Nokes - Dialectical Interaction and Robust Learning

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Dialectical Interaction and Robust Learning

Summary Table

PIs Timothy Nokes, John Levine
Other Contributers Daniel Belenky, Soniya Gadgil
Study Start Date
Study End Date
Site University of Pittsburgh
Number of Students
Total Participant Hours


This work builds on prior research investigating the relationship between cognitive conflict and learning (e.g., Doise & Mugny, 1984), the links between motivation, affect, and cognition (e.g., Forgas, 2001; Schwarz & Clore, 2007), and the mechanisms underlying conceptual learning (e.g., Chi & Ohlsson, 2005; Nokes & Ross, 2007). Although much prior work has investigated each of these areas separately, few studies have tried to build connections across all three. We hypothesize that conflict scenarios that increase engagement, arousal, and positive affect will facilitate participants’ deep processing of discourse through a variety of cognitive mechanisms including inference generation, elaboration, analogy, and the framing and re-framing of the information discussed. Participants in such scenarios are expected to develop more complex and coherent knowledge of the issue and to learn both their own and their opponent’s side of the issue. In contrast, conflict scenarios that decrease engagement, arousal, and induce negative affect should lead to less robust learning. Participants in these scenarios are expected to focus on their own side of the debate, ignoring their opponent’s view, and to engage in shallow cognitive processing strategies such as rehearsal of their own argument.

Background & Significance


Research questions

How do students learn when engaged in a debate? Do they integrate their own viewpoint with that of their opponent, or focus only on their own side? Does the format of the debate affect this? Also, what motivational and affective factors play into this? How do student goals (like performance or mastery goals) influence what information gets processed? Do different affective experiences lead to different patterns of learning?

Independent Variables

Our first study has a 2 x 2 design.
Factor 1: Debate Format - Alternating Turns (1 minute each) or Free-Form
Factor 2: Debate Criterion - Substance or Rhetoric

Dependent Variables

Our dependent variables will consist of various measures of learning, gathered after the debate. These measures include a multiple-choice test, as well as an essay. Both of these will be evaluated in terms of how well a student has learned his side of the debate, as well as how well he has learned the other side, and how well he has integrated the two.

We will also gather measures of affect during the debate. This will be used as a dependent variable to see if our manipulations relating to the debate structure influence the affective reactions experienced. We will also be able to affective response as a predictor of learning, or as mediating variable between debate and learning. These affective measures will come from analysis of the vocal parameters of speech of each participant, as well as by analysis of facial cues.


We predict that focusing the debate on the substance of the arguments will produce a more coherent representation of both sides of the argument. We also predict that the free-form debate will lead to better learning of both sides, as the participants must be engaging with what a participant is saying more actively, and respond more immediately and thoroughly than when they have a minute between speaking turns.

In terms of affect, we expect that positive affective reactions to cognitive conflict will produce systematic processing of an opponent’s arguments, which in turn will facilitate learning these arguments and developing a more complex cognitive representation of the discussion topic. In contrast, negative affective reactions will produce superficial processing of the opponent’s arguments coupled with rehearsal of one’s own arguments. When negative affect is mild, interactants are unlikely to learn the opponent’s arguments or to develop a complex representation of the topic. Moreover, when negative affect is strong, interactants may actually show cognitive regression -- less complex representations of the topic after interaction than before.





Future Plans