In a classroom debate, a proposition is stated and students make arguments for or against it. 
Debates are a good way to have students conduct research to form an argument. Students must practice quick critical thinking to respond to counterarguments. Further, debates help students practice written and oral communication. Lastly, debates force students to acknowledge a range of perspectives on an issue, even if it differs from their own personal viewpoint. 


Prep Break students into two groups—For and Against the proposition
  • Students either choose or are assigned to argue a particular side in the debate.
  • It may present an extra challenge, but it can be a positive learning experience for students to argue on the side of the debate they don’t actually believe in. Some instructors flip a coin and let the winning team decide whether they will argue in favor of or against the proposition.
Assign or let students choose roles in the debate
  • Possible roles include: opening speaker, rebuttal speaker, concluding speaker, researcher, organizer, debate moderator, leader, and speech composer
  • Depending on the size of the groups, students may take on more than one role
Be explicit about the sources or types of evidence you want students to use to support their claims
  • Possible sources include peer-reviewed journal articles, books and manuscripts, magazines and newspaper articles, websites, and interviews with experts on the topic.
  • Tell students they should avoid or limit claims based on personal experience or opinion, and explain why these are considered less valid sources of information in a debate.


Write the proposition on the board

• The proposition is a statement that affirms or denies something. For example “Affirmative action policies should be banned”. The proposition may also be written as a question (e.g., “Should affirmative action policies be banned?”).

Monitor time limits and debate structure

•There are countless variations of the exact format of debates but, traditionally, debates follow a similar structure:  

• Pro position (5 minutes) [Pro Team]
• Rebuttal (3 minutes) [Con Team]
• Con position (5 minutes) [Con Team]
• Rebuttal (3 minutes) [Pro Team]
• Teams question each other (5 minutes/team) [Both teams]
• Closing statements (3 minutes/team) [Both teams, in the opposite order from opening statements]


Monitor Participation
  • Particularly if a student is filling the moderator role (and thus keeping track of time), you can keep track of students’ contributions to make sure that everyone participates


Open up the debate for comments from all students
  • After each side has presented their concluding arguments, you may want to let the rest of the class weigh in, ask questions, or present new evidence

Have students vote to indicate which side presented the most convincing argument

  • Ask students to raise their hands in favor of the arguments made by the For or Against sides. You may want to ask if anyone’s mind has been changed by the debate—ask them to share what changed their thinking.

Reference: Keller, T., Whittaker, J., & Burke, T. (2001). Student debates in policy courses: promoting police practice skills and knowledge through active learning. Journal of Social Work, 37(2), 343–55.


Debates as a teaching tool can be traced back to ancient Greece, with the Sophists, Protagoras, and Aristotle as the earliest pioneers (Vo & Morris, 2006). Today, debates exist in countless forms in any society, ranging from government debates, court proceedings, to debates in media and everyday life where individuals present opposing views through social interaction (Fallahi & Haney, 2011). As an instructional method, debating involves students in expressing their opinions from two competing perspectives with the goal of contradicting each other’s arguments (Chang & Cho, 2010). An opportunity for decision may be given after opposing views are presented in alternating statements. 

Research and practice have shown effective debating in various formats for educational purposes. Examples in undergraduate courses include dividing students into opposing groups that present in turn or discuss in a relatively unstructured, free-flowing form, as well as role-playing or simulations of media and court debates (Berdine, 1984). Much as the format can vary, a classroom debate that serves effective teaching and learning is encouraged to incorporate four conceptual components: (a) development of ideas with description, explanation, and demonstration, (b) clash of opinions supported by reasons and evidence, (c) extension or arguments against criticisms, which again are refuted by the opponent, and (d) perspective, the process of weighing ideas and issues to conclude with a logical decision is made, either about the issue or about the presentation of arguments (Snider & Schnurer, 2002). 

Successful uses of debating have been reported in a variety of disciplines, including psychology (Fallahi & Haney, 2011), geography (Healey, 2012), marketing (Combs & Bourne, 1994), accounting (Camp & Schnader, 2010), engineering (Chang & Cho, 2010), sociology (Green & Klug, 1990), social work (Keller, Whittaker & Burke, 2001), nursing (Candela, Michael & Mitchell, 2003), and pharmacy (Lin & Crawford, 2007). Recently, debates have been used in online settings, including online forums (Selwyn, 2007; Park, Kier & Jugdey, 2011), games, and communications software(Healey, 2012).

 Debating has been shown to facilitate engagement in undergraduate classrooms. It facilitates verbal participation (Fallahi & Haney, 2011) and better involves students in class (Berdine, 1984); instead of passive learning, students take up more responsibility for comprehension of the subject matter (Snider & Schnurer, 2002), and invest more serious study effort (Huryn, 1986). Both participating in the debate process and observing it have been reported to be valuable by undergraduate students (Mooeller, 1985). Debate also leads to more active post-debate discussion (Green & Klug, 1990).

Debating is also found to improve learning outcomes. The immediate positive effects include greater knowledge acquisition by reinforcing already taught materials (Kennedy, 2009). For the learning of controversial subjects in particular, debating enhances students’ appreciation for the complexities of the subject matter, and challenges prior beliefs (Bell, 1982). In the longer term, debating helps students acquire better comprehension, application, and critical evaluation skills when presented a complex topic (Omelicheva & Avdeyeva, 2008). It improves students’ listening and public speaking skills (ibid.), and also opens opportunities to develop oral communication skills (Combs & Bourne, 1994), creativity (Vo & Morris, 2006), and empathy (Bell, 1982).


 Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education



Bell, E. P. (1982). Debating controversial issues. History Teacher, 15, 207-223.

Berdine, R. (1984). Increasing student involvement in the learning process through debate on controversial topics. Journal of Management Education, 9(3), 6-8.

Camp, J. M., & Schnader, A. L. (2010). Using debate to enhance critical thinking in the accounting classroom: The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and US tax policy. Issues in accounting education, 25(4), 655-675.

Candela, L., Michael, S. R., & Mitchell, S. (2003). Ethical debates: enhancing critical thinking in nursing students. Nurse Educator, 28(1), 37-39.

Chang, K., & Cho, M. H. (2010). Strategy of selecting topics for debate teaching in engineering education. Religion, 30, 50.

Combs, H. W., & Bourne, S. G. (1994). The Renaissance of Educational Debate: Results of a Five-Year Study of the Use of Debate in Business Education. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 5(1), 57-67.

Fallahi, C. R., & Haney, J. D. (2011). Using debate in helping students discuss controversial topics. Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC), 4(10).

Green, C. S., & Klug, H. G. (1990). Teaching critical thinking and writing through debates: An experimental evaluation. Teaching Sociology, 18, 462-471.

Healey, R. L. (2012). The Power of Debate: Reflections on the Potential of Debates for Engaging Students in Critical Thinking about Controversial Geographical Topics. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 36(2), 239-257.

Huryn, J. S. (1986). Debating as a teaching technique. Teaching Sociology, 14(4), 266-269.

Keller T, Whittaker J, Burke T. (2001). Student debates in policy courses: promoting police practice skills and knowledge through active learning. Journal of Social Work, 37(2): 343–55.

Kennedy, R. R. (2009). The power of in-class debates. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(3), 225-236.

Lin, S. J., & Crawford, S. Y. (2007). An online debate series for first-year pharmacy students. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 71(1).

Moeller, T. G. (1985). Using classroom debates in teaching developmental psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 207 – 209.

Omelicheva, M. Y., & Avdeyeva, O. (2008). Teaching with lecture or debate? Testing the effectiveness of traditional versus active learning methods of instruction. PS: Political Science & Politics, 41(03), 603-607.

Park, C., Kier, C., & Jugdev, K. (2011). Debate as a Teaching Strategy in Online Education: A Case Study. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 37(3).

Selwyn, N. (2007). Web 2.0 applications as alternative environments for informal learning-a critical review in Background paper for the CERI-KERIS International Expert Meeting on ICT and Educational Performance. Cheju National University: South Korea.

Snider, A., & Schnurer, M. (Eds.). (2002). Many sides: debate across the curriculum. IDEA.

Vo, H. X., & Morris, R. L. (2006). Debate as a tool in teaching economics: Rationale, technique, and some evidence. Journal of Education for Business, 81(6), 315-320.




Further Resources: 

  • Bellon, J. (2000). A research based justification for debate across the curriculum. Argumentation and Advocacy, 36(3), 161-173.
  • Dundes, L. (2001) Small Group Debates: Fostering Critical Thinking in Oral Presentations with Maximal Class Involvement. Teaching Sociology, 29(2): 237–43.
  • Pilkington, R. M., & Walker, S. A. (2003). Facilitating debate in networked learning: Reflecting on online synchronous discussion in higher education. Instructional Science, 31(1-2), 41-63.
  • Roy, A., & Macchiette, B. (2005). Debating the issues: A tool for augmenting critical thinking skills of marketing students. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(3), 264-276.
  • Tessier, J. T. (2009). Classroom debate format: Effect on student learning and revelations about student tendencies. College Teaching, 57(3), 144-152.

ABLConnect Fellow Julia Galindo on Debates