Incorporate Online Debates to Stimulate Critical Thinking and Engagement

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Online debates have been found to elicit higher levels of cognitive presence in online discussions versus the more traditional question-and-answer format (Zydney, deNoyelles, & Chen, 2014). This can be explained in several ways. In a debate, students must argue for or against a position, with the intention of persuading others to assume the same position. Students are keenly aware of the responsibility to debate the position (Darabi, Arrastia, Nelson, Cornille, & Liang, 2011; Kanuka, Rourke, & Laflamme, 2007). The structure of debate is complementary to cognitive progression, requiring that students go beyond simple exploration of a topic. They must challenge, form and advance arguments, and work through conflicts in concepts and assumptions. However, it can be challenging to implement online. It requires additional support and resources to be successful (Nussbaum, Winsor, Aqui, & Poliquin, 2007).

Link to example artifact(s)

Instructor: Brigitte Kovacevich, College of Sciences, UCF
Course Title: ANT3145 (Archaeology of Complex Societies)

In this undergraduate fully online course of 75 students, a debate was utilized in an online discussion. Students were randomly divided in groups of around 10. Each group was asked to answer the question, “Which perspective best explains the rise of social complexity in the Maya?” Half of each group was assigned to argue for the trade perspective, and the other half was assigned to argue for the ideology perspective.

The debate was divided in three parts:

  1. Opening Statement (Module 11): Write a 300-600 word opening statement based on your theory. In this statement, you should outline the theory as laid out by the original author and then provide at least three key pieces of evidence from the course content that could support the possibility of this theory in explaining the rise of social complexity for the Maya.
  2. Rebuttal (Module 12): Post a 300-600 word rebuttal to your opponent’s position. In this post, you will present evidence contrary to your opponent’s position. At least THREE new key pieces of evidence must be referenced.
  3. Closing Statement (Module 13): In this 300-600 word post, you will review your position, but you may also critique and modify your own theory to better fit the data that you have discovered or you may continue to argue that your theory is a good fit for the data. At least THREE new key pieces of evidence must be referenced.

A Preparing for the Debate page was created to support students. Here, the professor informed students how to find their group space, consider roles they could assume within the group, and to understand what kinds of scholarly references would be acceptable. There was also an additional discussion forum available so that groups could prepare before actually debating in the official discussion forum. A rubric was provided to make grading more transparent (attached).

Student and Faculty Feedback

Students were surveyed to gauge their perceptions and gather feedback for the next iteration. 81% of student respondents agreed that the debate required them to use their critical thinking abilities. 84% found the assignment intriguing and/or exciting, and the majority found it valuable. 63% said that reading the responses of peers encouraged them to reflect on their own thinking. One student mentioned that debating required her to understand both positions; “Each theory has a decent amount of data to process. By annotating, comparing them against one another, and going back multiple times to find supporting data for your argument, it helps you to better retain it all. It also helps to understand why there are so many theories, how they all contribute, but also all have their counterarguments.”

Improvements were offered by students. Several students asked for clearer instructions on how to access the group spaces, and desired more detailed instructions on what was expected from each student within the group. Other recommendations included soliciting more direction on the nature of the debate. For example, one student asked, “Should just as much attention be given to disproving the other theory as proving mine? Should I seem aggressively against the other theory? Acknowledge its importance, but prove it inferior to mine?”

The faculty member found the debate challenging to grade since every person was to be graded on their individual contribution. Sometimes it was difficult to see the nature of individual contributions, as sometimes students prepared for the debate outside of the discussion board that was provided. To compensate, she asked for students to provide evidence if their contributions were outside of the discussion board (such as screenshots of emails or chats).

Sample Rubric

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Darabi, A., Arrastia, M. C., Nelson, D. W., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2011). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison of four discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(3), 216-227.

Kanuka, H., Rourke, L., & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260-271.

Nussbaum, E. M., Winsor, D. L., Aqui, Y. M., & Poliquin, A. M. (2007). Putting the pieces together: Online argumentation vee diagrams enhance thinking during discussions. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2(4), 479-500.

Zydney, J., deNoyelles, A., & Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 153-165.


deNoyelles, A., & Kovacevich, B. (2018). Incorporate online debates to stimulate critical thinking and engagement. In B. Chen, A. deNoyelles, & A. Albrecht (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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