On Debate and Consensus-Building (a research-inspired activity)

How do differing discourse goals affect students’ abilities to process evidence? Does the act of argument and persuasion mean they read evidence from a biased perspective? If they argue from the opposite side’s perspective, will that change their own opinion? What if they had to come to a mutual decision? Would that affect their opinion? Continue reading

I told my students to choose the final assessment and then left the room. You won’t believe what happened next.

This clickbait title was inspired by Michael Griffin’s own clickbaity post, “One weird trick that will get your students talking“. My post is based on my experience with the “weird trick” that Mike suggested. According to Mike:

The idea is simple; you can just turn over some of the classroom choices to students and ask them make a group decision on a particular issue. In today’s class I asked my students to decide what time we will start class next week and when we will have our midterm exam. These issues generated a lot of discussion and gave students chances to express their feelings and try persuade each other as they tried to reach a consensus.

Although he focused more on the “getting students talking” part, what I saw was the value of the students being involved in the decision-making process. When I read it, I was struggling to think of a proper project-based assessment that would meet the various needs of EAP and GE students in the same class. After reading his post, I immediately thought, “Yeah, I can do that” and then the very next day I did.

I set aside the last 20 minutes of class to this. I told the students I needed a good way of assessment that would be based on the skills they needed to learn. I gave my students several choices, and various permutations of those choices:

  • Presentations
    • Individual
    • Group
    • Secondary research
    • Primary data (student-conducted research)
  • Speaking Tests
    • Pair speaking quiz
    • Group speaking quiz
  • Other

I let them talk in groups for a few minutes in order to figure out what everything meant. I also gave them this time to ask clarifying questions. Then, I told them I was leaving for five minutes and by the time I get back, they should have figured out what they want to do.

I left. I came back five-minutes later. They had decided on something unexpected: a debate. I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t thought of this before, mostly because a debate is a very artificial task that few actually have to participate it unless you join a debate club. However, I also realized that this would teach students valuable research, persuasive/argumentative, teamwork, and discussion skills. After mulling it over for a minute, I was excited about the idea. This post will briefly describe some of the things we did to prepare for the debate.

Analyzing a Model

  • The first thing we needed was a model so that students could actually see what an debate in English looks like. The presidential debates DID NOT serve as a model, so after some YouTubing, I settled on this debate, which provided lots of source material for analyzing structure and language use. Students got to see how a formal debate was set-up, how arguments were structured, and how language was used to present, support, and refute arguments. We did several analysis activities with this debate before moving on to our own topics.


I had students brainstorm three topics that they were individually interested in. Then, I grouped students and had them share their topics, working to choose the top 3 from the group. These suggestions were written on the board and then we all voted. “If we could go back in time, should we kill baby Hitler” was the topic chosen. At first I was hesitant, as this is seen as a very weak, unrealistic debate. I also wasn’t too sure what kind of research they could do for this debate. However, I was wrong. I realized there were a lot of areas that could be researched. After dividing the class into two teams of 5 students each (proposition and opposition), I explained the different areas they should begin researching: history, philosophy and ethics, psychology, and biology. I let them choose how they wanted to divide this work amongst themselves and had them put everything into a shared doc. I also had them draft arguments for and against the proposition.

Preparing for the End Product

While they were working on the research and arguments, I was thinking about the actual debate. I am not a debater and have never participated in a formal debate. Searching through the internet, I noticed there were numerous different styles of competitive debating. I decided on a modified Oxford-style debate that would give each student an equal and fair role. For this debate, there would have to be an audience. That would increase the reality of the task and make it more interesting for my students. They weren’t just arguing in a class. They were arguing in front of an audience of peers, and they had to sway the peers using persuasive techniques. I invited several other classes of students and booked a nice auditorium hall to make it seem more of an event than an assignment.

The debate was organized like this:

  1. Audience members would prevote for which side they agree with. They did this the day before in their own classes as their teachers prepped them on the topic of the debate.
  2. Proposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  3. Opposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  4. 3-minute work period to draft refutations
  5. Proposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  6. Opposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  7. Open Debate. This was a freestyle back and forth debate between two students from each team. (6 minutes)
  8. Audience Q&A (6 minutes)
  9. 3-minute work period to draft closing statements.
  10. Proposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  11. Opposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  12. Revote by audience members
  13. Vote tally and winner announcement.

Logic and Argumentation

I thought about the best way to logically teach logic and argumentation. I went about it several ways. One was to find a good model of logic that students could use to draft their arguments. I went with the Toulmin Model, which structures logical arguments based on a claim, evidence, a warrant, and optional backing. Of course I modified it to make it work for my students, but it seemed to be a great tool to help students draft strong, persuasive arguments. I taught refutation in a similar way, mixing in ideas from 4-step refutation. I also explaining that these are not debate-only techniques but can be used in academic writing as well.

Discourse Skills

I took this opportunity to integrate the textbook into the debate, as there were sections on language skills relevant to debate. However, the textbook was mostly a disappointment and instead our debate work was based on the analysis of the model debate and my own intuitions. I taught and we practiced the following discourse skills/strategies:

  • Presenting an opinion
  • Presenting evidence, citation, and discussing data
  • Agreement, concession, and disagreement
  • Politely interrupting and politely preventing interruption

Practice Debates, Debate Activities, and Debate Work

This is perhaps where I can mention several great idea that you should do if you decide on doing any debate, logic, or argumentation work with students. Easy and fun debate topics! We practiced logic, argumentation and discourse strategies with superheroes, cats vs dogs, fried vs baked chicken, bottled vs tap water, study English vs don’t study English, homework vs. no homework, and coffee. Some of the best practice debate activities we did were tennis debates and 2-minute one-on-one mini debates (followed by feedback).

Our debates on coffee were special. I did not want the team to share or clue each other in on any of the work they were doing for the main Hitler debate, so whenever we needed to do more serious debate practice, we focused on coffee. I had already given them a slew of research on the benefits and drawbacks of drinking coffee. We had done all types of practice making Toulmin arguments, concession, interrupting, etc. We even did a full practice debate in the auditorium using this topic. It gave students great practice with material they already worked on in class and were very familiar with.

While all of this was happening, I dedicated one or two class sessions (1 hour of a two-hour class) to giving students time to work on their debates. One of these session even included an in-group debate to identify strengths and weaknesses in their arguments as well as choosing the best students for the differing roles of the formal debate.

What amazed me was that I learned my students were meeting twice a week outside of class to work on their debate. I was so impressed with their interest and motivation!

The Big Day/Reflection

The big day came. Students dressed formally. 30 students and 5 faculty attended, including the director. Mics were checked. Last minute changes to the stage were made and we were off. Students debated a difficult topic that they had not had any real prior knowledge on only a few weeks before. They debated this difficult topic in a second language. They debated in a second language in front of their peers. They debated in a second language in front of their peers for almost an hour.

Even though one team “won” the debate (kill baby Hitler) all students won because they gained a lot of valuable skills and experiences. They gained language skills, they gained research critical thinking skills, they practiced team work, they made friends, and they built confidence.

Mike’s idea of letting students choose their own assessment works. Because the students had planted the seed for the debate, they had much more invested in it than they otherwise would have. They did not complain about the hard work – in fact, they gave themselves extra work by meeting often outside of the class. They did not care about the grade because they had already decided on the value of the project when they agreed to do a debate – they choose it because they all felt they would gain something valuable that they would need in the future. They were motivated and energized throughout the process because, while I took “control” nitty gritty of the debate (language, format, the “event”), they were in charge of the content and direction that their teams would go. I was without a doubt the “guide on the side”.

I won’t do a debate each time I teach this course. I can’t. It must come up organically based on the students needs and desires. All I can do is this one weird trick and roll with whatever decision students make. The results are bound to be better than any other alternative.


My students, myself, and their other instruction smiling after an intensive but successful debate!