Curricular Components 3: All Things Elective

This third installment of our ‘Curricular Components’ miniseries will be dedicated to the ‘elective’ features of VBI curriculum. I will first give a brief overview to the ‘elective’ elements of our curriculum, second discuss the values of electivity, and third present some problems the curriculum staff has considered with electives as well as what solutions we have developed.

What Are the Elective Elements?

The two elements of our curriculum that we categorize as ‘elective’ are modules and seminars. These are not the only features of our curriculum where students can decide for themselves what to study (c.f. student clubs, Socrates hour, mentorships, dine with a mind), but they do play a major role in allowing students to decide what they learn at debate camp.

The module system is a traditional aspect of VBI’s curriculum. Modules are focused lessons of about 50 minutes. Students sign up for these modules at the beginning of the week, often choosing from around 8 options. Modules could take the form of a lecture, a drill session, a discussion, or something entirely different (though its normally some combination of those first three). Module topics are wide ranging (from flowing techniques, to debating statistics, to Kantian political philosophy).

The seminar system was first introduced last summer (though we have made some important changes to it this year, as I will mention below). A seminar involves a small group of students carefully working through a nightly reading assignment for several successive days (the system is modeled off upper-level college seminar courses). The instructor will help facilitate discussion and understanding of the readings, however, the direction that the discussion takes will frequently be up to the students.

Why Electivity?

Electivity is a valuable aspect of a debate camps curriculum for three primary reasons.

First, students have individualized learning needs. One student may need to learn all about K literature while another student might be able to learn a lot of that from their coach during the year. Some students may have found the theory instruction during lab confusing and want to supplement that instruction in other contexts, while other students may have found theory intuitive. Electives allow students to customize their instruction, filling their particular gaps in debate knowledge.

Second, electives allow students to pursue their own interests and specializations. One of the great things about debate is the plurality of approaches one can take to it. Not everyone will be interested in all the same things and debate allows that. Electives allow students to pursue issues that interest them, helping them have a more rewarding and enjoyable time at debate camp. This is likely why electives are always one of our top-rated programs in end of year evaluations.

Third, electives expose students to new ideas. By providing a focused period where you can learn about something you are not already familiar with it provides students a foundation to build a new interest or investigate a new argument or technique.

How Can Electives be Better?

There are several potential problems that pop up when running electives.

Information Retention

The first worry with the module program is that students will not retain information well. It is well-documented that passively listening to a single lecture results in poor retention of information. Learning requires building on previous knowledge, thus it can often be difficult to recall what you learnt in a one-off lecture.

Part of the solution to this problem is allowing students to sign up for both seminars and module tracks (where you attend a set of modules several days in a row). Because students build on what they previously learnt it significantly improves retention.

A second part of the solution involves encouraging instructors to do more than lecture during modules. By using drills, discussions and other activities instructors significantly improve student retention.

Finally, it’s important to use time outside modules to build in-module retention. Often labs will discuss morning modules in their early afternoon session. Having the students explain content forces them to organize the ideas internally which can significantly improve retention.  Indeed, there is evidence that if students just expect they will have to explain the content they will better retain the information, even if they don’t end up explaining it.

Seminar Interest

One issue with last year’s seminars was that some students were not very interested in the program. This was a real problem, if students fail to do the readings ahead of time they won’t be able to get much out of seminars. Also, if you have a good-sized group of students, many of whom are disengaged, it compromises the learning environment for everyone involved.

Our solution this year is to further integrate modules and seminars (rather than placing them in separate time blocks). Students will not be required to attend seminars this year and can sign-up exclusively for modules. This means only those really interested in the seminar will sign-up. This a) is more consistent with electivity, b) should help improve student interest, and c) will help to lower the number of students in seminars improving the class size.

Elective Balance

A final worry with electives is that staff like to teach what they are interested in. Now this, all else being equal, is great because it results in better and more impassioned lessons. However, often instructors are less interested in teaching the traditional parts of a debate curriculum, like flowing and research, and so it can be difficult to keep electives properly balanced.

There are several solutions to this problem. One thing we are doing new this year is that prior to soliciting electives from staff we are constructing a list and schedule of core module and seminar offerings.  This way we can ask staff which of these electives they are able to teach helping ensure that the core elective offerings are filled first.

We also require staff to propose seminar offerings for students of different experience levels, this further helps balance our offerings so that we don’t have most of our modules targeted at the most experienced students.