A Cooperative Learning Approach to Policy Debates (with Application to an Economics of Poverty and Discrimination Class)

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At the beginning of the semester, the class is divided into teams, each consisting of 2 students. Two teams are selected to participate in each of the scheduled classroom debates covering relevant policy questions. Each debate is held at the point in the semester when related course material is covered. For each debate, one of the 2 students in each team will be responsible for researching the affirmative position of the policy question and the other team member will be responsible for researching the negative position. Several days prior to the debate, each team member will submit a paper supporting his/her assigned position. Team members then meet outside of class to share and discuss both sides of the question and both team members must arrive to class prepared to actively debate either position on the day of the debate. A coin flip determines which of the two teams will debate the affirmative position; the other team is responsible for debating the negative position.

  • This assignment was originally developed for an Economics of Poverty and Discrimination course targeting non-majors, but the assignment could be readily adapted to other courses by altering the debate topics and/or number of debates.

Learning Goals

Identify key arguments in favor and against the policy (Proficiency: accessing existing knowledge).

Use economic concepts to summarize these arguments (Proficiency: displaying command of existing knowledge).

Critically evaluate the strength of evidence in favor and against the policy issue (Proficiency: interpreting and applying existing knowledge).

Explain the arguments clearly/succintly to others, speak extemporaneously (with the help of an outline/note page they've prepared) on the policy issue, and persuasively argue the points in support of a given policy position.

Context for Use

Knowledge required: The debate topics presented below coincide roughly with content sequencing in Schiller (2008) and debates occur throughout the semester when the relevant course material is covered. Students must prepare their papers and debates prior to exposure to lecture material covering the relevant topic (e.g., underlying theoretical concepts, data motivating the policy question, etc.), so that preparation requires students to actively study the underlying concepts as well as the economic literature outlining arguments and evidence related to the specific policy topic.

Class size: This assignment was designed for classes of about 32-35 students, but the assignment could be readily adapted to smaller classes by decreasing the number of debates. Ideally, a total of 4 students should be chosen to participate in each debate (see below for more information on this), so the feasibility of adapting this to larger classes is limited by the number of debates an instructor is willing/able to incorporate into the course schedule.

Time required: about 45 minutes of class time is devoted to each debate. Since the in-class debate takes up only a portion of a 50-minute or 75-minute class – it could be used in classes of various durations.

Description and Teaching Materials

Possible Policy Paper/Debate Topics
1. Trickle Down Effect of Economic Growth: Should the U.S. focus on economic growth (instead of focusing primarily on education, welfare, health care reform, etc.) in order to improve living standards among the poor? In other words, does economic growth translate into improved living standards among the poor?
2. Sin Taxes: Given extremely high rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer among poor individuals, should the U.S. implement (or increase previously established) sin taxes on soda, junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.?
3. Minimum Wage Increases/Living Wages: Should state minimum wages be increased substantially as proposed by advocates of living wage campaigns?
4. Nationalized System of Health Care: Should the government adopt a nationalized system of health care?
5. Marriage Subsidies (note: a marriage "subsidy" is the opposite of a "marriage tax" or "marriage penalty"): Should the U.S. subsidize marriage and/or reduce the current "marriage tax"?
6. Affirmative Action: Should affirmative action requirements (as they relate to employment) be maintained and/or strengthened?
7. Negative Income Tax: Should the U.S. establish a negative income tax (to replace the current welfare system and EITC)?
8. Voucher System with K-12 Education: Should the U.S. implement a widespread voucher system in order to improve K-12 education?

Teaching Notes and Tips


The debate, which follows the structure outlined in Pernecky (1997), is comprised of the following components:
Affirmative Construction – 8 minutes
Negative Construction – 8 minutes
Rebuttal: Interactive – 15 minutes (affirmative begins, then the teams take turns, being sure to avoid filibustering or cutting anyone off)
Class Interaction: 15 minutes of questions and comments



Policy Paper Assignment: At the beginning of the term, the class is divided into teams, each consisting of 2 students. Two teams are selected to participate in each classroom debate. One of the 2 students in a given team will be responsible for researching the affirmative position of the policy question and the other team member will be responsible for researching the negative position. Students will INDEPENDENTLY research their assigned position and prepare a short paper summarizing the arguments supporting only that position on the policy question at hand (to be turned in approximately 4 days prior to the debate). Requiring students to independently complete the paper in this stage ensures individual accountability

Policy Debate Assignment: After preparing their policy position papers, students will meet with the other member of their debate team, who was assigned to research and prepare a position paper supporting the opposite position. The team members will share/discuss their findings with each other and work together to ensure that both team members understand the affirmative AND negative arguments for the policy question. Then, together as a team, they will evaluate the strength of various arguments/evidence and work out a strategy in preparation for the debate. Since a coin toss (immediately prior to the debate) will determine which team argues each position, both teams should come to class prepared to debate EITHER position. Since student pairs are working together to prepare arguments for their debates, this phase of the assignment supports positive interdependence through output goal interdependence. Requiring all team members to contribute (roughly) equally to the preparation in advance of the debate and participation during the debate (i.e., both students must be prepared to knowledgably discuss both sides of the policy question NOT just the side they were assigned to research) also supports positive interdependence by explicitly generating learning goal interdependence.


Since – at the beginning of the semester – some debate topics (or even the due dates of some debates) sound substantially more appealing to students than other debate topics, students usually can not be permitted to choose the topic for their paper/debate. However, soliciting information about students' preferences over the various topics (e.g., asking students to list their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices through an electronic survey or in-class survey) and using this information to match students with debates that fit their interests as closely as possible, helps to ensure that students invest more in completing the assignment. Experience with this activity suggests that - even in a class with 30-35 students and 8 debates, students can usually be assigned to either their first or second choice of topics.

To facilitate the process of assigning topics, the dates for all of the debates should appear on the syllabus so that students can take into account any potential scheduling conflicts when expressing preferences over the debate topics. In an effort to help students gain the most from this assignment, the position (affirmative or negative) should be assigned by the instructor rather than chosen by students, and students should not be allowed to switch, to preclude students always choosing to research the position with which they already agree.

Providing students with a few resources (e.g., websites, book titles, article citations, etc.) that will help them get started on the project may prove helpful. This is especially helpful if the students have had little economic training and/or little experience working with economics journal articles since they may experience difficulty locating relevant articles that are accessible to undergraduate students.

Since students are essentially responsible for covering the topic (via the debate), providing students with book/article references for any key concepts and requiring teams to meet with the instructor after turning in their papers (but prior to the debate) is a useful way to ensure that the students have a clear understanding of the underlying theoretical concepts, key points, etc. and to provide students with an opportunity to clear up lingering confusion prior to the actual debate. Since the policy papers are graded independently from the debate, this timing for a group/instructor meeting helps to ensure that students have made every effort to research the topic prior to meeting with the instructor (rather than relying on the instructor to provide key arguments or explain key concepts).

During the actual debate, the instructor should take a passive role and serve only as timekeeper/moderator, but (s)he may wish to summarize the key debate points or supplement the discussion at the end of the debate (with additional questions directed to the debate teams or with general questions posed to the class and intended to prompt further discussion among the audience participants).

Further considerations:

Ideally, in order to faciliate independent work on the debate preparation, each team should consist of two members: one student responsible for researching the negative position (and sharing/discussing that information with his partner) and another student who will do the same for the affirmative position. Thus, any given debate would involve a total of 4 students (i.e., two teams each consisting of two students). However, odd-numbered class sizes or constraints on the number of debates that may be employed throughout the semester (and, thus, the number of teams that can be formed) may require instructors to use slightly larger team sizes in some cases.

The instructor's expectations for the audience should be clearly explained prior to the first debate and perhaps again at the beginning of the first several debates (e.g., attention during the debate, suggestions about notetaking if relevant, demeanor during discussion time, etc.). If applicable, alerting students that homework/quiz/exam questions will be taken from the debate material may provide audience members with an additional incentive to remain focused and attentive during the debate.


Team members will be evaluated independently, on their policy papers (e.g., based on their inclusion of key arguments, strength and clarity of arguments, connection to relevant economic concepts/terminology, use of sources, and writing) and their debates (e.g., based on their preparation, diction, eye contact, ability to knowledgably discuss both sides of the issue, ability to speak extemporaneously, overall effectiveness, and contribution to the success of the team). To create interdependencies in students' performance, teams will also be evaluated jointly in terms of preparation, organization, use of supporting evidence, use of time during rebuttal, and overall effectiveness. If audience participation tends to be lacking in a particular class or if the instructor anticipates this being an issue, (s)he may wish to assess audience members on their participation over the course of the semester. Instructors may also wish to include questions related to the debate material on homework assignments, quizzes, or exams.

References and Resources

Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. 2005. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Pernecky, Mark. 1997. "Debates for the Economics Class – and Others," College Teaching 45(4): 136-138.

Schiller, Bradley R. 2008. The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination (10th edition). Pearson Prentice Hall: New Jersey.