What's the best organelle in the cell--using debates to cover content in an engaging way.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Cell organelles (Physiological aspects)
Cell organelles (Educational aspects)
Debates and debating (Psychological aspects)
Debates and debating (Educational aspects)
Forensics (Public speaking) (Psychological aspects)
Forensics (Public speaking) (Educational aspects)
Sciences education (Psychological aspects)
Author: Hutchison, Jessica
Pub Date: 01/01/2011
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Jan, 2011 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 1
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 259466254

One of the best methods I have found for covering content in an engaging manner is to hold an informal debate. Having students argue why a particular organelle is the best one in the cell is an amusing activity that covers a lot of factual information about cell structure and function. In this activity, students are also allowed to "bash" other students' assigned organelles, as long as their arguments are factual and not personal. Since the debate takes place before any instruction, it forces students to work together to find information and formulate a persuasive argument.

Key Word: Debate; group competition; group activity; organelle; active learning.



When I first started teaching introductory college biology, I taught in the manner that I had been taught: I lectured. However, over the years, I have embraced more interactive formats, such as case studies, with students working in permanent groups. I found that this method works well for me and my students, though I still struggled with one major issue: how do I cover the same amount of content?

I thought back to my own undergraduate education and came to an important conclusion: much of what my professors lectured over were basic definitions and descriptions. It was information that I could have learned outside of class. I began searching for ways to encourage students to learn this background information on their own, so that class time could be used for discussion.

One of the best methods I have found for doing this is holding informal debates. My students' favorite debate is described below. In this activity, students argue why their assigned organelle is the best organelle in the cell. They are also allowed to "bash" other organelles, as long as their arguments are factual and not personal. Since the debate takes place before any instruction, it forces students to work together to find information and formulate a persuasive argument.

On the day of the activity, I use the following sequence:

1. Round 1. Each group presents their argument on why their organdie is the best in the cell. Other groups are encouraged to take notes on what the presenting group is saying for use in Round 2. Short break. Groups are allowed a short break to incorporate any incorrect information given by another group into their approach for Round 2.

3. Round 2. Each group is allowed to "bash" other organelles. The "bashing" must be factual and not personal. Groups may also point out incorrect information given by another group.

4. Intermission. Each group is allowed time to discuss how best to defend themselves against the arguments leveled against them in Round 2.

5. Round 3. Each group responds to the accusations brought against them in Round 2 and ends with a closing argument.

If there are many groups and enough class time, the instructor may choose to structure this activity so that only two groups face off at a time, using a tournament bracket system instead of the suggestion above.

At the conclusion of this activity, a winner should be chosen to receive an award, such as bonus points on an exam, since it has been found that learning of content information during classroom debates is greater when a reward is offered for the winner (Tessier, 2009). Choosing a winner is something I struggle with. In the past, I allowed students to vote for the winner by ballot or a show of hands, indicating that they could not vote for themselves. Many students employed strategy, however, voting for a group that would not be in strong competition with them. Also, if a group performed well in the "bashing" round, other groups had a tendency to take it personally and not vote in their favor. In recent years, I have chosen the winner myself, but this does not give the students ownership of the activity. Therefore, I would suggest that instructors use their own criteria as well as feedback from the students to help in making a decision about the winner. Some of my students have even suggested that an impartial panel of judges be brought in to make the final decision.

Instructors can follow this activity with a more in-depth look at cell structure or a case study This activity is also beneficial because it reveals misconceptions that can be addressed by the instructor, a practice that has been shown to increase content learning as compared to presentation of correct information with no misconceptions addressed (Muller et al., 2007).

Overall, I have found this to be an excellent team-building exercise that identifies student misconceptions, fosters critical thinking and argument skills, and teaches content in an engaging manner.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.1.9


Muller, D.A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M.D. & Reimann, P. (2008). Saying the wrong thing: improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptions. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24, 144-155.

Tessier, J.T. (2009). Classroom debate format: effect on student learning and revelations about student tendencies. College Teaching, 57(3), 144-152.

JESSICA HUTCHISON is an Adjunct Instructor of Biological Sciences at Alfred State College, Alfred, NY 14802; e-mail: hutchijm@alfredstate.edu.
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