Online Debate: Using Debate in an Online Asynchronous Course

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

The presentation will report on an asynchronous online debate assignment, including survey data on student satisfaction, participation, and skills gained, as well as reflections from the professor. The presentation will include lessons learned, as well as recommendations for the implementation of online asynchronous debate in online courses.


Dr. Elissa T. Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern Indiana where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Mitchell's research is broadly focused on at-risk youth and their families, particularly those affected by foster care and adoption, divorce, and domestic violence. She is also focused on online teaching and learning, specifically in the use of social media, online debate, and incorporating service learning in online courses.

Extended Abstract

Goals for the session:

*To share an online asynchronous debate assignment, including instructor reflections and student feedback

*To engage participants in discussion on the use of debate in an online classroom

*To encourage other instructors to adopt a similar assignment and assess its effectiveness

Aim of Study

Debate is a common instructional technique used in many types of courses. It can be especially effective in courses where there is often more than one “right” answer or perspective (e.g., family policy in this example).  Instructors have used debate and examined its effectiveness in the classroom in encouraging active learning and critical thinking among students (Budesheim & Lundquist, 2000; Green & Klug, 1990; Kennedy, 2009), improving student research and writing skills (Green & Klug, 1990), and enhancing the overall learning process and student engagement (Omelicheva & Avdeyeva, 2008).  Less is known, however, about using debate in an online environment.

Online education is a growing field with over 30% of college students taking at least one online course last year (Digital Learning Compass, 2017).  Many colleges and universities are exploring ways to expand or extend their programs to students online.  Some programs are offering courses completely online, while others are using a blended approach, incorporating online components into their existing courses.  One of the challenges, however, is adapting traditional methods of instruction to online course delivery modes (Bates & Watson, 2008).  Researchers have argued that online courses can be “as effective as traditional instruction when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, there is student-to-student interaction, and timely teacher-to-student feedback” (Hamzaee, 2005, p. 216).  According to Clark (1994), the methods used in instruction – not the media – are most important in learning outcomes.  Thus, consistent with a debate in a face-to-face course, an online debate can be used to generate collaboration and participation among students and increase critical thinking and active learning.

This descriptive study examines the implementation of an asynchronous online debate in an online family policy course.  The presentation will report on the method of implementation and student instruction, qualitative data on student satisfaction, quantitative data on student participation, collaboration, performance, and skills gained, as well as reflections and suggestions for improvements from the professor.


Participants. Students enrolled in three sections of a family policy course were assigned to complete an online debate project.  Consistent with IRB protocol for course projects, students were given an informed consent form and notified of the existing research project once the course project was complete; they then agreed or disagreed to have their projects and course participation and feedback used for the project.  Only those students who signed and returned the consent form were included in this study (N = 36). 

Procedure. Based on best practices in the existing literature regarding debate and online learning, an asynchronous online debate assignment was created and implemented in three sections of a family policy course.  Students were assigned to either the pro or the con side of a class-selected topic.  Each student was asked to write his/her own position statement representing their assigned perspective on the issue (pro/con).  Students then worked with their groups to create a group position statement and post it on the course website. The groups then had to read the other side’s position statement and work together to post a group rebuttal statement responding to the other side’s argument and further making their case.  At the end of this process, an online discussion forum was opened where students were asked to continue posting from their assigned perspective.  Students also submitted individual reflection papers on the debate process at the end of the project.  

Measures. Measures included in the analysis for this descriptive project include student participation, collaboration, performance, and satisfaction, student feedback on skills related to critical thinking and active learning.  Student participation was measured by the number of posts in the discussion forum.  Collaboration was assessed by monitoring the group work during the position statement and rebuttal writing phases, and by student self and peer evaluation.  Performance was assessed by the grades received on the project (some individual and some group).  Student satisfaction was assessed through their reflection papers on the project and a survey.  Critical thinking and active learning skills gained or used in the project were assessed with a quantitative survey.

Preliminary Results

Analysis is ongoing, but will be completed by summer 2018. Student satisfaction, as well as general feedback and reflection, will be analyzed qualitatively for themes.  Student participation, collaboration, and performance, as well as student feedback on the survey regarding skills in critical thinking and active learning, will be quantitatively analyzed. Preliminary results suggest positive student feedback, including satisfaction with the assignment and instructions, high levels of engagement on the discussion board, and a general sense of engagement in the course based on this assignment. The instructor will also reflect on the project and will provide summary comments and suggestions for improvement.


With online learning a growing trend, educators will continue to grapple with adapting methods employed in face-to-face courses to an online mode of delivery (Bates & Watson, 2008).  This descriptive examination of online debate as an instructional method in a family policy course will provide insight into a relatively unexplored way to engage students in online courses and enhance their learning, debate, and deliberation skills.  Reflections on the process from both the student and professor perspective will be presented. The hope is that the information gained by this case study will provide lessons learned so that others instructors might embrace this instructional method in their online teaching.


Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Bates, C. & Watson, M. (2008) Re-learning teaching techniques to be effective in hybrid and online courses. Journal of American Academy of Business 13(1), 38-44.

Budesheim, T. & Lundquist, A. (2000) Consider the opposite: Opening minds through in-class debates on course-related controversies. Teaching of Psychology, 26(2): 106–10.

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media and method. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 7-10.

Green III, C. S., & Klug, H. G. (1990). Teaching critical thinking and writing through debates: An experimental evaluation. Teaching Sociology, 18, 462-471.

Hamzaee, R., A. (2005). A survey and theoretical model of distance education programs. International Advances in Economic Research, 11(2), 215-229.

Kennedy, R. R. (2009). The power of in-class debates. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(3), 225-236.

Omelicheva, M.Y., & Avdeyeva, O. (2008). Teaching with lecture or debate? Testing the effectiveness of traditional versus active learning methods of instruction. PS: Political      Science and Politics, 41, 603-607.