteboard, adding issues mentioned by students as long as these are different from the ones already presented. The tutorial group then briefly discusses what should be definitely on the list to keep in mind when actually being engaged in a debate. Still in class, students share their slides with the tutor, while a student volunteer makes a photo of the whiteboard. After class, the student volunteer combines the slides in alignment with the whiteboard notes and shares the result with the tutor group.

Example of slide on “do’s and don’ts” for presenting, MSc CAST, cohort 2020. Original design by Wiebe Bijker. CAST still uses this design to underline continuity between generations. It has also become an interesting source of information on students’ experiences and views across time.

Subsequently, the tutor sends these adapted slides to the course coordinator who annually collects them to use these – or a selection in case of large numbers of tutor groups – as input for the discussions that new cohorts of students are to have on this topic. This will not only actively engage students in thinking about how to discuss contested or sensitive issues in academia, but will also enable them to see how their cohort has contributed to thinking about this in the context of previous generations of students.

The second option has an additional assignment for work in between classes on top of the list-making exercise described above. In this case, the pairs of students work together to search for web videos of debates that follow (most of) the requirements the students have set for themselves, choose the best example, and bring the video link to these examples to class. In the post-discussion, each two gets a number. With a random number generator in Canvas, the tutor invites a few randomly selected pairs of students to present their best practice example. The students then watch and discuss (parts of) these videos. In this way, all students are prepared to present examples of high quality debates, and all students watch some of these. Another advantage is that students collaborate outside class, in person or online, and learn to know each other beyond the tutorials. Additionally, the assignment may refer to links with literature on how to do “argue” with arguments.

We believe that both exercises may help improve the tone of voice and quality of in-class discussions, and may create a common ground for the discussion of contested issues in the rest of their courses.

Suggestions for further reading

Kello, K. (2016). Sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom: Teaching history in a divided society. Teachers and Teaching, 22(1), 35-53. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2015.1023027

Kennedy, R. (2007). In-class debates: Fertile ground for active learning and the cultivation of critical thinking and oral communication skills. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 19(2), 183-90.

Zare P., & Othman M. (2015). Students’ perceptions toward using classroom debate to develop critical thinking and oral communication ability. Asian Social Science, 11(9), 158 –170. https://doi.org/10.5539/ass.v11n9p158