A tale of two debate assignments

My teaching appointment is in a small, residential academic community (the Women’s Leadership Program or WLP). The students live together and take two classes together both semesters of their freshman year. The program is selective and the classes are small (about 20 students). For the past five years, I’ve included group debates in the two courses I teach in the program: Introduction to Comparative Politics and Introduction to International Politics. As an activity, these have been quite successful. The students select a debate topic related to course material and, through a short briefing paper and the debate itself, apply course materials to a contemporary politics question (e.g. free trade, intervention in Syria, prospects of democracy in Iran). Over the years, I have been impressed with how well the students do this, showing a fluency with the course material that is particularly impressive for first year students.

Building on the success of the debate assignment in these classes, I decided to include it in the other course I teach: an upper-level elective course open to all students. I modified the assignment by dropping the written debrief. The assignment was not nearly as effective and, by some measures, was a complete bust.

This leaves me thinking, what accounts for the difference? Is the written briefing paper critical? Perhaps. It ensures that the students at least think about their argument before standing up in front of the class. It forces them to put an argument in writing, cite sources, and plan ahead. I suspect it is a crucial accountability tool and I was remiss to drop this aspect of the assignment.

When group work is like herding cats
Group work?

I also wonder how much the structure of the class matters. Students in the WLP classes live together, making group work as easy as knocking on your neighbor’s door and walking down the hall to the common room. They know each other well and are generally high achievers; my impression is that the proportion of free riders is lower in this population than in the general university population. This suggests that group work, in general, would be more successful in these classes.

The experience left me thinking about the conditions under which the same teaching tool can be more or less effective.