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6 Tips for Improving Your Students’ Debate and Critical Thinking Skills

Thea Alvarado, EdD, has created a structure for in-class and online debates that inspire students to rethink their worldview.

Thea Alvarado, EdD, has created a structure for in-class and online debates that inspire students to rethink their worldview.

Thea Alvarado, EdD


Instructor of Sociology,
Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California

EdD in CANDEL Educational Leadership, MA in Demographic and Social Analysis, BA in Sociology

When Thea Alvarado was a student, she discovered that some of her professors had some very strong opinions. “They made it clear that if you wanted an A, you had to see the world the way they did,” she says. Now, as a sociology instructor at Pasadena City College in California, Alvarado not only balks at their approach—she does the exact opposite.

“My job is to give students a critical lens through which to examine society, and then to let them develop their own opinions,” says Alvarado. “If students don’t know what I believe about a particular topic, then I did my job.”

Her goal, in fact, is for her students to become more open-minded than her former professors. To that end, she works hard to broaden each student’s sociological imagination.

“Sociological imagination is an idea that comes from C. Wright Mills, who is one of our big theorists in sociology,” she says. “It is about connecting who you are on an individual level with the history of humankind. It is about realizing that—even though we want to believe we have agency to make decisions in our lives—so much of who we are and what we can accomplish is determined by the time and place that we were born.”

To spark this sort of thinking, Alvarado draws on an approach she learned while working as a teaching assistant for a course on racial injustice. “The last few weeks of class were structured around a spirited class-wide debate,” she says. Alvarado was so impressed with the way the experience engaged students that she has made debates a centerpiece of her teaching strategy ever since. She has woven them into online courses as well as into those she teaches face-to-face.

Below, Alvarado offers helpful guidance on this undebatably effective strategy.

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“There’s so much of our everyday lives that we don’t bother to think critically about. It is so rewarding to see students start to examine their lives from a sociological perspective—and to be able to argue or offer a particular perspective from an informed position.”
-Thea Alvarado, EdD

Course: SOC 001 Introductory Sociology

Course description: Human culture, social order and group memberships. Cultural growth and change; ecology, population, social institutions; group processes, social control, personality.

Alvarado’s 6 tips for creating meaningful debate

Alvarado schedules a class-wide debate at the end of the semester, which provides students time to learn fundamental sociology concepts, conduct extensive research, and get to know each other before engaging in the discussion. Because one of Alvarado’s key goals is to encourage students to become free thinkers, she has found ways to put them in charge of as much of the process as possible. Here are her ideas.

1. Make sure they pick a topic that is debatable

At the start of the semester, students brainstorm a list of ideas for the debate. Each student is allowed to introduce as many topics as they would like, but they must explain their rationale. “Every topic that we pick has to be controversial and have pro and con sides,” says Alvarado. “It must be really clear where each of the sides stands, and then that gray area in between is where they have room for debate.”

Here is an example:

Nonspecific (poor) topic: How does social media affect today’s youth?

Specific (good) topic: Should there be a legal age restriction for when youth can open a social media account?

2. Encourage students to argue the opposing side

Students not only vote on the topic, from the pool of suggestions; they also get to pick which side of the debate they want to argue. However, Alvarado encourages them not to go with the side they know best or believe in. She tells them, “I’m not asking you to figure out how you personally feel about this topic right in this moment, because it’s going to take you years to figure out how you feel, and your opinions might change over your lifetime.” Instead, she suggests they argue in favor of the perspective they feel less sure about. She explains, “The research they do is much more fruitful when they’re trying to understand the perspective through somebody else’s eyes.”

3. Clarify the roles each student will play

Generally, Alvarado assigns students the following roles or duties:

  • Team Captain: Organizer and liaison to the professor; may not need to speak in the debate
  • Opening Argument: Gives a very broad overview of the position taken by their side and the topics (points) that will be introduced during the debate
  • Topic Introducer: Introduces one topic into the argument and offers the strongest reason for supporting it
  • Topic Responder: Listens carefully to the other side’s argument and responds to one topic immediately after, without any extra preparation
  • Rebuttal: Prepares research/materials in advance to amplify arguments around topics introduced by own side and to rebut the other side’s responses
  • Closing Argument: Gives an overview of topics covered by own side; may introduce new concepts if needed

“These can be customized depending on the size of the class,” she adds. For instance, for larger classes, she often has two students play each role of Topic Introducer, Topic Responder, and Rebuttal.

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4. Provide plenty of guidance on “good” versus “bad” sources

Students are required to do background research before the class debate, and then they bring their research to class to collaborate on. To help them prepare, Alvarado has them attend one of the school’s library research sessions, where a librarian explains what constitutes a good source.

Alvarado also selects five to 10 articles on the class debate topic, which every student must go through as background reading. Students are then expected to find at least three more articles on their own.

Alvarado notes that students will often turn to their favorite media outlets for research, such as Fox News or CNN, but she encourages them to go further and discover perspectives that are less familiar. “I think that is the experience that really helps them be able to see the world through somebody else’s eyes,” she says. One of her favorite resources for this is the website Issues & Controveries, which is accessible through some college libraries.

5. Structure the debate with care (and a stopwatch)

Alvarado serves as timekeeper and moderator during the debate, with an online stopwatch projected on the board. The structure is essential to prevent the debate from becoming a back-and-forth between two people. “These are very passionate topics, and students do sometimes feel very strongly about them,” she says. Not including the prep work, the debates take only two class periods (for about 40 students) or two “discussion forum” sessions for her online learners. Here is how the timing plays out:

After each student speaks for one minute, there is a structured 20-minute Q&A. “It’s a question from Pro and an answer from Con, then a question from Con and an answer from Pro,” she says, with each speaker still limited to one minute. This process is repeated for each of the four topics.

Finally, for the last five minutes of class, Alvarado drops her moderator role and lets any student jump in, which she considers “the most fun part of the debate.”

6. Have them rethink the definition of “winners”

Alvarado invites the students to vote for the winning debate team. She asks the class, “Putting aside, as best you can, your personal opinions on the topic and what side you were asked to debate, who do you believe had the better research and the better argument?”

Interestingly, students do not earn any extra points for winning. She is more concerned with their participation: Full credit is given to anyone who found three good articles, participated in debate prep, and fulfilled their role in the debate. “I think it relieves a lot of their anxiety around this big, interactive project,” she explains. “I don’t want to penalize the students who have a real fear of speaking in front of their classmates.” Such student are often more comfortable in the roles of, say, team captain, who handles the background work; or debate opener or Q&A presenter, both of whom prepare in advance and present to the class but need not participate during the response-and-rebuttal portion of the live debate.

By the end of the semester, Alvarado says that most students experience a shift in perspective, which is really the point of the whole assignment. “In sociology, we study anything that relates to people: things like race and ethnicity, prejudice and discrimination, sex, gender, sexism, sexual orientation. These are things that they have been immersed in for their entire lives. So it’s not so much about introducing new concepts as it is about understanding these concepts in a new light,” she says. “It’s one of those things where, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And that’s why having a critical perspective is so important.”

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