Debates in the Classroom: A Strategy To Stimulate Learning

Interpersonal skills have been transformed by the growth of the Internet. The advent of the Information Age has touched nearly every facet of human communication, from the use of social media to the creation of online learning environments which can reach thousands of students. It is imperative that today’s educators develop curriculum where students learn to discuss, critique, reason and engage their peers with clear, concise verbal, listening and written skills. One of the best ways to teach these skills is the incorporation of discussion style team debates in the classroom. Numerous benefits, including increases in higher order critical thinking, enhanced analytical skills and improved leadership qualities have been reported when students participate in debates. The merits of using communication to solve problems, as well as the intellectual and social enhancements that a debate can accomplish are qualities that enrich student’s lives. Quantitative measurements of academic performance improve as young people participate on debate teams, and the qualitative measure of their sense of worth, confidence, and creativity support debate as a valuable educational tool.

This paper will explore the processes and outcomes of several schools that introduced debates into their curriculum. In addition, there are numerous scholarly articles that explore the rationale for teaching the debate experience, which will be reviewed. A combination of learning from practical, hands-on information that is made available to the educational community, as well as understanding the historical position debates have held in education and society can offer instructors a balanced, cohesive view of in-class debates as an instructional strategy.

Key Terminology
There are several types of debates used in educational settings, each with its own set of rules and jargon. There is also a fundamental structure to the design of a debate that is shared by these different debating forms. The following information has been retrieved from the Debate|Able website, a resource for teaching debates to students. These terms are common, general features found in all debates. (Debate|Able, the Debate Education Program for Kids. Glossary of Debate Terms. 2016)

Affirmative Team: Argues in favor of the resolution. The affirmative team is responsible for introducing the resolution with relevant definitions, listing the claims that support their argument along with evidence and reasoning, and refuting the negatives’ arguments.

Claim: Controversial statement that a debater supports or refutes with evidence and reasoning. To be a claim, a statement must have at least two sides. “Schools should run year round” is a claim; “Wednesday comes after Tuesday” is not.

Constructive Speech: A speech that presents a debater’s basic arguments for or against the resolution.

Cross Examination: The period during a debate when a member of one team asks questions of an opposing team member to obtain additional information about their arguments and positions.

Judges: Individuals who listen to debate, decide the winner, rank debate competitors, and ensure that the experience is educational for all participants in a debate competition.

Moderator: is a person whose role is to act as a neutral participant in a debate or discussion, holds participants to time limits and trying to keep them from straying off the topic of the questions being raised in the debate.

Negative Team: Argues against the resolution and the affirmative team’s arguments. The negative team states the claims that support their position, provides evidence and reasoning, and refutes the affirmatives’ arguments.

Rebuttal Speeches: Speeches in debate that challenge and defend arguments introduced in constructive speeches.

Resolution: The topic or claim being debated. The resolution is always presented as an affirmative statement by the affirmative team, who has the burden of proving the truth of the resolution.

Four Popular Forms of Debates
Debates in the classroom are structured with consideration to the age, educational level and experience of the students involved. The discussion style of a team debate is considered ideal for beginners, as it consists of several rounds of short speeches, followed by questions. More challenging debate styles will include longer lengths of speech and periods of cross-examination. The four most common forms of debates have been retrieved from the eHow website, Kinds of Debates, and are listed as follows:

Lincoln-Douglas Debate: The Lincoln-Douglas format of debate is named after Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’ debates on the subject of slavery. In Lincoln-Douglas format, only one person argues on each side of the debate. The debate begins with a constructive speech by the affirmative side, which lays out the main arguments for the proposition, followed by a shorter cross-examination during which the negative debater can ask questions of the affirmative debater. After the cross-examination period, the negative side gives its constructive speech, followed by a cross-examination by the affirmative debater. Following this, the affirmative and negatives sides each offer a rebuttal speech, in which they re-emphasize the important aspects of their constructive arguments to refute the opposing sides. New arguments may not be brought up in a rebuttal. The debate closes with a shorter final rebuttal by the affirmative debater.

Team Policy Debate: The team policy debate format is commonly used in high schools. The affirmative and negative teams are each composed of two debaters, and the debate is composed of eight speeches: four eight-minute constructive speeches alternating between the two teams, beginning with the affirmative side, then four alternating four-minute rebuttal speeches, beginning with the negative side. Speeches by a team will typically alternate between the two team members, so the first affirmative speech and last affirmative speech will be given by separate debaters. Team policy debate judging emphasizes research and evidence over persuasiveness and diction. A successful team will gather data to counter all potential arguments by the opposing side and be able to use it at the time of debate.

NDT and CEDA Formats: The National Debate Tournament, or NDT, and Cross-Examination Debate Association, or CEDA, formats are team debate formats similar to team policy debate, but they’re used at a college level. These formats use the same arrangement of alternating constructive speeches followed by alternating rebuttals. The speeches in these formats are longer than at the high school level. Each of the constructive speeches is nine minutes long, followed by a three-minute cross-examination period, while the rebuttals are six minutes. NDT’s judging places the same emphasis on evidence as the team policy debate; CEDA tends to stress policy in its debate topics and thus provides more opportunity for values-driven arguments.

Parliamentary Debate: Parliamentary debate formats stress improvisation and persuasion. The proposition being debated is not given to the teams until 10 or 15 minutes before the debate begins, meaning the teams do not have a chance to perform in-depth research. A parliamentary debate alternates between four constructive speeches followed by two shorter rebuttals. No cross-examination is used in parliamentary debates, but a team may interrupt an opposing team by calling for either a point of information, asking for clarification on an argument, or a point of order, to observe that a rule of the debate has been broken. Some variants of the parliamentary format include four teams — two arguing in favor of the proposition and two against. In this case the teams are ranked from one through four at the end of the debate.

Methodology of a Classroom Debate
The Alberta Debate and Speech Association is a non-profit, 50 school member group that promotes speech and debate activities in Alberta, Canada. Their resources are well researched and supported by the Canadian Student Debating Federation. The framework presented below is their standard, discussion style debate format. It is designed for beginning debate students, and is most often used in junior high school classes.

Junior High Discussion: Beginner Level
1st Affirmative Constructive
5 min
1st Negative Constructive
5 min
2nd Affirmative Constructive
5 min
2nd Negative Constructive
5 min

Discussion Period
10 min

5 min

Rebuttal Speech by 1st Negative
4 min
Rebuttal Speech by 1st Affirmative
4 min

©2015 The Alberta Debate and Speech Association

debate schedule for a 2 person team

Rules for Discussion Style Debate
1. In this style of debate, each debater is expected to deliver a constructive speech and to rebut the arguments of the opposing team. After the first four speeches, a 10 minute discussion period is held in which a debater may, after being called upon by the moderator, make a comment or pose a question to an opposing debater.
2. The debate will be presided over by the moderator. The affirmative team will sit on the right side of the moderator and the negative team will sit on the left. Debaters will speak only when called upon by the moderator.
3. Debaters should always preface their remarks by addressing the moderator. They may also acknowledge the presence of the judges, though this is not mandatory. All references to other debaters should be made in the third person.

Discussion Period
1. During the discussion period, the moderator will call on the debaters to ask questions or make comments.
2. The moderator will attempt to ensure that each debater is offered an equal amount of time in which to ask or answer questions. Questions should alternate from side to side.
3. Debaters should raise their hand, and upon being recognized by the moderator, proceed to ask, and respond to questions by their opponents.
4. Each contribution should not exceed one minute.
5. When questioning, the questioner should ask questions rather than make speeches. He/she may not insist on a yes or no answer.
6. The debater being questioned must answer any questions asked. Answers should not be longer than a sentence or two.
7. No new constructive arguments may be introduced during the discussion period, although new evidence may be used.
8. Judges should penalize debaters for a lack of participation.

Following the discussion period, the first debater for each team makes a team rebuttal and summary speech. During the rebuttal speech, debaters may not bring up any new arguments or new evidence except in direct refutation of material which has already been presented.
1. No points of order, privilege or heckles are permitted.
2. At the conclusion of the debate, the moderator will ask the debaters if there were any serious rules violations made by their opponents. Each team will be allowed to speak only once.

Alberta Debate and Speech Association. (2015).

Literature Review
Firmin, Vaughn, and Dye (2007) conducted a case study, Using Debate to Maximize Learning Potential, which encompassed a best practices approach to the implementation of debate into a classroom setting. They were concerned with the crafting of a clear format for the debate, and the necessary instruction for students to successfully participate as team members. As stated in their abstract:
The work is presented as a model for the principles of not building straw-men arguments, not shying away from controversial topics, giving politically-incorrect viewpoints fair treatment, making a crisp presentation that students will take seriously, and exemplifying gender-equity and aggressive female role-modeling.

In effect, they began their study by listing the situations that could go wrong when teaching students to debate. Straw-men arguments occur when one side of the debate is prepared to support their position, but the other side is not. A lack of preparation, the inability to form a convincing argument, or a poorly defined understanding of the topic can lead to this situation. Another problem they pointed to was the possibility of females not being able to aggressively argue with the male students. Students of certain ethnic backgrounds were also considered to be in this culturally relegated group of non-aggressive speakers. The authors pointed to these situations, then wrote of the benefits all students could derive from the debate process, regardless of gender or background. Several of their points included learning to:

  • Examine both sides of an issue in a thorough and fair manner
  • Promote gender equality and advance feminist theory
  • Promote liberal arts values in the curriculum
  • Improve student’s verbal, listening and oral communication skills
  • Help students overcome their fears of public speaking
  • Increase active student involvement in the learning process
  • Advance critical thinking skills to new levels which likely could not be achieved via other methods
  • Empower students to take responsibility for their own learning, rather than being instructor dependent

They concluded (2007) that as a unifying theme, debate has the potential to free students by helping them to think for themselves, going beyond the finite limitation constraints of the course professor.

In their article, Speech and Debate as Civic Education, Hogan, Kurr and Bergmaier (2016) approached the liberating aspects of debate in a manner that spoke to the civic duty of an individual to uphold the classical rhetorical tradition of great speakers such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun. These men were considered Senatorial giants, with great gifts for debate and legislative action. The authors see a clear connection between the speechmaking abilities of these politicians and their success in upholding the tenets of the Senatorial chamber and their promotion of democratic law. The authors then quote W.N. Brigance (1961), who wrote, Since ancient times, we have never had a successful democracy unless a large part, a very large part, of its citizens were effective, intelligent, and responsible speakers.

Sadly, the current state of education has focused less on the merits of a liberal arts education, which advocates civic engagement, and more of the importance of a work-force training model. STEM education and career preparation are important areas of study, but the authors argue that a new movement for the revival and reinvention of civic education is necessary for the twenty first century. The value of debate practice as well as the actual participation in debates cannot be underestimated as a vital strategy to teach civic engagement. As stated in the article’s final paragraph:
Speech and debate have a lot to contribute to the movement to reform and reinvigorate civic education in America. Going beyond the legalistic political information dispensed in traditional civics courses, speech and debate pedagogies help students develop substantive knowledge about important political controversies, along with the skills and confidence they need to engage in civic life
Speech and Debate as Civic Education (2016).

The merits of debate are often analyzed through the lens of a group undertaking and the effects the shared activity has on stimulating learning in the classroom. Dr. Ruth Kennedy provides a thorough analysis of both individual and collective effects of the debate experience in her scholarly paper, In-Class Debates: Fertile Ground for Active Learning and the Cultivation of Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Skills.

Dr. Kennedy makes a strong case for the advancement of debates as an effective method to draw students out of passive, non-participatory roles in the classroom. She quotes too many studies (52 studies!) to address individually but the result of her findings showcase the benefits of debates in substantial ways. She asserts that “in-class debates cultivate the active engagement of students, placing the responsibility of comprehension on the shoulders of the student.” She makes the very accurate observation that there is “more information than ever before, and that the pace of change will likely continue to be rapid for future generations,” a very sobering thought for anyone who is not a “digital native,” defined as a person who grew up before the advent of the personal computer revolution. She finishes her analysis by adding, “educators must focus less on teaching facts and more on teaching students how to use information. In the past, vocations were often passed on from generation to generation, but now most individuals have several different careers in their lifetime.”

Dr. Kennedy’s careful research would make an advocate for debate out of the most reserved educator, but she is quick to move into the role of opposer for this instructional strategy by citing several studies that are critical of debate performance outcomes. One of the problems involves the reinforcement of critical thinking that excludes a middle ground, also known as a dualistic mentality. As a counter measure, Dr. Kennedy shows examples where students were assigned to different sides of the debate during the actual debate, to help balance their need to see only their own side of the argument. Another problem that Dr. Kennedy mentioned was the confrontational nature of debates and the effect this aggressive form of speaking can have on a classroom environment. Fostering a confrontational nature may be problematic to students from different cultures and situations, such as the learning disabled. Solutions to this problem included the use of written assignments, where students would participate verbally and also by written form, which allowed them to express ideas they may not have been comfortable saying to their fellow students. Another instructor graded her students on participation, rather than performance, understanding that the difficulties some students had with openly arguing in a school setting were a result of their cultural upbringing.

Students’ perceptions toward using classroom debate to develop critical thinking were further explored in the scholarly article, Students’ Perceptions toward Using Classroom Debate to Develop Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Ability, by P. Zare1 and M. Othman.

These researchers gathered sixteen undergraduate students and placed them in nine debates that were held throughout one semester. The students were given quantitative and qualitative measurements of assessment. Likert scales were completed, open-ended written questions were answered, they were interviewed by their peers and the researchers regarding their reactions and perceptions of the debate experience. Their own assessments of the debates were highly positive. They felt they had improved in their critical thinking skills and oral communication abilities. They listed “mastering the course content, boosting confidence, overcoming stage fright and improving team work skills” as benefits from the experience.

In addition, the students had been asked to write a reflective paper at the beginning of the semester, before the debates began, and another paper at the end of the semester. The researchers compared the student’s perceptions and reactions pre and post-debate, then noted the student’s suggestions for changes, ideas for future debates and any additional comments they could share with the study.

Sophia Scott followed a similar path of inquiry in her paper, Perceptions of Students’ Learning Critical Thinking through Debate in a Technology Classroom: A Case Study. The unique aspects of her study were the topics of the debates and the students who participated in her case study. They were STEM students, well trained in science and technology, and the subjects they were debating included human cloning, stem cell research, the selling of organs to transplant patients and the regulation of the Internet for minors. An interesting outcome to her study was how well the framework used for debate creation held up to these more open-ended, more modern topics; ones that didn’t necessarily have well defined outcomes yet.

Ms. Scott carefully assessed her student’s reactions. She used Likert scales and open ended questionnaires. She created charts and scales which showed mean scores of student responses. Her results showed very similar results to the other researchers mentioned in this paper. The students felt they had increased their critical thinking skills by participating in the debates. They felt they had learned more about the subject they debated, they thought their ability to work as a team had improved and that the debates were challenging and fun. There were students who did not like having to defend their cases by speaking in front of the class, but this was consistent with the findings of other researchers.

The final piece of literature I reviewed was a guide written by the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association, entitled The Step by Step Guide to Debate. This guide is written for the classroom environment and alternates between explanations of terminology, historical facts, the philosophy behind debating, the roles of people in the debate process, and lesson plans that can be followed during debate preparation. The step-by-step check lists are extensive and very detailed. It is quite obvious that the creators of this guide have experience conducting debates. There are areas left blank for note-taking and humorous cartoons interspersed among the information. This guide is a friendly, 115 page, hands-on approach to introducing debate into the curriculum that is simply packed with information.

The literary reviews, observations and surveys that are available offer a positive, encouraging view on the use of debates in the classroom. Benefits to the students are well noted, such as enhanced organizational and research skills, a new enthusiasm for team efforts, and the student’s opportunity to develop public-speaking skills. Any concerns expressed, such as increased competitiveness or an inclination toward moving the debate from an intellectual exercise to an emotional one, were seen as outcomes that could be addressed successfully from within the classroom setting.

In addition to studies that reflect on the historical and sociological significance of the debate process, there are also many articles available that share actual classroom experiences with the different styles of debates, noting student reactions to the active, intellectual engagement. Practical, hands on experience offer useful advice for all stages of planning a debate event. With a clear understanding of the objectives and values attributed to the debate experience, educators should feel well equipped with the knowledge, perspective and tools needed for a successful classroom debate experience.

The Alberta Debate and Speech Association. (2015). General Rules For Debate. Retrieved from
Brigance, W. N. (1961). Speech: Its techniques and disciplines in a free society (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Firmin, M.W., Vaughn, A., Dye, A. (2007). Using Debate to Maximize Learning Potential: A Case Study. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, vol. 4, n1.
Glossary of Debate Terms. (2016) Debate|Able, the Debate Education Program for Kids. Retrieved from:
Hogan, J. M., Kurr, J. A., Johnson, J. D., & Bergmaier, M. J. (2016). Speech and Debate as Civic Education. Communication Education, vol. 65, n4, p377-381.
Kennedy, R. (2007). In-Class Debates: Fertile Ground for Active Learning and the Cultivation of Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Skills. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, vol. 19, n2, p183-190.
Pritchard, R. (2009). The “Step by Step” Guide to Debate. Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association. Retrieved from:
Scott, S. (2008). Perceptions of Students’ Learning Critical Thinking through Debate in a Technology Classroom: A Case Study. Journal of Technology Studies, vol. 34, p39-44.
Zamboni, J. Kinds of Debates. Retrieved from:
Zare, P., & Othman, M. (2015). Students’ Perceptions toward Using Classroom Debate to Develop Critical Thinking and Oral Communication Ability. Asian Social Science, vol. 11, n9.

Appendix A: Action Plan Chart

Appendix B: Debate Rubric