March 4, 2020

The Utility of Debates as an Alternative Instructional Method

by Amanda Bridges, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi Medical Center 

The landscape of education is ever-changing with educators pioneering fresh ideas to disseminate knowledge and maintain student engagement. While traditional lectures remain a mainstay in many health professional degree programs, students often struggle to make meaningful connections with the subject matter. Healthcare topics are often complex and require motivation and engagement from students to apply content to future experiences. Studies have shown that active involvement in learning results in more favorable outcomes. The success of any teaching strategy is dependent on successful execution by the instructor. Enter debates – an instructional strategy that dates back to the 5th century. Debates provide an opportunity for students to thoroughly research and logically present a topic.  Moreover, debates foster critical thinking and help students build effective communication skills.1 While not ideal in all didactic settings, debates are a great way to teach controversial topics that have literature to support different stances.

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Some of the most challenging skills to develop as students make the transition to independent practitioners are clinical decision-making and problem-solving.2  Students are often left to develop these skills after graduation in conjunction with learning the intricacies of a new career. Debates foster the development of both of these skills by encouraging critical thinking to formulate a well-reasoned argument. Successful preparation for the debate involves discovery and assessment of literature – a skill that students will continue to use throughout their careers. Additionally, the exercise helps students to develop effective and persuasive communication techniques that will prove useful during both professional and personal interactions. Traditional lectures, I believe, fall short at fostering the development of these skills.3 

The implementation of debates as a learning strategy occurs in two distinct steps – the pre-debate and the debate. Instructors should prepare for the debate by framing the chosen topic as a debate – that is to say, making a statement regarding an issue rather than asking students to answer a question. Students are then assigned to two opposing sides – a pro side in favor of the statement and a con side who is opposed to the statement. During the pre-debate stage, students are expected to thoroughly research and prepare a brief (typically 10-12-minute) presentation to support their side of the argument as well as collect ample information to support their stance in the event of a rebuttal from the opposing side. During the debate, the two sides present their argument and a rebuttal followed by a discussion by the entire class, facilitated by the instructor, about both sides of the argument. Some teachers had added another opportunity for learning by having the students prepare test questions tho assesses the key points presented during the debate.1,2 In addition to being a means to assess student understanding, question writing can stimulate interest in academia as a career path.

In contrast to the assessment techniques used after traditional lectures, which focus on knowledge acquisition, debates can be used to evaluate students on concepts other than knowledge. Typically, the desired learning outcomes are assessed using a rubric that is given to the students before they begin their debate assignment. The assessment of individual students should focus on the persuasiveness of the presentation, use of data to support the argument, composure during the debate as well as eye contact and body language. An assessment of the debate team (or group) could include avoidance of redundancy during the formulation of the argument – an indirect way to assess team communication.1 The evaluation rubric can be modified based on faculty resources and class size.2 

Studies have shown that students may benefit more from a debate when the approach is coupled with a patient case. Without this application, students struggle to make the connection with clinical practice.1 Using debates repeatedly during a course can help students hone their skills.  When asked, students admitted that the initial debates took much longer to prepare than those occurring later in the semester.2 

While this instructional method has some clear advantages, debates as a teaching strategy also have limitations. As a student who struggled to speak up and express opinions in front of the class, I can see how this approach is intimidating. However, as healthcare professionals on an interdisciplinary team, it is essential we develop the confidence and poise to speak up and make appropriate recommendations. For students who struggle to speak up, a solution might involve grouping similar students on a team so that there isn’t a strong personality to drown them out. Additionally, debates inherently encourage competition which could lead to a trivialization of issues for the sake of winning.3 The goal is not to “win” the argument but rather to thoroughly research and present the argument with clarity using facts.  Once both sides of the argument are clearly understood, it’s important to emphasize consensus-building and compromise. Lastly, debates can be time-consuming and require a lot of faculty manpower. It may be necessary to split up students into subgroups in a large class to allow direct observation during multiple debate sessions.2

As a student I would have been terrified to take a course that required students to debate topics throughout the semester.  But in retrospect, the opportunity to enhance critical thinking and clinical decision-making using a debate format would have been immensely valuable. The greatest utility of debates, in my opinion, lies in the exploration of topics not easily explained in black and white terms during traditional lectures.

  1. Charrois TL, Appleton M. Online debates to enhance critical thinking in pharmacotherapy. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013; 77 (8): Article 170.
  2. Hawkins WA, Fulford M, Phan S V. Using debates as the primary pedagogy to teach critical care in a PharmD curriculum elective course. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2019; 11 (9): 943-948.
  3. Darby M. Debate: a teaching-learning strategy for developing competence in communication and critical thinking. J Dent Hyg. 2007; 81 (4).

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