Gus Turbeville, the President of William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, says he's discovered how to increase student interest in their courses, while at the same time supporting and improving students' learning skills. He has devised a program that uses debate as the means of academic achievement.
Dr. Turbeville initiated what he calls the Great Issues Program in the fall of 1979. He says the idea grew from his experience as president of Emerson College in Boston, an institution that specializes in communication.
''At Emerson, I was so impressed by how articulate the great majority of the students were, and I thought, 'What a great contrast this is with most students I've known at various universities and colleges. . .
''Then I got to drawing on my background as a social psychologist - my interest in learning theory - and I thought, 'Well, debate would be a fantastic way of teaching people communications skills.''
In the William Penn program, every student participates in debate several times before graduating.
Students prepare background papers, which professors grade according to various criteria.
''If the professor decides this paper is not of really exceptional quality, he's encouraged to give the paper back without a grade,'' Dr. Turbeville says. ''We're not trying to fail anybody; we're trying to bring people up to high standards in communications skills. So this may mean redoing a paper five or six times.''
Dr. Turbeville says experience has shown the debate program sharpens writing, verbal, and listening skills. Faculty members point to other results of the program:
* Dr. David L. Porter, professor of history and political science, says library use has tripled since the introduction of the program. He finds that many students ''utilize the library a lot more effectively'' than formerly.
* Dr. Howard L. Reitz, academic dean, says the Great Issues Program has given the faculty ''a renewed sense of pride. . . . they have a better feeling about themselves (and) about their subject matter.''
* Dr. Donald G. Good, professor of religion and philosphy, has noted another effect of the program. ''I have (students) calling me at home in the evening all the time, and I never had that before.''
An accreditation committee report from a visit in February 1981 stated that ''the most striking feature of William Penn College in 1981 is . . . the remarkable degree to which the constituencies of the campus and the total college are committed to this new idea.''
''We did not find any major problem with the Great Issues Program,'' said Dr. G. Benjamin Lantz Jr., chairman of the accreditation committee. ''It's a bit too early to say with any absoluteness just how effective it would be.''
Success in this academic venture, Dr. Lantz says, depends on ''the persons who are leading the program.''
Dr. Turbeville notes that few of the William Penn faculty have had speech training, ''and this has been a possible criticism of the program.''
He adds, ''I wish that all our professors were orators,'' but he concedes that all are not. ''And this is not to criticize our faculty members, this is true of faculty members anywhere.''
''The system is never as good as we describe it, because we describe it in an ideal sense and we're dealing with people who are human.''
Professor Good sees the debater as an advocate of but not necessarily as one who holds a particular conviction. To counteract a tendency of students to adopt the position they argue, he says he often assigns his students to the side they personally oppose.
A few of the recent debate topics at the college have been:
* That punishment should be the main purpose of our criminal-justice system.
* That environmentalists have over-reacted to James Watt's policies as Secretary of the interior.
* That arms spending poses a threat to national security.
* That public schools should teach creationism along with the theory of evolution.
* That civil disobedience should be practiced to attain justice.
The college, says Dr. Turbeville, is ''trying to confront (students) with the major moral issues of the day - war and peace, civil rights, the environment, women's rights, the war on poverty.
''We figure if they will debate these issues, research them thoroughly, they will make moral decisions.''