Hot Topic Debates: A Class Activity and Assignment

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Activity Description: 

Author: Jodie Hertzog, Wichita State University
Purpose (From Author):
I regularly teach a general education Marriage & Families course that enrolls between 25 (summer sessions) and 75 students (regular term). In order to engage students in exploring current issues related to family life, I started including a “hot topics” assignment that has evolved from being a pure writing assignment to including an actual in-class debate presented by small groups. The assignment fulfills several course objectives, providing students an opportunity to (1) demonstrate their understanding of class concepts and readings, (2) become more aware of their own and other’s attitudes and values, (3) practice discussing controversial issues in a respectful manner, and (4) expand their critical thinking skills.
In my experience, students enrolled in introductory Marriage and Families courses sometimes struggle in learning to move past their experiential reality of family life to adopt sociological perspectives on families. I have found that integrating “hot topic” debates into the curriculum is a useful method for engaging students in this process. According to Bellon (2000), using debate as an active learning activity in the college classroom can encourage students to gain increased awareness of current social issues, to develop better communication skills, and to practice critical thinking. Goodwin’s (2003) evaluation of classroom debates further suggests that debates can aid in the collaborative learning process and assist students in considering a range of views on complex topics.
Toward the beginning of the semester, students are given the opportunity to sign up for a debate topic that interests them. Since this assignment was originally used in a Marriage and Families course, debate topics have included legalizing same-sex marriage, should mothers work outside the home, effects of child care on children, to spank or not, are cyber-affairs cheating, and should the U.S. bring back no-fault divorce, to name a few. The number of topics available and the number of spots per group largely depends on the size of the course. I have found a maximum of 4-6 students per group works best.
Once students are organized into groups, they are required to read two articles representing different sides to their debate topic. The articles generally come from the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center (Greenhaven press-Wadsworth), but the Taking Sides series (Dushkin-McGraw Hill) has several useful topics as well. Topics specifically exploring work-life issues include:

  • Affirmative action
  • Child care
  • Comparable worth policies
  • Contingent work force
  • Corporate responsibility
  • Downsizing
  • Gender roles
  • Health insurance
  • Immigration
  • Labor unions
  • Minimum wage
  • Poverty and welfare
  • School to work transition
  • Sexual harassment
  • Wage gap
  • Working mothers
  • Young adults’ work values

In addition to the viewpoints articles, students are assigned readings from the text associated with their topic, as well as a selection on critical thinking and tools for reasoning (see Williams et al. 2006). Based on this information, each student types a two-page response to the following questions:

  1. What underlying issues are being debated in the readings?
  2. According to supporters, what are some possible advantages in favor of supporting the issue?
  3. According to those in opposition, what are some possible disadvantages to supporting the issue?
  4. What fallacies of reasoning emerge from the debate?
  5. What alternative policy/programs have been proposed or might be developed?
  6. What implications does the debate have for families in society?

The paper is graded in terms of how thorough the student answered each question and whether the student provides support for each answer with facts and/or examples from the readings. I generally make the paper worth 10-12 points.
For the class debate, student groups divide up the tasks of presenting underlying issues, the support position, the opposition, and any alternative policies/positions that could arise. The presentation is worth 10 points and is evaluated in terms of clarity, equal representation of view points, use of supporting evidence, and overall preparedness.
Following the presentation, the class divides into small groups to discuss the fallacies of reasoning and the implications of the debates for families. Following small group discussion, the class debriefs the activity as a large group and relates the discussion to broader course concepts. All students can earn participation points on debate days.

Bellon, J. (2000). A research based justification for debate across the curriculum. Argumentation & Advocacy, 36(3), 161-175. Retrieved from
Goodwin, J. (2003). Students’ perspectives on debate exercises in content area classes. Communication Education, 52(2), 157-163.
Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Wadsworth. Available at:
Taking Sides Series. Dushkin/McGraw-Hill. Available at:
Williams, B., Sawyer, S., & Wahlstrom, C. (2006). Learning how to think: Keys to being open-minded (pp. 47-53). In Marriages, Families, & Intimate Relationships: A Practical Introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
Additional Resources:
Bell, E. (1991). Debate: A strategy for teaching critical thinking. Nurse Educator, 16(2), 6-7.
Crone, J. (1997). Using panel debates to increase student involvement in the introductory sociology class. Teaching Sociology, 25(3), 214-218.
Dundes, L. (2001). Small group debates: Fostering critical thinking in oral presentations with maximum class involvement. Teaching Sociology, 29(2), 237-243.
Garrett, M. (1996). Debate: A teaching strategy to improve verbal communication and critical-thinking skills. Nurse Educator, 21(4), 37-40.
Green, C., & Klug, H. (1990). Teaching critical thinking and writing through debates: An experiential evaluation. Teaching Sociology, 18(4), 462-471.
Huryn, J. (1986). Debating as a teaching technique. Teaching Sociology, 14(4), 266-269.

Activity Source: 

Sweet, Stephen, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Joshua Mumm, Judith Casey, and Christina Matz. 2006. Teaching Work and Family: Strategies, Activities, and Syllabi. Washington DC: American Sociological Association.