How to Have a Classroom Debate in College


Classroom debates can be a valuable tool for college teachers. Debating lets students participate in discussions, forces them to conduct independent research and, according to researchers quoted in Parenting Science, improves critical thinking skills. However, running a classroom debate can be complicated and requires some early legwork.

Define the Topic

  • Writing a good topic is essential for a productive classroom debate. An excessively vague topic can lead to meandering discussions that ignore the material you want to cover, but overly specific topics may shut down room for debate. The best topics tend to be sentences that clearly define affirmative and negative roles. For example, if you're teaching a class on evolution, the topic "Punctuated equilibrium is a more accurate theory of evolution than gradualism" is a good wording because both sides in the debate know exactly what to argue. Phrasing such as "Punctuated equilibrium is a flawed theory" is more ambiguous and may create problems.

Define the Format

  • Many debate formats are available, depending on your needs. You could include the whole classroom in a congressional-style debate in which each student gives a short speech on the pro or con side. Alternatively, you might ask two students to support the topic and two to oppose the topic while the rest of the class watches. Define how long each student can speak, and in what order. Most debates start with an affirmative speech and then switch back and forth, but you could have two affirmative speakers followed by two negative speakers instead.

Establish Expectations

  • For students with no experience in formal debates, it's helpful to establish clear expectations. A useful strategy is to create a grading rubric for the debate, assigning points for speaking style, research and overall effectiveness. For example, to make sure students do adequate research, you might require five quotations from different authoritative sources for full credit on the "research" section of the rubric. You should also set rules for keeping the discussion civil. For example, you might prohibit raising voices above a level necessary for hearing, or you might require debaters to address the audience instead of each other.

Keep Everyone Involved

  • If only a portion of your class will be giving speeches in the debate, you'll want to keep the rest of your students involved. There are two good strategies for making sure everyone pays attention. First, you can allow the audience to "cross examine" the speakers by posing questions. Award extra participation points to audience members who ask particularly pressing and insightful questions. Alternatively, you could have the classroom audience decide the winner of the debate by asking them to write decisions. The decisions can be short essays explaining why they think one side won and the other lost.

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