Split room debates

Another easy active learning technique from Elizabeth Barkley’s SET book is the split-room debate. I use this one fairly regularly, in part because it is so easy to implement and requires zero preparation. Barkley says controversial topics with “two identifiable, arguable, and opposing sides” are best for this exercise. You simply have the students move to a side of the room to represent their position and then formulate their argument.

I have used this technique for a variety of questions. For example, in my Introduction to Comparative Politics class, I have the students take a side on which system they prefer: presidential or parliamentary. In my Introduction to International Politics class, I have a split room debate on whether the US should have intervened in the Rwandan genocide. In a class on human rights, I have a split room debate on whether the US should join the International Criminal Court.

I use this activity slightly differently than Barkley’s suggestion. She suggests that after giving the proposition, you give students a few minutes to think about their position and then have them move to the side of the room. Once they are there, she suggests you ask a student from the pro side to start the debate. Once they are done, they call on a student from the other side of the debate to go next. The debate alternates between groups until no new arguments are presented. Then, you wrap up with a whole-class discussion to highlight important points and give time for questions and discussion.

Rather than have the students jump into debate as Barkley suggests, I have groups spend a few minutes talking amongst themselves to list their top 3 arguments in favor of their position. Then, each side introduces their arguments and we move on to an all-class discussion. It’s a slight variation, but it provides the groups with an opportunity to collaborate and identify the strongest arguments for their position.

I’ve also tried a few other variations: depending on the topic, I allow for a middle group (a group of “undecideds” or “it depends”). I’ve also had very lopsided splits and occasionally will ask a few students to switch sides and “play devil’s advocate” even if they didn’t initially agree with that position. Finally, my most devilish variation, is I will have students move to their preferred side and then make each side argue the other side of the debate. I did this last year for the Rwanda debate. This is my favorite variation.

Barkley also suggests that you use this activity after students have a reasonably solid grasp on the material in question. I find it works well as a wrap-up on a particular topic. It can take as little as 10-15 minutes, depending on how long you need to discuss following the debate.