Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Debating limits on diversity in class

I wrote a while ago about the debate on whether global diversity has ecological limits, based on two papers from Harmon and Harrison, and Rabosky and Hurlbert. This was in turn based on a debate from the ASN meeting (aside: there should be more formal debates at conferences). I decided to try replicating this debate in the Advanced Ecology class I'm teaching with Kendi Davies, and I was pleasantly impressed with the outcome. The class is mostly upper year students and small (~25 people), and the focus is on reading the primary literature and exploring key topics in ecology using active learning techniques (e.g. 1, 2). Since we're reading about patterns and processes of diversity through space and time, the debate topic was fitting.

The debate was split over two classes - in the first, students were split into two groups and they prepared their opening and closing statements and their supporting arguments. I've tried having students use Google documents and slides for these kind of group collaborative activities, and it seems to work well. (This is in part because there are 'lender laptops' available from the department's IT, which means that all students can participate, even without owning a personal laptop). What is great about Google docs is that when anyone adds or removes or edits text, the other members of the group can see it in real time, which seems to encourage more students to be actively involved than if, say, a single student is taking notes. Each group decided who would present the opening statement, each supporting argument, the rebuttal statement, and the closing statement, and who would take notes and prep the rebuttal.

To raise the stakes a bit, the winning team would get a pass on one homework assignment (the other motivator presumably being fear of letting their group down). What impressed me was how engaged students were during prep and during the actual debate. (For example, during prep, students were watching videos on how to debate, and expressed some concerns about espionage by the other teams ;-) ) More seriously, they took the time to understand the arguments presented in the source literature, and went beyond that to integrate support from other primary literature. I think at times students (okay, most of us) can get away with skimming papers for the key points: this rewarded them for reading carefully and thoughtfully.
Current US political debates provided instruction
on what not to do (from

The judges were a few generous postdocs (motivated by the promise of free food), who not only scored the debates, but gave some feedback to the teams. Ironically, the winning team had argued that “Species Diversity Is Dynamic and Unbounded at Local and Continental Scales” (after Harmon and Susan Harrison), but the class was nearly unanimous that they personally felt that there likely were ecological limits on diversity.

What I would do differently next time:

  • Plan some redundancy - a couple of people were sick, etc, who had roles in the debate. This left team members scrambling a bit. 
  • Group sizes: 12 people is a bit big for a group and makes coordination difficult. It might be possible to have smaller groups and do 2 sets of debates. Or, alternatively, to assign half the class as judges (or press - another prof here uses students as press who have to prepare questions for the debaters).
  • Consider not randomly assigning people to groups - it might be better to try to balance teams.
  • Public speaking and argument logic - interestingly, most of the students have little experience in constructing convincing and well supported arguments. We talk a lot about hypothesis construction with STEM students, but persuasive speech and writing receive less attention. Things like 'signposting' important points could use more practice.

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