Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

University Student Perceptions of the Efficacy of Debate Participation: An Empirical Investigation

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

University Student Perceptions of the Efficacy of Debate Participation: An Empirical Investigation

Article excerpt

Complaints about the pedagogy and practice of interscholastic and intercollegiate debate in the United States have been legion over the last three decades. Despite the intuition of most scholars and ordinary citizens that competitive debate in both high schools and universities provides a good educational experience for students, many of those who know debate best have been quite critical of the norms that have developed over time in the debate community. For example, by 1990 Dale Herbeck, a long-time debate coach with a distinguished record, concluded that "a growing body of evidence reveals that disparity may be developing between our educational objectives and [the] forensics experience that we are providing our debaters" (p. 4). The casual observer, after stumbling across our disciplinary journals, would be surprised at the ferocity of the criticism directed towards participation in debate.

Attempts to assess the efficacy of participation in debate, or course, are hardly new. For most of the last century, debate coaches have published essays devoted to defenses (e.g., McGee & Simerly, 1994: McKean, 1934; Stanfield, 1993; Steinberg, 1993) or critiques (e.g., Brooks, 1984; Frank, 1993; Howe, 1981; Rowland & Deatherage, 1988) of debate practice.

Many scholars have used survey instruments and/or interviewing methods targeting students in order to determine the most important benefits and the most significant drawbacks of debate involvement. With a few exceptions (e.g., Semlak & Shields, 1977), these studies have essentially relied on college students' (including former students') self-reports to evaluate the educational merits of academic debate (e.g., Hill, 1982; Jones, 1994; Matlon & Keele, 1984; Wood & Rowland-Morin, 1989).

In this study, we follow the research tradition of asking students to report their own perceptions of the efficacy of debate practice. We see two rationales for doing so. First, to the best of our knowledge, only one study reporting student perceptions of debate efficacy has been published in the last decade, and that latest study is now six years old (Jones, 1994). To the extent that coaching practices and travel patterns may change over time, we should periodically assess whether students' impressions of debate have evolved as well.

Second, the intercollegiate debate community has changed dramatically in the last decade with the emergence of a variety of debate-sponsoring organizations, yet no study has tried to compare the perceptions of students competing under the auspices of those organizations. [1] As an array of debate formats has become available, we should seek to determine whether or not those different formats are helpful in developing the same sorts of skills. Whatever the debate format in which students compete, an investigation of the current terrain where debate is concerned is required if we are to learn "why students become involved in forensics, why they stay in forensics, why they stay in the activity and [what]...benefits they perceive they acquire by participating in forensics" (Porter, 1990, p. 99).

METHOD

The current study seeks to assess student perceptions of debate at the end of the 1990s. Surveys were mailed to directors of forensics of 358 debate programs in the United States. Mailing lists from intercollegiate debate organizations were used to secure these addresses. Each mailing included seven copies of the student questionnaire. Directors were asked to distribute the questionnaires to up to seven debaters, collect them, and return them via mail to the researchers. A cash incentive was provided to encourage a higher response rate. Each school was limited to seven surveys so that the sample would not over-represent larger programs. Return postage was pre-paid. A total of 70 institutions returned one or more student surveys, and 286 completed surveys were collected. Response rate was figured on the institutional responses for a rate of 19. …

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