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Jon Dorbolo: Imagine a teaching and learning method that increases student activity in research and literature review, engages critical thinking skills, and requires little lecture preparation on the part of the instructor. Staging student debates in a class can accomplish these objectives. How and why to do so is the focus of our conversation today. I’m Jon Dorbolo, Associate Director of Technology Across the Curriculum.
Stevon Roberts: I am Stevon Roberts, Media Coordinator from the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. CTLA and TAC are collaborating to present models of teaching and learning innovation at Oregon State University. We’re delighted you’ve joined us and look forward to you feedback.
Jon Dorbolo: Right. We’re joined today by Peggy Dolcini, Professor in the department of Public Health at Oregon State University. Professor Dolcini managed six debates between groups of students in her Spring 20010 “Drug, Society, and Human Behavior” course with about seventy students enrolled. Dr. Dolcini used the response system, or clickers, to poll class opinion before and after the debates. Thanks for taking your time to share your ideas with us, Peggy.
Peggy Dolcini: I’m happy to be here.
Jon Dorbolo: Peggy, I attended your six classes with the debates to help to support the technology in that, but I was really struck by the level of student engagement both from the students that were presenting and also the audience. People were really involved and that’s why we got excited about interviewing you about this and your students because bringing students’ excitement into the classroom is always worth looking into. Did you get that sense in the classroom? Was that what you were after?
Peggy Dolcini: Yes, it is part of what we were after, and I did get that sense. Students embraced the process. I think they enjoyed taking on particular topics and learning more about them and then bringing their opinions and findings to the class. And I agree that folks doing the debate were engaged, people in the audience were engaged. What’s helpful in this process, I think, is that the things that we were discussing – things like the legal age of alcohol use, should marijuana be legalized, topics of that sort – are things that these young people care a lot about. And so they do get involved in it and they have opinions that they want to share and I think they’re interested in learning more.
Jon Dorbolo: Well they certainly took the topic seriously from what I saw and from the discussions we had with students afterwards. And those, the topics were well covered in terms of research by the students. I’m wondering though, before you even had this class, how did you arrive at the idea of using debate as a method for teaching?
Peggy Dolcini: I had a number of interconnected goals in choosing the debate as a method. One was that I wanted to introduce students to controversial or important issues around drug use and drug policies and provide them with an opportunity to examine at least one of those in an in-depth way. And I wanted a platform that would potentially actively engage students. I also wanted to give students the opportunity to take a position on an issue and have to publicly defend that because that is part of what we end up having to do in public health, the area that many of these students are in. So I knew about the “Taking Side” texts, which are these books that address lots and lots of different topic areas and have both a pro and a con issue for particular points of discussion across a variety of domains. So there is a book on drug use and controversial or interesting issues in drug use, and felt that that provided a good foundation for this. And I think listening to things like, you know, the debates that go on NPR and other, you know, public domains that we hear about really, sort of, trigger for me, you know, you could do that in the classroom. You could bring this to the class for students and get them engaged in this process.
Jon Dorbolo: Mhmm, and the “Taking Sides” books, as I recall, I’ve used those in Philosophy classes at times, are anthologies of articles or excerpts of articles by different authors with editorial introduction and commentary, right?
Peggy Dolcini: Yes.
Jon Dorbolo: That’s how they work.
Peggy Dolcini: Right.
Jon Dorbolo: So you get a lot of variety and you can pick and choose from the parts…
Peggy Dolcini: Yes.
Jon Dorbolo: …to assign to the students.
Peggy Dolcini: Right, right.
Stevon Roberts: Are there any topics that are too contentious, too heated?
Peggy Dolcini: That’s an interesting question. In some ways, having debates that are hot is good because it brings the students into the process in away that I think they might not necessarily be in the classroom. So I think that the controversy is good. I’m not sure that there are topics that are too controversial. I do think, that as an instructor, you want to look carefully at the debates that you’re choosing. You want to make sure that there’s a good pro side and a con side to that debate so students have something to hang their hats onto, but I think with good research that almost anything could be debated in the classroom if it’s appropriate to the specific topic.
Stevon Roberts: Have you ever had students come to you and say, “I can’t debate this topic?” Or, “I can’t debate this side?” Or, “I want to switch sides?” Does that ever happen
Peggy Dolcini: I had students say, “I don’t really agree with the side that I pulled out of the hat,” so there were students who were in a position of having to debate something that they didn’t really believe, but they did not say they couldn’t do it. So people were willing to take it on. One of the reasons that I think that that’s a good exercise is, again, real life, in different kinds of positions that we hold, whether it’s in public health or in other domains, we are sometimes forced to take on policies that we don’t necessarily agree with or to convince other people that certain actions are appropriate because that’s what’s been mandated, and so I do think it’s a good exercise for students and I appreciated their willingness to take that on.
Jon Dorbolo: What impressed me about the presentations was, it was clear to me that the students were not just arguing their opinion on a subject or issue. They were using research. They were suing scientific and medical research to support their claims. And most of the back and forth between the groups and with the audience was really about the research and how to interpret it.
Peggy Dolcini: I would agree. Again, the resources that come out of the “Taking Sides” book provide a good foundation, but students needed to jump off of that and bring other material into the debate and I thought they did that very well. They, sort of, the “Taking Sides” book as a lead and would send them off into to different areas, but I saw very legitimate research articles. I saw very legitimate websites, places like the National Institute of Health or other federal sites where the information is vetted and you know what they’re getting is good material. So I felt that students did good research on that front.
Jon Dorbolo: I thought so too and it seemed obvious to me that many of the student had researched not only the pro side of the issue that they were arguing, but also the research that counted against their side and were versed in both end of it. The best students did that.
Peggy Dolcini: They did and they were encouraged to do that. It was sort of a “Beware” sign that I put up for students saying, “Remember, the other group is going to have read the other side of this argument, so make sure you read that and you think about what issues they may be bringing up, so again, I felt like students were well-prepared. They had advice to do that and I felt that they did it.
Jon Dorbolo: That’s great because I think that some people thinking about “Will I do a debate in my class?” would stop, perhaps, at the point where they say, “Well I’m not really interested in having students argue about their opinions. I want them to go to the text and try to support what that means,” but in your case, and I think many disciplines could support this, if students are involved in interpreting a text, or interpreting sources, it could be brought into a debate because that’s what we’re really talking about, is how do we make use of the material, not just our opinion.
Peggy Dolcini: That’s correct. And I think what it really helps students do is work on their ability to integrate material and build critical reasoning skills and also the ability to articulate those things, whether it’s in helping put together the resources if you’re the person behind the scenes who’s really brilliant at research and you’re putting all those pieces together or you’re the spokesperson who’s there in front of the classroom doing the most dramatic arguments.
Stevon Roberts: You mentioned too that some students use different modes of presentation. They’re not just limited to PowerPoint. I think you said there was one group that did a video? Could you say more about that?
Peggy Dolcini: Yes. The students had the opportunity to present however they wanted to. So the PowerPoint was not a requirement. Most groups did use PowerPoint, I think in part because they are familiar with it. It’s also what a lot of instructors use, so it feels kind of right and comfortable to people. It also give people the cues that they can use, you know, while they’re doing their presentation.
Stevon Roberts: Kind of like an outline.
Peggy Dolcini: Yeah, it’s kind of like an outline. And it can bring in visuals, etc. There was one debate group in our class who had a very short video that they presented and I know in another class on sexual health, there was a group of students who actually put together a little video as part of their debate. So yes, some groups have been very creative on that front.
Stevon Roberts: That’s great.
Jon Dorbolo: Yeah, it is. So I think it’d be good, at this point, to actually describe the debate format and the mechanics that go into making it work with the sense of, how would somebody do this, if this was their intention.
Peggy Dolcini: Certainly. I think those are good issues to talk about. So students were divided into teams of four to six and they were assigned a topic to debate. So I had preselected the topics, you know, obviously pro and con, and they essentially just pulled it out of a hat. Two teams participate in each debate, one arguing the pro, the other arguing the con. There’s assigned material, which we’ve discussed, on each topic and then the students also need to add to that through outside sources. and then they prepare an argument to support their position. Whether or not a particular student was assigned a specific debate, they were supposed to read the material. So everybody in the classroom should have read the material out of the “Taking Sides” text. On the day of the debate, we begin by assessing the opinion in the classroom and we use the clicker system to do that so students could indicate whether they were agreed with the proposition, they disagreed with it, or they were undecided. Then, each team had ten minutes to present their argument. And the presentation was followed by a two to three minutes rebuttal. And then we opened it up to questions from the class. After that, we reassessed opinions. Again, are you for or against or undecided and we would often continue the discussion after that, either elaborating on particular issues, letting students who had burning, you know, were burning to say something and hadn’t had a chance to do it during the earlier period to chime in with that, or talk about what changed folk’s opinions, what led them from an undecided position to pro or con. And that pretty much takes a class period. These were hour and twenty minute class periods.
Stevon Roberts: And you didn’t do the whole term this way, right? This was only a portion of…
Peggy Dolcini: That’s correct. So we had six debates across the term and it was, the grade for the debate was about twenty percent of the student’s full grade for the class. So this was one of a number of things, you know, tests, as well as other activities that students did individually.
Jon Dorbolo: Now you were using response system, or clickers…
Peggy Dolcini: Yes.
Jon Dorbolo: …in this, and that’s why I was there, to help support the use of that technology, and used them in all six debates. Could you describe why you used those clickers?
Peggy Dolcini: Sure. First, thank you, Jon, for supporting us using those clickers ‘cause we needed that. The clickers, I think, are an efficient way to poll students in the classroom and they provide anonymity, which I think is a really nice piece of it. So, first of all, we took roll on the day of the debates because I wanted students to essentially get credit for being there and for participating in the process, so the clickers allowed us very quickly to take roll. And then, when we asked students for their opinion and they can do it in this anonymous way. The student doesn’t need to worry that, “Oh, everybody else has their hand up supporting this issue, but I really disagree with it, and so I feel a little bit uncomfortable and I’m going to, sort of, put my hand up even though it’s not what I think.” So, it gives the students that opportunity to express their opinions without, sort of, that pressure to do or say what other people say. The other thing that the clickers provided is that really immediate feedback and I think we all like feedback and we like it to be immediate and I think the generation of students who are undergraduates at this point in time like it even more than anybody else, so I think it’s helpful to keep them in that process so very quickly they can see what percentage of the students are for, who’s against, who’s undecided, and we can also show graphically, what that looks like and I think both of those things are useful tools for students as they’re going through this process. I think it draws them into the debate a little bit more.
Jon Dorbolo: I thought it was successful. I asked the students a couple times during the sessions if they thought the use of the clickers was effective for this and they all, there was very high agreement to that and the students we talked to felt the same way. There were some technical challenges though. The questions were embedded in a PowerPoint, the two clicker questions, before and after, and then, each student group had their owns sets of PowerPoints, so we had to figure out how to plug in a laptop and be able to switch back and forth between those sessions without breaking the clicker session. So that took some thinking. Then there was also the question of being able to compare the two charts so the students could see whether there was change. But I, it was immediate, because we did see in a couple instances where there was a significant change that threw the balance between yes and no.
Peggy Dolcini: Yes.
Jon Dorbolo: But the change always came from the undecideds and not the committed people.
Peggy Dolcini: Right, I think people did come into the class fairly committed to a position and there were often pretty substantial numbers of students who were undecided. I think sometimes fifteen, twenty percent or more who, at the start of the debate, really weren’t sure where they fell and they often moved over to a decision over the course of the debate.
Jon Dorbolo: And there was this, a couple times where there was a visible change, a see change in their opinion, as group. There was, like, a vocal reaction. They registered the fact that it had changed. It was really interesting to see them do that. So, they were taking it serious. Plus, it seemed to me that attendance was very high in all the sessions.
Peggy Dolcini: It was, yeah. So students came, and I think that, you know, it was interesting. It was engaging. And they came to class, and also, there was a credit aspect to it, you know. They got some credit for being there physically, that day.
Stevon Roberts: One of the concerns I could see, you have a physical graph representing people’s opinions after these debates and I could imagine instructors, and especially students, might be concerned that there’s some connection between these graphs and the students’ grades. How do you, sort of, alleviate that concern? I think I asked the students that question as well.
Peggy Dolcini: Okay, there was no connection between opinions and grades. The way the debates were graded, there were three elements to grading them. So the first part of the grade was attendance, which I just mentioned, so you get a very small percentage of a grade for being at the debates. The second piece was a group grade for the debate itself. How well was this researched? How well was it presented? All of those kinds of things. And everybody in the group got the same grade for that. The third piece was a peer evaluation based on the group of people who worked together in the debate. So in that group of four, for example, three would be grading each person saying “This person participate” or “They didn’t participate.” We had, like, three or four dimensions that they evaluated each other on. That mechanism does a couple of things, the peer piece of it. One, it gives students that opportunity to comment on what, sort of, goes on behind the scenes that it’s harder for the instructor to see. So who participated? Who contributed to things? And I think that’s an important piece that you can’t always tell from what happens on the day of the debate. And secondly, I think it makes students who are working in groups feel more comfortable. Like, they have a little bit of control over what’s going on and that if there is somebody who’s really not participating in the group, that they have the opportunity to share that opinion and to have that reflected back to the instructor.
Jon Dorbolo: Right, so it’s a good point to make that the anonymity we were talking about was amongst the students themselves. They didn’t know who had voted for what, but you had a record that showed a student having made responses so that you could credit them for their attendance…
Peggy Dolcini: That’s correct.
Jon Dorbolo:…participation.
Peggy Dolcini: Right, right. So I wasn’t looking at what they said, only that they were there.
Jon Dorbolo: Right, and I think that’s pretty common in clicker use these days. And students seem to trust that. “My professors not going to go mining data to see what my opinions are.
Peggy Dolcini: That’s right.
Jon Dorbolo: That’s a good thing. Some people may concern themselves with the quality of information of a student presentation as compared to the quality of information from a lecture for you, the expert, in that same period. Is that a concern for you? That misinformation, or the lower quality of information, is being transmitted in that period?
Peggy Dolcini: I think because students have multiple resources, I wasn’t terribly concerned about that and having gone through it, I actually feel that the students came up with pretty good material on their own. So they had the “Taking Sides” book, they had their own textbook, which covered all of these issues at some level or another and they could go to that resource as well. And a lot of the material that was in the textbook was either assigned as reading or discussed in class at other points in time. So the students are getting information from multiple sources including me, as the instructor. There were a couple of debates where, after the debate, I may have made some clarifications, and there was one, you know, that I felt, that particular issues needed to be clarified. They might not have been presented in a way that I was sure everybody…
Stevon Roberts: You’re there to interpret the presentation.
Peggy Dolcini: …could handle them. And then, there was one debate where the two sides had differing information about a particular issue, so it was a debate about alcohol use and the age of legal alcohol use and within that, each team brought up the question of whether or not parents could serve alcohol to their underage children in their own home and one group said that it was legal in Oregon and the other group said that it wasn’t. I actually gave students the task to go out and research and come back to the next class with the correct information, which they did. And so it was actually just an additional opportunity for them to go out and get a better grasp of the material and to figure out where to get the correct information.
Stevon Roberts: That’s awesome.
Jon Dorbolo: Really good example, isn’t it? And I think that this, that entire exercise of students presenting, especially in debate format is a paradigm case of the use of critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. They really were taking responsibility for their own learning in that instance, whether they were in the audience or in the debate group. It was very strong. The audience, in fact, had some of the best knowledge-base of all. I mean, there were audience members that had terrific questions. Really penetrating.
Peggy Dolcini: They did, and you know, and again, some of the students have expertise in particular issues, but they don’t, they aren’t part of that debate, and so then, as the audience, they get to bring that expertise in.
Jon Dorbolo: One of the issue that concerns students about this, and the ones we talked to and ones we didn’t talk to, I’m sure, is that they see group projects as inherently unfair because the participation isn’t equal and individuals are graded on group performance.
Peggy Dolcini: So when I assigned this to the class at the beginning, I asked people to raise their hands if they liked group projects. I don’t think anybody raised their hand. So you’re right, it’s not something that students particularly like to do. So why would I do such a thing? Why would I torture the students in that way. Couple of reasons. One, that I wanted a way to engage students, and as a class, fifty, sixty, seventy students, so you really need to find creative ways to get students actively engaged. And the debates seemed like a possible way to do that. The other thing that we did was actually spent part of a class talking about people thinking about what their own strengths were, what they could bring to a group, as well as learning the strengths of the other people in the group, so that there’s not an expectation that everybody has the same skill set and that you might actually, the whole might be more than the sum of the parts, in a sense, and to get the students to think about that rather than, you know, “I might have to do more work than John did,” you know, “to get this done.” In thinking about projects that way, I think it gives, for example, in this situation, a student who might be quite good at doing background research a sense of a place and an ownership even if that person is not very comfortable getting up in front of the group and speaking, and that there might be somebody else in the group who has more of those oratory skills and more able to be convincing and take responsibility for that piece. So the idea is, work to your strengths, think about what you have to offer, etc. The other reason for choosing a group project is that actually, in real life, that’s how we often function. We do work in groups. Whether it’s, you know, in a team in an office building, or, you know, as faculty in a department, or whatever our role is, we often have to work as groups and I think it’s good for students to begin that process of learning exactly how to do that.
Jon Dorbolo: Right, I also have some methods and models for accenting, facilitating group projects using online tools, particularly in Blackboard, creating groups in Blackboard, setting milestones for group progress, and roles. And that would provide the instructor the ability to go and monitor the participation of various students ‘cause they would be responsible to that. So I’d love to share that folks at some time.
Peggy Dolcini: That sounds like a great idea.
Jon Dorbolo: Yeah, I think there’s a lot that can be done with this. Group projects are a really good thing, but students really do resist them. It’s a very interesting…So, I’m wondering if you’re going to continue to use this method in your classes and if so, how would you change it?
Peggy Dolcini: I will continue to use it. For the reasons that we talked about. You know, I think it actively engages students. It, you know, provides a format for discussing controversial issues, etc. The things that I would think about changing is one, that we started the debates in the, I think in the third week of classes in an effort to try to get all of them in, you know, throughout the quarter and I felt that perhaps that group that had to debate on the third week had somewhat of a disadvantage, that they had to, you know, get this material, get together, put it together in just a couple of weeks and so I might push that out a little bit. Not do anything quite that early in the quarter. There was one debate that, I felt that the selection in the “Taking Sides” book had not clearly laid out pros and cons in a really nice way that allowed the students a really good foundation so I would carefully look at the debates again and make sure that I really had very, very clear pro/con arguments for each debate selected in the class.
Jon Dorbolo: Mhmm. Would you ever give the students the ability to research and suggest topics for debate?
Peggy Dolcini: That’s an interesting idea. I think that, I hadn’t
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