Number. 11 © CDTL 2003
The Debate as a Learning Tool
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate / Associate Director, CDTL

Teachers often use the debate to effectively increase student involvement and participation during tutorial/seminar sessions, especially within the Humanities and Social Sciences and selectively within the Sciences. When a teacher uses the debate as a framework for learning, s/he hopes to get students to conduct comprehensive research into the topic, gather supporting evidence, engage in collaborative learning, delegate tasks, improve communication skills, and develop leadership and team-skills—all at one go.

A Debate and Its Ingredients

A debate has been described as a form of argument that “has strict rules of conduct and quite sophisticated arguing techniques” (ACT Debating Union Inc., 1996). It must have a topic that has scope for argument, i.e. there must be at least two sides to the topic. Thus, one cannot usefully hold a debate on propositions that would stand up well scientifically. All topics for a debate generally begin with the word ‘That’. The team that has been assigned to agree with the topic is called the ‘proposition’; the team on the other side is called the ‘opposition’.

Here are some examples of topics that may be posed for a debate in various disciplines:

  • Philosophy/Political Science: “That Government exists to prevent tyranny of the majority”
  • Education: “That Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives is no longer relevant in the knowledge-based economy”
  • Jurisprudence/Criminal Law: “That under no circumstances should a legal system prescribe the taking of a person’s life”
  • Property Law: “That outside of contract, consultants engaged in the building process should not be rendered liable for defects in buildings”

It is clear from the above examples that the topic chosen is controversial and juxtaposed provocatively. The intention is to incite participants to be ready to cross swords verbally.

Preparation and Rules

Your teacher will usually identify three or four speakers for each team. Teachers prefer to have four speakers per team for wider participation. Thus in a tutorial group of 15–20 students, about half the group will be actively participating in the debate. Your teacher may draw lots to select the speakers and ensure that the vocal students are not chosen by default. To ‘mobilise’ the rest of the group for the debate, your teacher may assign tasks such as conducting research into the topic to provide support for the speakers. This ensures that each student is involved some how and optimises participation among group members.

The Debate Itself

Speakers in a debate have well-defined roles. For example, the first speaker explains in clear terms what the topic means to the respective teams. The second speaker re-affirms the proposition’s line and rebuts the opposition’s first speaker. And so the debate proceeds with speakers having to make their points within the given time. Remember that overall, your teacher will be assessing various matters, including the cogency of your arguments/rebuttals and the manner in which you present them within a limited time (like in real life).

Your teacher may persuade some of his/her colleagues to be adjudicators at the debate. This may drive you to perform even better, as the audience is an ‘external’ one, and you will be encouraged to ‘rise to the occasion’. Your teacher/Department may also offer a token prize to the winning team and the best speaker.

Ensuring Success/Benefits Derived

Of course, only one team can win. But does ‘success’ equate with ‘winning’? Certainly not: you must not lose sight of the reason your teacher had organised a debate in the first place.

In the process of preparing for the debate, you would have got to know and understand your peers better, been involved in delegation/sharing of tasks, researched issues, assimilated material, summarised points, improved your communication skills and sharpened your ability to see issues from various perspectives. The latter is especially true where you had to support a proposition you did not yourself believe in. You will also find out more about human nature and your own strengths and weaknesses as a result of working together with your peers. In the face of all these benefits, winning (the debate that is) is really not everything!

At the end of the day, a larger majority of students would have obtained a better grasp of the topic and learnt not only more, but also more effectively. This way is preferable to traditional teaching/learning methods, such as passively listening to the teacher’s 50-minute lecture/drone or writing a 2000-word essay on the topic concerned, don’t you think? It is a form of experiential learning which you will remember well, simply because you were an active participant in the learning process.



Ace. (1994). The Crash-Course Guide to Lincoln-Douglas Debate. TogaLD. (last accessed: 14 January 2003).

ACT Debating Union Inc. (27 May 1996). Basic Debating Skills. (last accessed: 14 January 2003).


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