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Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through Semi- Structured Debate

Tools for Teaching

Critical thinking skills are a central component of teaching and learning in higher education institutions, and utilising the skills and experience debating can be an engaging way to develop these skills in our students.  

What did you do? Why did you do it?   

Critical thinking skills are a central component of teaching and learning in higher education institutions. Countless models have been produced to teach and encourage students to engage with topics, ideas, sources, and evidence critically to develop and hone their skills, and it is a core component of teaching across the institution. The Learning Development Team, based in the library, supports academic colleagues to embed these skills into the curriculum and offer students practical guidance to develop these skills. We are constantly seeking new and innovative ways to encourage students to engage with their learning critically, and in March 2023, I worked with colleagues in the School of Education to develop a critical thinking workshop centred on the idea of developing skills through a semi-structured debate.   

It has been established in the academic literature that encouraging debate among students can develop communication and collaboration skills, as well as their awareness and application of critical thinking (Davis; Zorwick; Roland; and Wade, 2016). Some students are exposed to this approach during their schooling, perhaps in extra-curricular settings or within the classroom. However, for many undergraduate students, including some international students, developing and engaging in a debate is a new activity. For the purpose of this pilot, we were keen to see if preparing for and engaging in an oral debate would allow students to surface and articulate the skills required for critical thinking. In particular, the ability to consider an idea from multiple perspectives; recognise the complexity of these perspectives; acknowledge the value of different views and offer counter arguments; and communicate in a clear and succinct way.  

The workshop, delivered to a cohort of second-year undergraduate students, was designed to support the students’ module assessment which required students to write an ‘argumentative essay’. In a session prior to the workshop, the assessment was outlined and explained to students with a scaffold provided demonstrating the need for a strong central argument and a position to be taken. Students were then told about the plan for the workshop and provided with a prompt statement that would be used in the workshop. They were asked to do some initial research and reading around the prompt but were not told the position (for/against) they’d be required to argue.  

At the beginning of the workshop, students were separated into two groups and allocated ‘for’ or ‘against’ the prompt they had prepared and given 20 minutes to prepare their initial arguments. To support this, students were provided with ‘evidence’ packs from which they could draw statistics, quotes and other points of evidence, as well as a template to complete to ensure they presented an argument with a point, some evidence, and expansion as they had been advised for their essays.  

Given the time constraints students were encouraged to first establish their key argument before using the diverge/converge approach to find necessary evidence and further develop their points. This approach involved students working individually or in small sub-groups for a short period of time before coming back as a group to finalise their presentation. This allowed students to examine more of the evidence and think more deeply within the short timeframe.   

After 20 minutes, the groups were then asked to designate two ‘presenters’ to summarise the group’s position. Each group was given 5 minutes to present while the other groups listened and made notes. After all groups had presented, they were given a further 5 minutes to prepare their rebuttal. This involved selecting one aspect to challenge based on their knowledge of the evidence. Once the rebuttals were presented a free discussion followed, facilitated by teaching staff.  

What was the impact of your practice and how have you evaluated it?

This was the first time we had tried this form of workshop and activity with students in the module and we asked them at the end of the session what skills they felt they had developed. The students identified many of the outcomes we had desired including understanding how to form a rebuttal, use evidence to support an argument, and consider ideas in a more nuanced way. While we cannot attribute attainment in the assignment purely to this activity, students reported on the end of module feedback that they were more confident in writing their ‘argumentative essay’ as a result of the session and would like to do the activity again in other modules. We are pleased with these positive comments and will be looking to incorporate the use of semi-structured debate in other modules within the school. 

How could others benefit from this example?  

There is an ever present need to instil the importance of critical thinking within our students, and encouraging debate within the classroom and in assignments is a promising and rewarding approach to take. This approach also supports students to develop cultural literacy and embrace different perspectives which complements work being completed across the institution. I am keen to hear from colleagues about best practice in this area or those who are interested in giving something similar a try 


Dr Emily Webb, Academic Learning Advisor,

Do you have an example of your practice to share?

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