Student respect (or lack thereof)

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Hello all,

I am currently teaching a large social-science course (175 students). In my attempt to help students develop critical-thinking skills, I decided to have formalized debates count as a portion of their grade in the course.

My problem is that I'm having trouble maintaining control of the class during these debates. Although there is a formalized structure in place for the debate, students on each team sometimes interrupt each other or make antagonistic remarks. Worse, this draws a large response from students in the class, with people sometimes yelling out comments. I try to call "time outs" at these points and I remind the students to speak one at a time and to be respectful. But I feel that this strategy is not working well thus far. The situation tends to repeat itself.

As this is the first course of this size that I've taught, I'm not familiar with how much talking out of turn from students is acceptable. But I feel that I need to re-establish control in the classroom. And unfortunately, there are only a few weeks left in the semester.

Does anyone have some advice or similar experiences to share? Thanks.

Remove them from the classroom. Say it. Mean it. Do it.
Comments made to incite or antagonize have no room in serious debate. Your classroom is not the Colosseum.

I doubt that it will make you popular initially, but I suspect that when you lose control you lose the respect and attention of a majority of the students. It might have the opposite effect in the long run. You'll gain respect and become popular with those students who are actually interested in learning the finer points of serious debate.

Marcus Welby:
Your attempt to promote an interactive approach and exchange of ideas is honorable. But the approach you take may not be the best in a lecture hall of 175 students.

The largest class I ever taught had about 60 students. Although billed as a "lecture course," I received approval from the department head to replace one lecture each month (each lecture was scheduled
for three hours, one evening a week) with three one-hour tutorials.

Fortunately, when I left that university the next university I taught at scheduled small group tutorials each week, in addition to the lecture.

In a small group (20 or less) you are able to effectively moderate and guide debates, ask follow-up questions, know who said what and to whom, hold participants accountable for their comments, monitor decorum and content, and make sure a substantial percentage of the class can participate.

All of those things are difficult, if not impossible, for the
instructor to accomplish in a group of 175. You want a participatory and interactive environment, not anarchy.

I think it's great that your students get very involved in these debates that you have set up as part of the course. It really shows the extent to which you are able to generate that excitement in your teaching.

Still, 175 is a somewhat large number to involve in a debate, so maybe the problem with students talking out of turn stems from the students' concern that their voices will not be heard. Do you have graduate students leading smaller discussions in this course?  Debates might work better in a smaller group where each student can have their chance to speak.

While my largest class sizes are not nearly as formidible as yours, I do use discussion and debate as part of the curriculum. I have also discovered that this is, by far, the toughest teaching method to master! My problems are usually the opposite of yours ... I have to struggle to get folks to talk!

Anyhow, here's what works for me:

As you mentioned, you'll need to structure the discussion and debate, at first. As students get used to the format, you can relax the formalities. I have each group assign a note taker, a summarizer/presenter, and a "devil's advocate" (or the person who gets people to take their conclusions further than the "because I think so" phase). I also keep up the pace of group work by assigning shorter time frames -- too long and you'll get talk about last night's game, etc.

Allow for in-class preparation of the debate/discussion in small groups. Assigning the bulk of the preparation as homework is asking for unprepared debaters.

Set an egg timer.

The next time you teach this course, it wouldn't hurt to spend a few minutes reviewing the difference between a debate and a shouting match. Keep in mind that the media's "shouting heads" approach is what people usually think of when they envision a debate.

I would also talk about the concept of freedom of expression. Often younger students think that they can say anything and at the same time not get criticized (i.e., they think they have a right to be comfortable with their views at all times and not have them challenged). Younger students also think that hitting below the belt is an appropriate use of "free speech," and the class begins to resemble a session of the "dozens."

Make the presentation itself a significant source of points. If all else fails, tape each team's debates and show those to the class. Part of speechmaking involves a critique of one's presentations. I teach in the College of Education, so we use video all the time. You can't hide from a bad presentation, plus you have evidence of what can be improved upon next time.

Students will talk out of turn now and then, but shouting inappropriate remarks during a class presentation isn't acceptable. I wouldn't give up on the use of debate and discussion, but I would focus on the structure and lighten up as they get the concept.


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