Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Jing Li

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Jing Li, Assistant Professor, William Barton Rogers Career Development Professor of Energy Economics

Class: Economics of Energy, Innovation, and Sustainability, 15.020
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: Sloan School of Management

Key Takeaways

  • Debates can be used as an engaging alternative to traditional midterms or written assignments. 
  • Effective debate topics utilize nuanced questions requiring multiple perspectives and approaches.
  • Team debates can build community and collaboration skills, but assignments should be structured to require substantive individual contributions.

Interview Transcript

00:00 What class did you teach and how did you modify it for remote teaching?

The class that I taught is about the Economics of Energy, Innovation and Sustainability. And policies about these issues, energy, sustainability, tend to also have an environmental flavor. So even though the word “environmental” is not in the course title, we do cover this whole spectrum of issues.

The biggest change we made to the syllabus is to replace the midterm and final exams with three debates that students would engage in with each other, scattered throughout the semester. It would have been one debate after each main module in the semester.

And I decided to make this change after hearing about debates being used in class from my colleague in my group, Roberto Rigobon. Roberto and his colleague at the time, Alberto Cavallo, they had pioneered the use of debates, at least in my group at Sloan, in the Applied Economics group. They had pioneered the use of debates many years before the pandemic had even ever been a thing. And I had been talking to my group about how I thought, well we do need to increase engagement and connection among the students in any way that we can.

And I had especially had concerns about how to administer an exam in the virtual setting in a credible way. So in the end, I thought it would just be better to get rid of exams altogether and give students an additional way to connect with each other and to get their thoughts out about issues in class.

01:38 How did you format the debates?

For the class debate in particular, I kind of just made up my own format. We wanted a chance for students to be able to pose their positions, but also a chance for students to engage in questions with each other in discussion. So I kind of took a look at all the different debate formats out there, and then I made up something that I thought was pretty close to what we would get. Which is one team posing one position that’s in favor of the debate question that was posed, a follow up team that’s against, another team that was for the position, and another team that was against. And then the rest of the time would be open floor discussion.

I thought we would have a better debate if students could choose the position that they felt more closely identified with and then I just crossed my fingers and hoped that we had at least two teams for, and at least two teams against. And so that happened to work out for every debate. But I’ve heard of my colleagues, for example Roberto who first in my group was using debates in his classes, he assigns positions for his students and that seems to work just as well. So I might switch it up next year, and have one debate where the positions are assigned and another debate where students get to pick their positions.

At MIT, we tend to have a consensus around one set of preferences on energy and environmental issues. So I was worried that we would have no disagreement and that everybody would be kind of on the same page. But I guess, the point of our class isn’t necessarily to say are we generally in favor of something or against. We really want to dig into the nitty gritty details of how policy is designed and what those implications are from various policies. But even for a room full of people who generally think we need to have climate action or maybe who generally think that certain policies should exist, there should still be attention paid to the details of policy design. So I tried to structure the debate questions to be about the specifics and the details.

04:03 Are there any changes you would make in future years?

Running polls before and after the debate. I wanted to do this after observing the debates myself throughout the semester. Students also asked in feedback, when I solicited feedback, students also mentioned they were curious about whether their classmates’ opinions had been swayed.

04:27 How did the debates compare to more traditional exams?

In a written test, there would be some big question and then there would be sub-part A, sub-part B, with follow ups. And so I think what ended up happening is that in the debate, what would have been sub-part questions in an exam, turned out to be questions that the peers were asking of the students in a debate. So I don’t think we had to change very much about how the course content was delivered to students. And actually, I think the content that came up in the debate is pretty much aligned with what I would have asked in an exam written format.

For the most part, everyone was happy to get rid of exams. Including me to not have to write it, and my TAs to not have to grade it, and the students don’t have to take it. But I think it was actually a positive experience to have the debates replace those exams. So one student told me that she had found herself doing the course readings much more in advance because she was already thinking about the position that her team would take, and the arguments they would have to make.

And they were seeking out additional resources and readings besides what I had assigned in the course readings. And then the student told me that the preparation for debates that they knew were coming towards the end of the module, meant that they were engaging in class in a completely different way. That they had new questions come up that previously would not have, if they had not been thinking about issues more in depth due to thinking about their positions and arguments. So I think it was a positive change for students.

We had the pre-submitted slides and presentations as a part of the debate grade. Another component was the day of the debate performance. And then lastly, we had a component that was comprised of points assigned by the teammates for each team member. The goal of that component of the grade was just to ensure that students are performing to the expectations of their team members.

06:39 What would you tell an instructor who is considering using debates in their class?

I think I would recommend the general idea of holding a debate as a way to assess students in their learning, or as a way to replace an otherwise written homework assignment. And the specific design and organization of the debate I would leave it to the instructor to pick their preferred format.

07:04 What other practices did you adopt to support students during the pandemic?

For every assignment if it was explicitly group work, I thought of it as a way for students to connect with each other outside of class. Even assignments that were not explicitly designed to be group work, there was the option to do it as a group of students wanted to. And those were all with the intention of giving students a way to see their peers virtually I guess, outside of the lecture setting.

But other things that I also tried to do was just to check in on how students are doing, and that might have been through casual conversation as students are trickling into Zoom before class officially started. I also occasionally ran some polls just asking people to anonymously choose how they felt on a range of terrible to doing great. And then they could see what the class sentiment overall was and how that distribution is shifting throughout the semester. So my goal with that, was so that they don’t feel so alone, if they’re not feeling great. And they see actually, everybody else around them are also probably not that happy given the state of the world back in the middle of the pandemic. And students told me that they appreciated these simple ways of checking in.

Every decision I made for the semester was based on thinking about what is it that I’m ultimately trying to do. And of course, we’re trying to get students to learn and to think about environment and energy policy. But for this semester especially, I thought one major objective I had was just to increase the amount of engagement and connection students felt to each other and to the world around them.