Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Great Debate - Writing in CS Principles

I have been asked to share this - I usually do this during my second unit in APCS Principles - The Internet Unplugged.

Writing is a big part of doing well on the new Performance Task assessments for the course. I have found this activity to be a great way to get them writing. I do not grade for grammar or spelling at this point. I want them writing, we can work on mechanics later.

One activity that works really well to get students writing is an online debate using a discussion board. The point of this activity is to get them used to thinking and debating a topic and responding to other students. In the beginning students tend to take a very surface approach to topics. Debating lets them really delve in and explore the why behind the points they are making.

This activity works well in several areas of the APCS Principles curriculum. It is simple to grade and really gets the students engaged in writing.
To get them ready we play a game in class to get them used to pros and cons, then we debate a current event topic online. The in class debate topic does not necessarily need to relate to computer science. For the online topic I usually pull a current event that relates to something like privacy or online ethics.
The in Class Game:
Have the students line up into two equal lines. Make one like pro and one line con.
Then explain the rules:
  • the two lines take turns
  • after a student goes they move to the back of the line
  • if you are in the pro line you must be for the resolution, if you are in the con line you must be against it, no matter your own personal opinions
  • whoever is at the front of the line earns a point for every time they
    • add a new point or
    • rebut a point made by the other team
  • No points are awarded for repeated points or responses

Once they understand the rules reveal the topic reveal the topic. As they take turns keep score.
Topics that work well are things like:
  • Resolved: the minimum driving age should be raised to 18
  • Resolved: cell phones should not be allowed in schools
  • Resolved: social media sites should be limited to people over the age of 18

As you move to the online debate a similar format works. In addition students may earn points by by responding with a related fact as long as they provide a link to a reliable source.

I usually let the online debate go on for 3 - 5 days. In the end you can add up points and declare a winner. You can even post a daily point tally. I do usually try to keep the total points close to keep everyone interested.
For topics for the online debate try to pick something currently in the news. The first time I did this activity Congress was debating some Internet piracy legislation that was being heavily covered in the news.  Computer Science is constantly in the news there is almost something in the headlines related to the Learning Objectives.


  1. Great activity and being able to "practise" F2F first is a great way to get them going. My courses are blended/hybrid too, so I'm going to think how I could adapt your idea - thx for sharing.

  2. Good activity! Thanks for sharing. How could you convert the face-to-face portion to completely online?

    Here is another debate idea I've seen for asynchronous discussions.

    First, a learner presents a claim. Next, a second learner provides evidence for the claim. Then, a third learner counters the claim. Finally, a fourth learner provides evidence for the counterclaim. This strategy works well for debates but doesn’t encourage dialogue through critical reflective exchanges.


  3. I like this approach - this would work well with mid sized groups that are exploring a topic. Great idea!

    For the in-person worm up you could do it using a chat room. I think it helps to have the first exposure be live rather than asynchronous. I'd be curious to see if it translates to an asynchronous setting.


So, what do YOU think?