Oxford debate

Subject: English. Course: International Communication in English/Social Patterns of the English Speaking World. Study level: Bachelor’s/Master's. Class size: 25

Motivation for the activity

The debate exercise should improve the quality of discussion in my class. Discussions where the students have to work on their understanding of the material, but also discussions that sharpen their critical sense and curiosity, and last, but not least, discussions that are followed up on.

Central learning outcomes of the activity

To enable the students to not only understand and recognise themes in the texts, but also to a greater extent to be able to apply and discuss their knowledge.

Overall I would like the students to participate in – rather than consume – the teaching, and I would like to see that I am not the only one trying to motivate them, but that they take co-responsibility for creating motivational incentives.

Description of the activity

One of the course sessions was about 'The Commonwealth', a transnational institution which - like the Nordic Council, for instance - also flies under the public's radar.

To get a motivated discussion of the day's texts and subject I set up the seminar as a debate: After a brief introductory summary lecture, I divide the students into 2 groups (counting 1, 2, 1, 2 like picking a team) and then into smaller sub-groups of 4-5 people.

All the 1-groups had to find arguments for why 'The Commonwealth' is a good institution and ought to be maintained, and all the 2-groups were asked to find arguments for why it should be abolished or left to wither away.

After a 10 minute discussion in the small groups they had to meet in a large group with all the 'like-minded' students.

On the second turn (again 10 minutes) they had to exchange and sharpen their arguments and also anticipate counter-arguments (and develop corresponding replies). They are then unleashed in an Oxford-style debate - see the link on the right.

You can decide whether the supporters or opponents should open.

The students should of course present the arguments convincingly and relate them to historical developments and the contemporary context.

I created a scoreboard and made sure that both positions responded not only to their own arguments but also to the challenges they faced.

We concluded by summarising the most important arguments for and against and with a more general discussion of post-colonialism and soft/hard power in international relations, where there was also room for opinions that were not simply 'either/or'.

Outcome of the activity

I do not believe that 'The Commonwealth' has been discussed so passionately for many years!

The element of competition is clearly motivational, but the great thing about dividing them up before the actual debate is that in a group you can find arguments and then have the support to put them forward alone.

Those who have difficulties talking in plenum or even in groups can do much better when they represent a class discussion. It also helps that it is not your 'own opinion', but a standpoint that you have been required to put forward.

In the evaluations many of the students highlighted that they were very pleased that the group work also gave everyone an opportunity to participate, and that for once it 'made sense' to work in groups because it was something that was used in the debate.

However, you have to make an effort to maintain a sober tone - people's winning instincts will be awakened and things must not become snide, with the students beginning to use ad hominem arguments (though of course this is an opportunity to explain what but they are and why using them is a bad habit).

Sara Dybris McQuaid

Associate professor

Materials for the activity

Click on the image to see a larger version

PowerPoint slide with the questions for the debate. Download as pdf.

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  • THEME: Activities in sessions