Rules for Classroom Debates


Classroom debates give students the opportunity to focus solely on one side of an issue or topic. In addition to providing opportunity for research, debates develop public speaking and presentation skills. To organize a classroom debate, provide students with guidelines for topics, arguments and the courtesy required in debating a classmate.

Common Courtesy During Debate

  • Debates often focus on controversial topics that students may feel passionately about, so courtesy and respect for all opinions should be encouraged. To introduce the idea of courtesy, explain to students that debate questions often do not have a "right" or "wrong" answer and that critical thinking develops when different ideas are present. For example, set ground rules for interrupting, raised voices and personal attacks before starting the debate. The High School Public Debate Program allows heckling limited to a single word or phrase directed at the judges. However, interruptions or exclamations that disrupt the speaker or are excessively rude are not allowed. The penalty for breaking rules in competitive debate include taking a loss, having to repeat the debate or a reprimand.

Rules for Topics

  • Rules for choosing topics attempt to ensure that both the pro and con sides of the subject can be researched. In classroom debates, teachers provide the topics, often based on the class subject. For example, in an English class, students may debate whether fate actually guides the human experience after reading Oedipus Rex. In a history class, students may debate the merits of war, while a science class may debate the ethics of bioengineering. When choosing topics for the classroom, teachers should take into account the political climate of the school as well as the maturity and sensitivity of the students involved. Teachers should also avoid topics that reveal personal bias or may easily lead to attacks on individual students.

Argument and Proof

  • With an assigned topic, both the pro and con sides in the debate should begin to research evidence for their side of the argument. Debaters should use both facts and opinions in the presentation of their argument. Students should also research the opposing side and perform a critical analysis to decide which facts and opinions of the other side will be used in the rebuttal stage. In competitive debate, the use of electronics during debate is not allowed, but classroom debates may allow this. Evidence should be in the form of facts, not other speeches or opinions, and the first mention of evidence should include a complete citation -- author, title, date of publication and page number.

Rules for Speakers

  • To ensure that all opinions are heard, develop a format for engaging in debate and introduce the format to the students before the debate. For example, the debate may include two rounds of discussion in which the first side presents the "pro" side immediately followed by the team with the "con" side. The second round will allow the "pro" side to respond to the "con" arguments of the first round. Create time limits for each side that are clear and carefully adhered to. For example, give each side a two-minute limit to present its case.


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