Be an advocate, devilish or not advocate

October 19, 2007

A tutor's role is vital in encouraging students to debate and cogently argue a viewpoint. It requires preparation, generosity and setting clear ground rules to get them involved. Harriet Swain explains. Sparking debate among students is one of the most important functions of an academic. And if you want to get your students arguing you need the topic to be provocative and able to lend itself to a range of positions, says Caroline Coffin, co-convener of the Educational Dialogue Research Unit at the Open University.

Ideally the topic should resonate with students' own lived experience before moving to more abstract and academic dimensions, and students should be well enough informed or prepared to develop a perspective they actually care about, even if they are playing devil's advocate.

But Coffin's research also suggests that introducing a subject using tentative language is more likely to prompt a response than making a bald assertion. Achieving an initial counterclaim, she says, is vital if the discussion is to develop into further chains of argumentation.

Bryan Greetham, a philosopher and author of How to Write Better Essays , says it is tempting to believe that because discussions follow a route dictated by contributors they need no planning. In fact, from the choice of topic to the sort of questions asked and to comments made in response to contributors they need more than other kinds of teaching sessions.

It is important to choose a question that is genuinely up for grabs. If it is clear that almost everyone in the group will be on one side, the lecturer may be forced to lurch from one controversial statement to another in an effort to keep the argument alive. You also need to spend time beforehand making sure that the question is well expressed.

"Some discussions can go round and round endlessly getting nowhere because we didn't realise before we started that hidden deep within it is a concept that should have been analysed," Greetham says.

Careful planning is also needed in assessing how to direct questions. Do not throw out questions generally in an attempt to get students to respond, he warns. This will either result in silence or cause the most confident and articulate students to dominate the discussion. Instead, direct questions at particular individuals. "If you know your students well, you can normally figure out what sort of question and approach to the problem is going to get them engaged," he says.

Richard Andrews, professor in English at the Institute of Education, says you need to make sure that planning is also an important part of students' approach to a debate. This is particularly true if they are presenting a written argument. You need to encourage them to take risks but at the same time provide evidence for the assertions they make. What constitutes evidence will vary from subject to subject, and he says it is important that students are aware of the ground rules governing each subject and what will be expected of them when presenting an argument in each. He suggests discussing and negotiating these ground rules in advance with the students.

But Professor Andrews says it is also important to take them through the logic of your own thinking and use of evidence and to give them examples of well-structured arguments by other students to help guide them through the process.

Alastair Bonnett, author of How to Argue , suggests helping students to develop their skills in using evidence through the following exercise: choose a short newspaper or television presentation that appears to address substantive issues and get students to note down the basic overall argument, then to write down all the evidence being offered to support this, and finally to arrange the information into "proves", "strongly supports", "weakly supports," "irrelevant" and "repeats". Each member of the group should identify what they consider to be a key piece of evidence from the "proves" and "irrelevant" columns.

Once students have an idea of the overall structure of an argument, says Professor Andrews, the phrase "Go on" is one of the most useful interventions a lecturer can make. "Create a community where the development of ideas is accepted and supported," he urges.

Coffin says that online discussion forums and message boards are an increasingly popular way for students to take part in this kind of community. Some students prefer the informality and lack of face-to-face confrontation they offer and everyone can say what they want when they want, including shyer contributors and those for whom English is not the first language. They can also argue from a more informed position because links to sites and visual as well as verbal evidence can be integrated into an argument.

Coffin says that during both spoken and online debates you need to intervene carefully and summarise at key points to check that students are backing up their statements with evidence, to assess where the argument is going and what predominant position is emerging, to establish whether evidence of different types is accumulating to support an emerging consensus and to present the primary competing perspectives.

She suggests getting a show of hands or using the voting function in a discussion forum to see whether opinions are changing. This also helps motivate the discussion and provides an opportunity to track its structure.

Professor Greetham has one final piece of advice: drop the fantasy of an effortless discussion full of animated contributors. "Most discussions have to be worked at and prepared carefully if they're going to get to this point."

Further information

- Alastair Bonnett, How to Argue: A Student's Guide , Prentice Hall, 2001

- Sally Mitchell, Richard Andrews, Learning to Argue in Higher Education , Boynton/Cook, 2000

- Bryan Greetham, How to Write Better Essays , Palgrave Study Guides, 2001

- Educational Dialogue Research Unit: http:///

- Higher Education Academy project on supporting undergraduate argumentation skills: .


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