Guidelines for Conducting a Debate

Debate can be an effective instructional method for helping participants to present and evaluate positions clearly and logically. Debate begins with the debaters having developed or been assigned a position on an issue. The intention is to persuade others that their position is the proper one. In this way debate differs from discussion, which often calls for the cooperative thinking of members of a group in search of a solution or approach to a problem or issue. A specific example of a way in which debate might be a useful method is as a follow-up to a policy-making exercise. Participants who do not agree with the adopted policy might use the debate as an effective means of trying to change public opinion, which might in turn lead to a change in policy.

How to Proceed

  1. Decide, or help participants decide upon a subject for debate.
  2. Formulate the subject into a resolution, e.g., "Resolved that capital punishment should be abolished by the United States Supreme Court. "
  3. Make certain that those participating in the debate are familiar with the procedures to be followed. (The form of debate described here is widely used but rather formalized. The purpose for the debate may make it desirable to use a less formal procedure, or to use some other form of debate.)
  4. Select participants to take part in the debate and divide debaters into two teams, one team in support of the resolution (pro) and one team in opposition to the resolution (con). The most common number of members per team is two, but more than two may be used.
  5. Select a chairperson and a timekeeper.
  6. Allow sufficient time for participants in the debate to prepare "constructive arguments." Constructive arguments should be based upon three to five major points which are logically developed and substantiated by factual evidence in support of a particular position.
  7. Conduct the debate according to the following procedures:

    a. The chairperson and the debaters are seated at the front of the class, usually with the team in favor of the resolution to the rjght of the chairperson and the team in opposition to the resolution to the left of the chairperson.
    b. The chairperson briefly introduces the subject and states the resolution that is to be debated.
    c. The chairperson introduces the first speaker from the team in support of the resolution. Each speaker is introduced when (s)he is given the floor.
    d. The first speaker from the team in support of the resolution is allowed a set amount of time to present the constructive argument (s)he has prepared. The timekeeper, seated with the class, indicates when the time limit has been reached.
    e. The first speaker from the team in opposition to the resolution is introduced and asked to give his/her constructive argument. This procedure of presenting pro and con speakers alternately is continued until each debater has given his/her constructive argument. After the first speaker, those who follow will probably need to adjust their prepared speeches to allow for what has been said by preceding speakers.
    f. "Rebuttal arguments" follow the series of constructive arguments given by both teams. The team in opposition to the resolution always begins the rebuttal argument series. Each debater is given an opportunity to speak extemporaneously for a set amount of time, attempting to weaken the position presented by the opposing team. Rebuttal arguments also provide an opportunity to answer attacks that have been made by the opposing team. While rebuttal arguments are presented extemporaneously, debaters should anticipate possible positions the opposition might take and be prepared with appropriate counter arguments. No new issues may be introduced during rebuttal arguments.
    g. Debrief and/or evaluate the debate and the performance of the debate teams by informally polling the class to determine how many agree with the team in support of the resolution and how many agree with the team in opposition to the resolution. Class members should be asked to explain whether or not their own positions were strengthened or changed as a result of hearing the debate and to explain why. Class members should also be asked to make statements which they feel could have been used as effective arguments by the debaters.

Principal Responsibilities of the Instructor

  1. Select, or help participants select, a subject or question for debate.
  2. Insure that participants are familiar with the procedures for conducting a debate.
  3. Help participants see the dimensions of the problem and develop clear, logical, and supportable arguments for the position they present during the debate.
  4. Help participants gain an understanding of some of the educational objectives which can be achieved by debate. These objectives include learning to make convincing arguments from another frame of reference than one's own, as might be the case if one is debating a position that does not correspond with one's true position. This experience may further develop participants' abilities to understand and respect the rights of individuals to hold opinions and beliefs that are different from theirs.