The Educational Benefits of Moot Trials, Debates and the Model UN Competitions
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By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
Students who must juggle numerous responsibilities often overlook the benefits of participating in extracurricular activities and clubs. In fact, some of the best student learning occurs outside the classroom at the many moot trials, debates and Model United Nations competitions that occur across the nation every year.
In addition to applying the concepts learned in the classroom, these three competitive activities aid in the development of rhetorical, teamwork and strategic thinking skills. They also provide students with valuable networking opportunities.
Moot trials, commonly referred to as “mooting,” require students to take on the role of attorneys or witnesses during a fictional criminal or civil trial.
At a Model United Nations competition, students act as representatives of an actual country during a fictional U.N. General Assembly session. They debate a timely international affairs situation.
Finally, debates sponsored by the National Parliamentary Debate Association, the American Parliamentary Debate Association or one of many other debating organizations ask students to argue a specified topic without the benefit of research or extensive preparation.
During these three competitive activities, students apply their skills and subject-matter content learned in the classroom in simulated, pressure-filled environments. While teams of students compete for prizes and bragging rights at these events, even those students who do not “win” leave with invaluable experience.
Competitive Activities Foster Teamwork Skills and Strong Peer-to-Peer Relationships
Although moot trials, debates and Model United Nations competitions differ in some respects, all three activities require students to cooperate with their team members to achieve a common goal. The cooperation among students helps them to build valuable teamwork skills. Successful teams are required to assess their strengths and weaknesses and develop a strategy for success at these competitions.
Moreover, these competitive activities force students who might not otherwise interact and cooperate with each other to spend extended periods of time together. That practice forges strong peer-to-peer bonds that can last a lifetime.
Students Develop Rhetorical Skills by Engaging in Competitive Activities
Competitive activities like moot trials, debates and Model United Nations trace their roots to classical education’s emphasis on the development of rhetorical skills like public speaking, persuasion and argumentation. Unfortunately, in an era of standardized tests and cramped curriculums, many high schools do not emphasize rhetorical skills like public speaking and critical reasoning.
While students are often understandably focused on grades and fulfilling the requirements of their courses, extracurricular activities like mooting, debating and competitive Model United Nations events provide invaluable, but often overlooked, skills and experiences.
Student participation in these competitive activities fills the voids in the development of their skill sets. In addition to public speaking, these activities teach students to craft arguments, find the weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments and examine an issue from various perspectives.
Most important, these competitive activities require students to support positions they might find personally objectionable. Students often feel uncomfortable advocating for positions that conflict with their personal views. But all three competitions force students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various perspectives, including those of their previously held but unexamined beliefs.
In a hyper-polarized world, the ability to empathize with opposing views, even if only momentarily, provides students with valuable life skills that are transferable to various academic and career settings.
Valuable Networking Opportunities Exist for Participants at All Three Competitions
Engaging in a moot trial, Model U.N. or debate also provides students with valuable networking opportunities with their peers from other schools as well as with other professors and professionals in their fields of interest.
For example, participation in a moot trial competition could bring pre-law college students into contact with pre-law students from other universities. In addition, these students could also meet legal professionals who serve as judges and professors from the schools in the competition.
The contacts and connections forged at moot trials provide students with the beginnings of an invaluable network of friends, colleagues and mentors as they transition from undergraduates to law school students or to legal professionals. Similarly, students interested in international relations or politics can develop a network of like-minded peers at a Model United Nations or a debate competition.
If your school has a moot trial, debating or Model United Nations club, I encourage you to join the one you think will give you the most experience and enjoyment. If your school does not have such a club, I encourage you to start one so that you and your peers can participate in the many team-based competitions held each year on campuses across the country.
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About the Author
James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies within the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several M.A. degrees, including one in American foreign policy, and is currently in the process of completing his Ph.D. in History.
He is also the co-faculty advisor of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and teaches numerous undergraduate and graduate legal studies courses. James is a lawyer admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia. He has served in various roles at several debating and moot trial competitions in New York and Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 2017, James traveled to the Presidential Library of George H.W. Bush in College Station, Texas, to conduct archival research into the loan guarantee controversy and the Madrid peace conference. He is currently preparing a formal paper that will argue that there are similarities between the policies toward Israel of President George H.W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
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