Please click the links below to access my recent publications and research projects. (Also, please do not cite any forthcoming publications without prior permission). See also: http://scholar.harvard.edu/bweber/publications.
Benjamin D. Weber, "Historical Debate as the 'Science' of Decision Making" Academic Exchange Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2013.
Benjamin D. Weber. Book review of Jennifer Hull Dorsey's Hirelings: African American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 106, No. 3, Fall, 2012.
Benjamin D. Weber, "Emancipation in the West Indies and the Freedom to Toil: Manual Labor and Moral Redemption in Transatlantic Antislavery Discourse," Journal of the Oxford University History Society, February, 2009.
Benjamin D. Weber. "Emancipation in the West Indies: Thome and Kimball's Interpretation and the Shift in Antislavery Discourse, 1834-1840." (Oberlin College History Department, 2007). [Oberlin Library Link].
Benjamin D. Weber, "The Changing Educational Landscape of New Orleans: Lessons from the Past for Aspiring Teachers Moving South," in progress.
Benjamin D. Weber, "Differentiating for Social Efficiency: Intelligence Testing and the Dynamics of New York Times Coverage, 1920-1930," in progress.
Benjamin D. Weber, "Teacher-Led Research: Connecting Student Centered Pedagogy with Standardized Results," in progress. (The attachment file size is too large with the images included, so please see the article with images included copied below).
Teacher-Led Research: Connecting Student Centered Pedagogy with Standardized Results[i]
One of the greatest challenges of teaching high school History is balancing breadth and depth in content coverage. Among the many compromises educators are forced to make, one stands out: how to ensure students learn all of the minutia likely to appear on the exam, teach them critical thinking skills needed for success in college and beyond, and make the classroom student-centered.[ii] Pedagogical strategies that involve students in actively constructing meaning rather than passively receiving knowledge, however, typically take more time. Additionally, some teachers are reluctant to try less traditional, more student-centered approaches. Although much of the discourse in professional development seminars is about how to reduce “teacher talk time” and incorporate more group work, project based learning, and alternative assessments, there is still the ever-present bottom line. At the end of the day, standardized test scores whether district, state, or national, matter. In the current climate of high stakes testing, accelerated by the “Race to the Top” initiative and the movement toward merit based pay connecting student achievement data to teacher effectiveness, this pressure is likely only to intensify. The question then becomes: how do pedagogical practices that train students to think critically and evaluate multiple and competing perspectives of past events square with assessments based largely on factual recall? This study seeks to show that classroom debate as an instructional strategy is correlated to student achievement gains on standardized assessments such as the California State Standards (CST) and Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
The goal of this study is to demonstrate that student-centered pedagogical practices can translate directly into improvement on standardized tests. By rejecting the false dichotomy between what are perceived as more time-consuming strategies, such as debate, and so-called more efficient methods of test preparation such as direct instruction, the hope is to embolden educators to try classroom debate. Furthermore, data-driven studies of classroom practice can provide research-based support for debate as both an instructional strategy and as an alternative assessment. Finally, teacher-conducted research of classroom practice can serve as a model for improving the effectiveness of pedagogy through objective analysis and reflection.
The primary research question for the study was: does debate translate into gains on standardized assessments such as state and AP exams? Not losing sight of that central compromise, the secondary question was: does classroom debate as a performance assessment help students to think critically? The working hypotheses were that students would perform better on multiple-choice questions related to topics which they had debated than on those which they had not debated, and that debate would help students develop critical thinking skills. The former was measured by quantitative multiple choice pre-test and summative assessments, disaggregating the data to highlight performance on the subset of questions related to debate topics compared to overall performance. Critical thinking was measured using a qualitative post-debate on-demand writing task graded with a rubric aligned to the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy.
III. Review of the Literature
Surprisingly little scholarship addresses the connection between classroom debate as an instructional strategy in high schools and increased achievement on standardized tests. There is relatively more research on the correlation between debate and thinking skills, but much of it is at the level of higher education. In “Debating as a Teaching Technique,” for example, Huryn (1986) provides a solid theoretical overview of the components of teaching debate and strengthening critical thinking skills. The focus, however, is on university courses and on demonstrating how debate strengthens understanding of empirical research method and the ability to construct arguments using evidence among undergraduate college students.[iii] Similarly, Peterson and Einarson (2001) focus explicitly on debate as a form of performance assessment but at the college level.[iv]
Studies addressing the role of debate in improving thinking skills have been fairly common since the early 1970s but fail to address the link between debate and standardized testing. Additionally, the primary audience for these studies was not secondary school practitioners. Jackson (1973) for example, concentrates on the ways in which academic debate can be used to encourage student inquisitiveness, something he feels schools run the risk of suppressing. Although he makes a strong case for inquisitiveness and its link to intrinsic motivation, the connection to demonstrable achievement gains remains unaddressed.[v] In 1986, Joan R. Smith presented the connection between debate and thinking skills to administrators and policy makers.[vi] Mitchell (1998) focused specifically on the links between critical thinking, oral expression, and democratic participation but measures different outcomes than those in question in this current study.[vii] Likewise, Broda-Bahm, ed. (2002) examined the value of competitive debate as a vehicle for promoting critical thinking, but one of these studies are easily applied to the high school classroom.[viii]
Another category of research addresses debate as a form of assessment, but does not necessarily make explicit the connection to improved academic performance on other measures. Bill Hill’s article in Perspectives in Controversy: Selected Essays from Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, for example, is especially helpful in thinking about educational accountability, asking “what are the observable / measurable outcomes of debate?”[ix] Similarly, McAndrews (1991) discusses debate together with three other strategies for active learning in a history classroom. Although his study is of undergraduates, the implications for secondary classrooms are more directly apparent.[x] Also concerned with higher education, Peterson and Einarson (2001) examine debate as a performance assessment and argue that colleges could usefully diversify their approach to testing.[xi] Finally, Baker (1997), while not solely focused on debate as a mode of performance assessment, contextualizes recent controversies over how to best measure student learning. This well-substantiated article does demonstrate that similar forms of performance assessment produce measurable results compared to more traditional forms of assessment, including standardized testing.[xii]
Overall, works specifically about high school debate tend either to focus on Speech and Debate as an extracurricular activity or as a way to increase student engagement. In Gifted Tongues, for example, Gary Alan Fine takes high-achieving private high school debate teams as his research subject. The chapter on teachers and coaches is particularly helpful, and the chapter on “gifted leisure and the politics of debate” addresses issues of equity and access.[xiii] The majority of the relevant literature, however, suggests that debate facilitates the development of skills related to higher order thinking and increased academic performance generally, but the link between those skills and achievement on standardized tests has not been explicitly made.
IV. Discussion of Classroom Study
The present study was conducted in order to evaluate whether classroom debate not only deepened students’ critical thinking skills but also helped them to perform better on multiple choice assessments. The research was performed twice; once with a tenth grade U.S. History class at a large comprehensive public high school in Fall River, Massachusetts and once with an eleventh grade U.S. History class at a small charter school in East Los Angeles, California. The study design was the same. First, an entry-level multiple choice assessment, or pretest, was used to evaluate and record students’ performance on a multiple choice history test from the prior unit. Classroom debate was then implemented during the subsequent unit. Students debated a topic in teams of two with the rest of the class observing, taking notes, and scoring the debate. All students wrote a timed on-demand summative assessment at the conclusion of the debate, making the argument for the side they found to be more convincing, supporting their claims with specific, well-chosen, and vivid examples from the debate, and addressing the best opposing argument. Through this post-debate writing, students evaluated multiple and competing perspectives on a controversial topic and were required to think critically. The question, however, was whether this more time-consuming activity would pay off in terms of student achievement on multiple choice exams which often do not require them to think as deeply or critically. Thus, a multiple-choice exam was administered at the end of the second unit. Students’ scores were taken as the data set and the questions related to the debate topic were disaggregated into a smaller subset. The hypothesis was that students would perform better on the subset compared to the test as a whole and compared to the pretest data.
Figure 1 shows student achievement on the unit exam overall compared to their performance on the subset of questions on debate topics at the high school in Fall River. Scores were calculated as the percent correct overall and on the subset of questions (plotted along the Y axis, 0-100%) for individual students in the class (plotted along the X axis, 1-37 students).
Figure 1. Comparison of Overall Assessment and Subset Data at H.S. in Fall River
The data indicates that, on average, students performed better on the subset of questions than on the exam as a whole (represented by the red marker above the blue) despite the outlier students who performed worse on the subset (as represented by the blue marker above the red). Indeed, the class averaged 77.5% correct on the exam overall compared to 81.1% correct on the subset of questions pertaining to topics they debated. This difference is even greater, of course, if the subset questions are subtracted from the larger data set when calculating the overall percent correct. Noticeably, the mode for the overall test is 83% and 100% for the subset questions.
Figure 2. Comparison of Overall Assessment and Subset Data at H.S. in East L.A.
Figure 2 shows student achievement on the unit exam overall compared to their performance on the subset questions with individual students plotted along the X axis 1-22, and the percent correct plotted along the Y axis, 0-100%. As with the students at the high school in Fall River, the students in East L.A. also performed better on the subset of questions testing topics that were debated in class (average of 86% correct) compared to the overall performance on the unit exam (average of 77% correct). Still, there were a few outliers, or students who performed as well or better on the test overall than they did on the subset (represented by the blue marker over the red, such as student 3, 8, 14, and 15).
V. Analysis of Results
Both times the study of classroom debate was conducted the results demonstrated that, on average, the class performed better on the subset of questions pertaining to debate topics compared to their overall performance on the exam. Although this strongly suggests that taking time to engage in student centered pedagogical strategies designed to deepen critical thinking skills translates into achievement gains on multiple choice measures, there are possible confounding factors such as the length of time students spent on a given topic and the relative difficulty of the multiple choice questions. The outliers, or students who performed better on the assessment overall than on the subset, also present questions. Although detailed analysis is beyond the scope of the present study, it is worth noting that these students are neither classified as gifted and talented (GATE) or as English language learners (ELL). In fact, differentiating for GATE and ELL students produced even higher scores on the subset compared to the overall exam results.[xiv] Because debate requires students to think critically and evaluate multiple and competing perspectives, these outlying students might have over-complicated easier factual recall questions. While it is generally assumed that the more in-depth knowledge a given student has about a subject the better she will perform on test questions related to that subject, this may not always be the case. Informal observation and teacher notes from the study period indicate that the frequency with which students challenged the phrasing of a particular test question or expressed dissatisfaction with the correct answer even once they properly identified it increased in approximate proportion to the amount of knowledge a student had about a topic. As the data in Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate, however, the achievement on multiple choice test questions for the vast majority of students in the class was significantly higher on topics which they had debated compared to ones which they had not.
The study of classroom debate as an instructional strategy in two classrooms on either side of the country suggests that it is effective in engaging students in critical thinking and also correlates to gains on multiple choice questions which tend to rely more heavily on factual recall. In Fall River, students performed almost four percent higher on average, and thirteen out of thirty-six achieved a perfect score on the subset compared to one student achieving a perfect score on the exam overall. Similarly in East L.A., students scored eleven percent higher on average, and twelve out of twenty-two students achieved a perfect score on the subset of questions related to topics which were debated in class.
This indicates that student-centered pedagogical strategies such as debate not only help students to evaluate multiple and competing perspectives, support their arguments with good examples, and think critically about a topic but also help them to perform better on multiple choice assessments. Although direct instruction, rote memorization, and traditional “drill and kill” strategies may be more efficient or produce high test scores in the short-run, taking time to engage students in actively constructing meaning for themselves, often problematizing straightforward explanations, does not lower achievement on standardized tests. This study is also intended to serve as a model for teachers interested in conducting data-driven research of their own classroom practice in order to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different pedagogical strategies and provide objective support for techniques they know intuitively benefit their students.
[i] The research for this study was conducted during the Spring of 2010 as part of the California Department of Education and Los Angeles Unified School District’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) credential clearing program and in the Spring of 2008 as part of the Masters degree requirements at Brown University.
[ii] Using the language of “compromises” educators are forced to make is borrowed from Ted Sizer’s work with the Coalition of Essential Schools. See, for example, Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992).
[iii] Huryn, Jean Scherz. “Debating as a Teaching Technique.” (Teaching Sociology, vol.14, no.4, October 1986).
[iv] Peterson, Marvin W. and Einarson, Marne K. “What are Colleges Doing about Student Assessment? Does it Make a Difference?” (Journal of Higher Education, vol.72, no.6, November 2001).
[v] Jackson, Michael. “Debate: A Neglected Teaching Tool.” (Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 50, no.2, January 1973).
[vi] Smith, Joan R. “Old-Fashioned Debate Helps Hone Student’s Thinking Skills.” (American School Board Journal, vol.173, May 1986).
[vii] Mitchell, Gordon R. “Pedagogical Possibilities for Argumentative Agency in Academic Debate.” (Argumentation and Advocacy, vol.35, 1998).
[viii] Broda-Bahm, ed. Perspectives in Controversy: Selected Essays from Contemporary Argumentation and Debate. (New York: International Debate Education Association, 2002).
[ix] Bill Hill, “The Value of Competitive Debate as a Vehicle for Promoting Critical Thinking, in Ibid.
[x] McAndrews, Lawrence. “Teaching Down the Wall: Adventures in Active Learning.” (The History Teacher, vol.25, no.1, November 1991).
[xi] Peterson, Marvin W. and Einarson, Marne K. “What are Colleges Doing about Student Assessment? Does it Make a Difference?” (Journal of Higher Education, vol.72, no.6, November 2001).
[xii] Baker, Eva L. “Model-Based Performance Assessment.” (Theory Into Practice, vol.36, no.4, New Directions in Student Assessment edition, Autumn, 1997).
[xiii] Fine, Gary Alan. Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
[xiv] GATE and ELL students were identified as “focus students” for the BTSA inquiry project and given a T-chart graphic organizer with guiding questions progressing along Blooms taxonomy to structure their post-debate assessments. Although for different reasons, both GATE and ELL students in that study scored a perfect 100% on the subset of multiple choice questions related to topics debated in class.