In curricula that are truly dynamic, faculty are continually altering teaching/ learning techniques in attempts to stimulate students to be analytical and participative in their education.
It is frequently the expectation of faculty that students come away with the ability to think critically, be creative, and synthesize content from applied and practical nursing sciences. Our faculty found that the once commonly used technique of forensic debate afforded students just such an opportunity.
The decision to use forensics grew out of faculty and student evaluations of previous attempts at dealing with current theoretical and professional issues by means of standard lecture/discussion and student presentation formats. All too often these formats engendered a sense of indoctrination rather than instruction of students; a pitfall said to be limited through the method of debate (Conner, 1975).
Rediscovery of the long-used method of argumentative discourse in the classroom brought vitality, animation, and learning back into our graduate level core nursing component. We found forensic disputation to be one form of academic debate particularly suited to the teaching and learning of critical issues in nursing. Through debate, both students and faculty found it much easier to distinguish between opinion and fact; and the potential for instructor bias was virtually removed.
Purpose of Course
The Graduate Program in the School of Nursing at the University of MissouriColumbia derives its strength and purpose directly from the underlying philosophy which is exemplified in the Self-Care General Theory of Nursing (Orem, 1979). This theory provides the conceptual framework upon which the curriculum is based.
Graduate nursing students are required to complete a six-credit core sequence common to all. This core component serves to lay the groundwork for students to think conceptually and gain in-depth understanding of theory and its application to practice. The sequence consists of two three-credit theory courses. The first course deals exclusively with the systematic dismantling of the three component theories and concepts related to SelfCare Theory. The second course has as its major purpose the identification of the characteristics of nursing as a practice discipline explained from the viewpoint of the Self-Care Theory. Historical, social, economic, legal, and ethical questions related to the application of this conceptual framework are identified and argued.
The second course of the series is taught by a faculty team representative of the various clinical disciplines and functional areas that constitute the graduate program. After much deliberation, as to how to achieve the course goals and articulate the first and second core courses, the faculty decided on the following three objectives:
1. Analyze the disciplines within nursing: ethics, law, history, economics, social organization, and nursing science as they relate to Self-Care Deficit Theory.
2. Determine the implications these disciplines hold for nursing practice within the framework of Self-Care Deficit Theory.
3. Discuss selected interactions between the disciplines as they apply to nursing.
During the process of developing the course content and planning appropriate strategies, members of the team expressed concern that the course assist students in applying the theory to nursing practice. The faculty set out to accomplish this goal by dealing with realistic problems and issues as well as by demonstrating the applicability of the theory to various clinical and other role arenas. To resolve these concerns the following content and methodologies were adopted.
Initially each faculty member presented a seminar, the purpose of which was to provide in-depth examination of how the disciplines of ethics, law, history, economics, social organizations, and nursing science relate to nursing as practiced within the self-care framework. Following the seminars the faculty team explored the implications these disciplines hold for nursing practice through discussion of actual clinical situations. Students followed these discussions with a series of debates on current nursing issues emanating from one of the disciplines. The scope of debate was constrained in that students were required to relate their arguments to a clinical situation and were to show a relationship between their topic and theoretical or applied nursing sciences.
Class members were divided into six selfselected debate groups. Each student group set out to meet the objectives by choosing and narrowing an issue relative to nursing and one or more of the disciplines mentioned above. Faculty assisted in narrowing topics and accessing resources. Once having narrowed the topic, students performed a cursory review of the literature in order to develop the debate proposition or "resolved" statement. It is important to note here that the debate topic or subject was often erroneously considered synonymous with the debate proposition. The debate topic differs from the proposition in that the topic merely indicates the subject for debate, whereas the proposition more precisely delineates the specific phase of the topic to be debated. For example, "reimbursement for nursing services" would be a topic for debate. The statement, "Resolved, that nurses should be paid directly by patients/clients for services rendered," would be a debate proposition.
Once properly worded propositions were put forth, students returned to the literature to gather opinion and facts for evidence to be presented in their arguments. Some teams assigned specific facets of the arguments to be researched by individual members, while others had each member research the entire issue. During the formative weeks preceding the actual debates, the class exhibited a mounting vitality traceable to a sense of mild competition. The challenge of being argumentative and persuasive before peers and faculty seemed to cause students to be much more thorough and analytical in researching and preparing for the issues. Their behavior appeared to support the contention that debate makes use of a student's drive and passion to explore areas of interest (Pender, 1967).
Debate groups circulated the "resolved" statement, group objectives, and a pertinent reading list one week prior to their presentation. Opening remarks at each debate session set the stage for conflict when opposing sides attempted to assert their beliefs about an issue. As the dispute proceeded, the effective management of time became an important factor in the process. A timekeeper strictly controlled the 20-minute time frame allowed for the main arguments, brief refutation, and rebuttals. Individual group strategies became apparent as one side would attempt to influence the "game plan" of the other by attacking or analytically dismantling various facets of the argument. This was a particularly effective strategy when the opposition would cite research literature that directly rebutted a point made.
Each team was permitted a very brief summary statement after which discussion was opened to the student/faculty authence.
Group performance was evaluated as a whole but neither team was declared the "winner" as it was felt that to do so would be to divert energies away from the exercise in learning and toward winning. Instead, teams were judged by graduate faculty who determined whether 1) the presentation was indeed argumentative and clear as to evidence; 2) the arguments were logically developed and not fallacious; 3) research findings were used in support or refutation; and 4) the authence was stimulated to discussion.
Debate sessions were generally animated and thought-provoking. Students who seldom responded during lecture/discussion classes proved to be ardent debaters. The classroom environment was relaxed, and students expressed comfort in sharing personal opinions while challenging those of others. Criticisms centered on the relatively short time in which to explore controversial issues and on being required to cite research findings when, in certain instances, very little existed. The majority of students expressed satisfaction with the use of debate as a classroom technique for learning. A final examination (case study format) revealed that the class had not only acquired content knowledge but also that they were able to prescribe and defend their solutions to certain key issues facing them currently and in the near future of nursing.
Forensic debate as a teaching strategy has been criticized as stifling creativity by proposing solutions and limiting alternative choices in problem solving (Cooper, 1979). It was our experience, however, that not only did students learn content through preparation and delivery of a debate, but they benefitted further by gaining experience in formal articulation, a skill much needed by them as potential leaders in nursing.
- Conner, P.E. (1975). Debate as a way to teach environmental issues. The Science Teacher, 42(1), 49-50.
- Cooper, S.S. (July/August, 1979). Methods of teaching - Revisited formal discussion: The debate. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 10, 58.
- Orem, D.E. (1979). Concept Formalization in Nursing-Process and Product (2nd ed). Boston: Little Brown Company.
- Pender, N. (December, 1977). The debate as a teaching and learning tool. Nursing Outlook, 15, 42-43.