Debate Project: PSYC 495

Using Learning Outcomes in Assessment


The department of psychology at the University of Calgary has a set of specific program learning outcomes (PLOs). Students need to achieve these outcomes at a high level in order to complete their degree in psychology. Dr. Melissa Boyce keeps these PLOs at the heart of her assessments. In her PSYC 495 course, Consumer Psychology, she uses a debate project to allow her students to demonstrate their achievement of the outcomes. The class has only 40 students, all of whom are upper-year psychology majors. The course outline can be found here. Another assessment used in the course is a marketing campaign project.


During the first week of class, Dr. Boyce introduces the debate project to the students. They are asked to brainstorm potential topics and have them ready for a future class. Students can suggest any topics related to the course focus of consumerism and marketing, as long as they are controversial, in that they have two opposing views that each have supporting evidence. Dr. Boyce also provides ideas for topics. Many topics, such as marketing to children and gratuitous sex in advertising, are popular every semester. Two teams of five students debate each topic. Students are randomly assigned a number from 1-40, and that is the order in which they get to select their topic and stance. While some students get the higher numbers and have limited choice, Dr. Boyce feels it is the fairest way of picking the teams. Allowing students to come up with the topics themselves means that students are less likely to be forced to work with one that does not interest them.

One debate is scheduled every two weeks. The first debate takes place about five weeks into the course. Since students do not have a practice debate, the first teams are graded more leniently than the later ones. Dr. Boyce makes notes and records the debates, so that she can provide feedback to the students after they are finished. Each team member takes on a role, and presents that part of the debate.

The debate begins with the proposing team presenting their argument, followed by the opposing team’s objections and the proposing team’s rebuttal. The same format is followed for the opposing team’s argument. Each team is then asked a couple of questions, and finally, they provide concluding arguments. There is no “winner” of each debate, but the rest of the class is asked their position on the issue before and after, to see if their positions have changed.

Although each student presents an individual part of the debate, students need to work together when researching in order to have a cohesive presentation. Students can also pass notes to one another during the debate, which can help if someone forgets one of their points, or a teammate has a suggestion to help them. The format and rubric have more information about how the debates are graded and run.

The PLOs are featured heavily in the rubric. One of the most important parts of the debate is using reliable facts and statistics. Any time a student makes a claim as part of their argument, they have to cite its source. This ensures that students are meeting the outcome of information literacy and implementing ethical principles. Students are also graded on their communication and presentation skills, another PLO. Arguments, objections and rebuttals are graded to ensure that students have an understanding of the topic and of the psychological principles behind it.

Challenges and Successes

Every time Dr. Boyce has teaches this course, she is approached by several students who are very nervous to speak in front of the class. Since each team is split into the various roles, she advises these students to take the role of first argument or conclusion. These parts require the least interaction with the opposing team, and can be thoroughly prepared in advance. Teams are also encouraged to support one another while preparing and presenting their debate. Dr. Boyce says that with motivation and guidance, these shy students do very well on the project.

Dr. Boyce provides a lot of support to her students as they are preparing for their debates. She makes sure that the expectations and structure are clear to students. She is often surprised by the positions that students take and impressed with their thorough research and creative arguments.

Keeping PLOs as the focus is an important way to make sure that assessments are effective and focus on student learning. Linking class expectations to learning outcomes means that students are not only clear on what needs to be done, they understand why. Having the reasoning behind why rubrics and assignments contain specific components helps motivate them and see their work as meaningful.

-Ashley Weleschuk