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
- 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
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.