The Great Debate – Developing Online Argumentative Skills

The Great Debate – Developing Online Argumentative Skills

Threaded online student discussions are challenging. It is easy to simply state “I agree” as a reply to another classmate and then provide an additional sentence that adds little to the conversation. It is very likely that particular discussion will go no further, which means a learning opportunity was missed. What can you do to strengthen your responses to your classmates? Try creating your post in the format of a debate by presenting an argument and encouraging classmates to respond. Through a respectful, academic debate you can increase your critical thinking and collaborative skills.

Debates & Online Classes

At first it may seem that a debate format would be an unlikely fit for an online class because in a threaded discussion forum you are not present to discuss the issues in real time with your peers. In addition, from my experience many online instructors do not use this approach and it is rarely included as a learning activity by course designers. However, there are two studies that suggest a debate could result in many benefits for an online environment.  

In Debate as a Teaching Strategy in Online Education: A Case Study, the challenges for creating an online debate include taking the time necessary to adapt this method of communication into the class discussions and more importantly, the lack of non-verbal cues can pose a learning curve for students who have not participated in an asynchronous debate. A review of the current literature by the researchers found that debates have been described as “one type of active learning tool that promotes critical thinking.” You’ll find that critical thinking skills are an important aspect for all of your school work because it involves higher-order cognition or use of a highly developed thought process. When you utilize your advanced cognitive functions you are taking information and processing it through the use of logic and reasoning.

The background information review for this study also noted that “students tend to enjoy debating, and thus they are more likely to be engaged, to remember material, and to use the skills in other aspects of their lives,” and a “survey of recent graduates found that developing analytic/thinking skills was among the most useful aspects of their degree — more useful than any specific course they took.” While the study was focused on the use of debate as a teaching strategy, the researchers concluded that “online debates are innovative and enjoyable for students and professors,” and more importantly, “with some planning, debates can be quite straightforward to set up and are worth the effort.” It was also found that debates could be implemented with positive results in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Another report, Online Debate: A Case Study Combining Traditional Strategy and Online Technology, presented additional challenges and benefits. The primary challenges noted for students involved participating in a debate when the traditional communication format has been changed, along with a time element – as participation in a debate requires a greater investment of time than other discussion methods. The researchers concluded that the “online debate was effective because it produced spirited and valid arguments.” This is the reason why I encourage students to utilize a debate format for their responses to other classmates – it is an engaging form of interaction that prompts continued discussions. Even if the discussion board is not established as a debate, you can craft your posts in the format of a debate to encourage more people to actively take part in the discussion.   

Developing a Solid Argument

In order to enter into a debate with another classmate, you need to begin with a strong argument. This is not a disagreement but an opportunity to take a side related to the discussion topic. For example, if the discussion question asks students to describe the benefits of online learning, read the responses that other classmates have posted and compare them to your response. If another student has indicated online classes are easy and you believe that online classes require more work than traditional classes, this is an opportunity to develop a solid argument for your position so you can use it in your reply to that student.

Here are some of the components of an effective argument:

1. A thesis statement. The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides this definition: “an argumentative or persuasive piece of writing must begin with a debatable thesis or claim. In other words, the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on.” For a post or reply to another student, your thesis statement will be your position regarding the topic, presented in a way that leads to debate or further discussion.

2. Evidence. This is an important element of an argument as it provides support and defense of the thesis statement. One of the best sources of evidence for your posts (and all of your academic work) is online library databases because you can search for scholarly, peer-reviewed articles. In my post What You Need to Know about Peer Reviewed Articles, I noted that as a student, you are expected to do more than report facts, it is expected that you will acquire knowledge and develop your own ideas and reach your own conclusions about the subject matter. Finding and utilizing peer-reviewed articles will help you meet this goal and lead to well-developed and well thought out written responses with evidence for your argument.

3. Reasoning skills. When you are creating an argument you should consider making “concessions, show awareness of other possible arguments, and be sensitive to different perspectives,” and remember that “a reasonable writer will not play on emotion to excess.” A sound argument utilizes logic and reasoning skills rather than emotions to sway the reader’s opinion.

4. Developing a strong voice. In my post,  A Guide for Effective Academic Writing and Research I provided questions you can ask yourself to develop your voice and spark your critical thinking skills:
•    What is it that I want to say about this subject?
•    What are my thoughts about the topic after I have read more about it?
•    Why is this topic important to me, this assignment, and my course?
•    What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with this topic?

Creating a Debate

Once you have developed your argument or position statement and collected evidence, you are ready to create your response. If the discussion board is not presented as a debate, explain your approach to your classmates – let them know you have crafted an opposing view of their post and ask them to read and respond to it. Within The 9 Principles of Good Debating students are reminded that “questions or challenges should be professional,” and more importantly, “insulting, condescending, or comments involving personal language or attacks are unacceptable.” The purpose of presenting an argument is to enter into a debate or continued discussion of the required topic in a respectful manner.

If you have not participated in an online debate, or you are uncertain of how this will be accepted or viewed by the class, ask your instructor for his or her advice and direction. It is not necessary to use the word “debate” when posting a reply; however, by creating the response as a debate you will likely enhance the learning process, encourage continued discussions, create a sense of collaboration and community with other classmates, and demonstrate your critical thinking skills. Not only will you learn because of the time spent developing a position, you will help other students learn when you present well-researched evidence.

Have you participated in an online debate? Share your experience, tips, and techniques via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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