Curricular Components 6: 3 Week Sessions

Over the last few years, there has been a rise in self-contained 3-week long debate camps. Now, there is nothing new about a debate camp lasting three weeks. What has changed is that several camps, including VBI, have shifted from a model where students attend a 2-week main session followed by a smaller third week, to offering an entirely self-contained three-week camp.

In this post, I want to explain the motivation for this switch, as well as help students decide if a two-week or three-week session is right for them. To that end I sent some questions about the three-week program to Jake Nebel, an Executive Director of VBI, who was involved in making VBI’s decision to offer a three-week session; and to Nina Potischman, who attended VBI’s three-week session as a student and will be returning as an instructor. I will do my best to weave their answers and my own thoughts into a coherent picture of the benefits and drawbacks of a three-week camp.

It strikes me that when considering this trend there are two related, but separate questions that we need to ask. First, is it worth having a three-week long debate camp? And second, is it better have the three-week option be self-contained or to have it as an optional extension of a two-week camp.

Question 1: Why Three Weeks?

When asking Jake and Nina about the first aspect several themes stood out. Nina noted that she “was worried that two weeks would not be enough time to focus on a wide variety of skills, especially since it’s difficult to move outside of your comfort zone in the course of two weeks while also preparing for the camp tournament.”  This makes sense. Indeed, this is why many top debaters end up attending multiple camps before their senior year, not just an extra week at a single camp. It is extremely difficult for a student to get the same degree of argumentative exposure over only two weeks.

Only people with years of investment in debate are going to attend multiple camps. Yet, the increasing complexity of debate does not just effect top debaters. Jake pointed out that “as debate has grown more complex, it has become increasingly difficult—I’d say impossible—to adequately learn everything one needs to know in transition from, say, novice year to varsity in only two weeks.” Thus, providing a three-week program is ideal for debaters who will be transitioning to varsity debate on the national circuit but who are not positioned to invest the time and money to attend multiple camps.

In addition to asking about their primary motivations for running/attending a three-week camp, I also asked each of them if there were any unexpected benefits. Surprisingly both mentioned that the three-week program helped eliminate a lot of the stress that frustrates learning at camp. Nina found it less stressful than two-week camps, because the focus was less on the camp tournament and more on skill development, which is definitely something that carries over more into the regular season.” Nor was this isolated to just a few students, Jake found that in general knowing that you have three weeks to master a skill makes it less stressful to do what you need to do to master it, and this makes drills and homework more effective.”

Another extremely important, and unexpected, advantage to the three-week program was social. “Based on student evals and conversations with students and instructors, three-weekers tended to develop even deeper friendships than we usually see at camp. There was really strong intralab coherence, which we saw (for example) in the way more intensely competitive Omegathon spirit.”

One final advantage that I think is worth mentioning is that three weeks allows debaters to explore concepts in significantly greater depth. When I asked Nina about what specific things she learnt that she doubts she would have learnt at a two-week camp she noted:

“I don’t think I would have spent as much time working on framework debate had I attended a two-week session. While I was pretty comfortable with framework after my junior year, at VBI I become comfortable with frameworks that I was unfamiliar with before camp — e.g. Augustinian virtue ethics — as well as innovating frameworks that I had run previously, and delving more deeply into the literature. For example, Marshall had me read some of Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals, which I found really interesting and helpful, but probably would not have had the time to read had I had less time at camp.”

Question 2: Why Only Three Weeks?

The second question though is equally important. Why run a self-contained three-week program, rather than a two-week program with an option to stay on for a third week? An optional third week model would allow students greater flexibility and seems to have all the same advantages of a three-week program.

However, it turns out not to have the same advantages. To see why, consider the perspective of a lab leader if they know some of their students will leave after two weeks and some will leave after three weeks. Instructors would need to finish a cohesive curriculum in those two weeks (you can’t send people home with only 2/3rds of what you intend to cover). But one the benefits of a three-week program is that it allows you to spread out instruction. That is not possible if many students will leave after two weeks. Jake argues that having some students finish after two-weeks forces a difficult choice for instructors, they can (1) try to cram too much material into the traditional two-week format without sufficient time for students to digest that material, (2) cover many topics superficially rather than any topics in depth, and (3) ignore the mastery of core skills that make the difference between good and great debaters.” Each of these options are far from ideal. Having the third-week be an extension of the main session means students who sign up for three weeks cannot get the full benefit of spaced instruction (for a look at some of the science of spaced instruction check out this post).

This spacing has a lot of direct and concrete benefits. If you have three weeks as a lab leader, you don’t need to push students to finish cases within a day or two so that you can start rounds immediately. This is great because it means you can have students take their time trying to write cases that differ from the cases they normally write.

Additionally, this spacing of instruction means students having more time to rest. Having students stay up late the first few nights to aggressively research means that students are tired the rest of camp and that significantly harms information retention. Indeed, not only does a three-week program allow more rest, in some sense, it mandates (as you need to pace students for three weeks of instruction). “A sustainable three-week model requires more daily rest time than most two-week camps provide, and that additional rest time is pedagogically very good, I think. Students had a lot more time to digest material, to actually understand and come to grips with the difficult literature they were reading and the difficult questions they were discussing in lab.”

Another benefit to having a cohesive three-week curriculum is instructor quality. Camps always hire a smaller group of instructors for the final week with fewer students than they do for the two ‘main weeks.’ As Nina points out, cohesive three-week camps can help ensure “the most high quality instructors and competitors.” Indeed, Nina recalls that “a significant part of my decision to attend was based on the staff at the VBI session that was three weeks long.” Having the same set of instructors for the whole period has other benefits. For example, it helps ensure instructional continuity. This is important because discontinuity makes it really hard to design a curriculum that works for each student, given the differences in what students may have learned in the prior two weeks.”

Concluding Thoughts

The final question I asked Jake what students should think about when deciding between a two- and three-week camp. He gave the following insightful advice:

“First, what are your goals for next season? This is important because I think that, in general, you want to be surrounded by fellow students who have similar goals. The most ambitious students tend to stay for three weeks. So, if you are a very ambitious debater, you may be well served by attending a three-week camp to surround yourself with peers that are similarly ambitious, who will push you to get better.

Second, what is your prior experience like? If you’ve only been to two-week sessions before, I’d definitely try a three-week session at least once. If you’ve spent the bulk of your last two summers at debate camp and haven’t done anything else, you might benefit from spending more time doing other things (or, even better, just relaxing), and perhaps ending the summer with a two-week session to get your debate mind back in shape for September/October.”