Debates. These can be great for getting students engaged with the meat of the material. While debates are most easily created for controversial topics, they can be used in nearly every subject.

  • Should an HIV test be conducted using gel electrophoresis or PCR?
  • Which is a more powerful medium for moving people with words – prose or poetry?
  • Is war always the most reasonable solution for nations in conflict?

In general, if the answer to a question can be “Well, it depends…” then two or more sides can argue the circumstances in which their side is right. Encourage students to identify the similarities and distinctions between the different arguments.

Debates can be a lot of fun, and typically require very little preparation on the TA’s part (just pick out the topics/questions, and be familiar with the material). They help students think for themselves, and encourage them to see multiple sides of an issue. Be sure to stay on task and stay on top of your time limits!

The downside to debates is that they can take a lot of class time, particularly if the students get very animated with their debate; and they can take homework time if a debate requires students to do outside research.

Tips to make a debate work:

  • Give students 5 minutes to prepare their arguments at the beginning of a class, or 5 minutes to bring a team’s ideas together.
  • Give each “side” 2-5 minutes to present their case
  • Allow each side 3-5 minutes to ask questions of the opposing side
  • Act as arbiter to determine who “won” the debate. Which side made the most coherent arguments? Which side presented the best case/evidence? Which team was best able to respond to the opposing side’s questions? This can be a valuable way to bring all the information of the debate together.

Here's a SAMPLE DEBATE used by a TA for an East Asian Studies course.

Tools for measuring understanding

Notecards Assignments, Quizzes, etc.

More classroom activities

Pairwork or Pair-Share Groupwork Each-one Teach-one Journaling & Reflection Quizzes & Games
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