Debate Definition

A debate is a formal argument in which there are two sides that take opposing viewpoints and discuss them in an organized manner.

Importance of Debate

Debates are an important way to share ideas and to critically analyze information. Debates challenge speakers to carefully research out both sides of a topic or question, and come up with solid evidence to support their chosen side, while at the same time anticipating problems and providing solutions. Debates are first thought to have originated in Greece, when Socrates is most believed to have developed the Socratic debating method in order to encourage his students to think more deeply about philosophical and political questions. Greek philosopher Plato later wrote down this process, and Aristotle later viewed this method as the basis of the scientific method.

In American society, debates have been a central part of our government since before America was its own country. Town Hall debates were a way for local citizens to have a say in the daily activities and issues in their towns, and later, debates became commonplace in town halls, town squares, and local bars as the Revolution began to brew. Since the establishment of our government, political debates have been a way for citizens to hear candidates’ views on issues, policies, and to get a sense of the candidates’ personalities.

In every debate there are two sides, although sometimes there is also a neutral or undecided section. The side that argues for the proposition is called the Affirmative (sometimes called the “Pro”); the side against the proposition is called the Negative (sometimes called the “Con”). Often, there is a Moderator who controls the questions and makes sure emotions stay under control. Sometimes there is also a Timekeeper, but many Moderators also complete this task. The debate format can also extend into the digital world, even including Moderators occasionally, although they may not be officially appointed as such.

Propositions in Debate

In general, there are three kinds of propositions for debates: Fact, Policy, and Value.

Fact Proposition

This proposition is based on true or false criteria. The proposition must be based in fact, so it is provable, so some research is necessary to plan for this particular proposition.

Policy Proposition

This proposition typically requires a lot of research and planning because it calls for action and change. The Affirmative must convince the audience that a change needs to occur because it will be beneficial for the majority.

Value Proposition

This proposition typically requires less research and planning because it comes from the Affirmative’s own beliefs (or values) about whether or not a change should occur. Since it is more opinion-based, it is often used for less formal debate formats.

Propositions differ from opinions in that they are rooted in facts, and therefore can be proven more than another side. An opinion is a belief, and while an audience can be swayed, it can be difficult to judge the proven effectiveness of arguments based in a belief, rather than an opinion. The majority of formal debates in schools and college will focus on propositions, rather than opinions.

A debate is focused on the validity and effectiveness of the arguments presented. According to Will Bentinck, based on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a good argument encompasses the following traits:

  • All claims are backed up with reasoning, evidence, or both
  • The conclusions follow logically from the premises
  • The premises are true, or at least provable
  • There are no redundant or stuck-on conclusions

In other words, no matter what kind of claim or argument is made in a debate, one must be able to follow it up with evidence that is logical and reasonable – just like in persuasive writing!

How to Debunk an Argument

John Cook and Stephan Lawandowsky collaborated to create an easy-to-understand handbook on how to best debunk myths and arguments, boiling down complicated theories to real-world applications and an easy step-by-step process. Their handbook is free for download. Some of the most important things to remember when debunking an argument include:

  • Present and focus on the core facts of an argument
  • Warn the audience before addressing false information
  • Fill in the gaps by addressing them, exposing the false information and the techniques used to spread that information, and offering an alternative explanation
  • Core facts should be presented visually to the audience

Many of the skills used in debates can also be used for researching and developing a persuasive paper. In a persuasive paper, students need to be able to use elements from the Rhetorical Triangle: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Utilizing rhetorical strategies and devices in speech will help strengthen (or, if used improperly, weaken) a debater’s case. In a persuasive paper or speech, a student must make a claim and support it with logical reasoning; formulate arguments that make sense and would improve the lives of the majority of the audience if implemented; provide sufficient evidence for those arguments with facts, eyewitness testimony, statistics, and data; utilize rhetorical strategies to access the logical and emotional foundations of the audience; and anticipate or counter arguments against the claim. This is very much the same case in debating. For research papers, these skills can also be used to effectively analyze and sift through information to make sure that it is reliable. One way to prepare for a debate is to use Evidence Cards. Storyboard That can help! See the sample Evidence Card template below.

A Flowsheet is also a crucial requirement to a debate. The Flowsheet is used during the debate as the opposing sides listen to each other’s arguments. The Flowsheet helps individuals and teams stay on track and prepare rebuttals, or “clashes” to the opponent's’ evidence that they present during the debate. Storyboard That can help with Flowsheets! See the sample Flowsheet template below:

The job of the Affirmative side of a proposal is to identify problems and establish a plan for a solution. The burden of proof lies most with the Affirmative side, as they must convince the judges that there is a need for change to begin with. The Affirmative can do this by highlighting problems with the current status quo, and proposing reasonable solutions that provide tangible benefits.

The job of the Negative side is to refute the Affirmative’s proposals, theories, and identified problems by proving that the Affirmative’s evidence and reasoning are faulty. The Negative may offer their own solutions instead, or defend the status quo.

Both sides will create Constructive Speeches which will open the debate and outline the positions and evidence of each side. A Constructive Speech typically lasts 5-8 minutes and outlines the major points of each side’s arguments. These are then opposed by each team with rebuttals or cross-examinations. It is a visual way to plot out key points and ideas and organize them logically. Storyboard That can still help students with this! Please see the Sample Affirmative and Negative Constructive Speech planning templates below:

You can also have students create their own storyboards for each piece of the Constructive Speech, depending on the roles they are assigned, or a format that works best for them as they present their arguments. All storyboards can be printed out or pulled up on a computer screen or tablet for a handy, easy-to-read reference during the debate.

Types of Debate

There are several kinds of debates, but most incarnations fall under the four following categories:

  • Lincoln-Douglas
  • Rebuttal
  • Oregon-Oxford
  • One-Rebuttal

The Lincoln-Douglas (Two-Man) Debate

Named after the famous series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas debate format poses two people against each other: the Affirmative and the Negative. This style of debate is most beneficial for value propositions because it often focuses on using Rhetorical Strategies such as ethos, pathos, and logos, and is less formal than other debate formats.


A Rebuttal debate uses two teams comprised of 2-3 members. Each side makes a Constructive Speech, and then has the ability to offer a rebuttal. A rebuttal disproves the points outlined in the Constructive Speech and outlines the reasons why those points are faulty or wrong. The Affirmative team then gets to deliver the final rebuttal.

Oregon Oxford

Like the One-Rebuttal, there are 2-3 members on each side. The 1st Affirmative speaker delivers the entire case for the Affirmative side. Then, a speaker from the Negative side will interpellate or cross-examine the Affirmative side to clarify, expose errors, or to set up an argument. The second speaker from the Negative side will then present the entire case for the Negative. They will then stand for interpellation, or cross-examination, by a speaker from the Affirmative side. The Negative side then delivers a rebuttal speech, and the Affirmative side finishes with their rebuttal speech.


The One-Rebuttal debate is a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate in that there are 2-3 members on each side. In this kind of debate, all members of the team have the opportunity to counter the arguments presented by the opponents except for the 1st Affirmative, who delivers the final rebuttal.

Judging a Debate

There are many factors that go into judging the effectiveness of debates, and some factors are common despite the different formats. Sometimes judges are in charge of timing, and sometimes moderators handle that task. The primary areas judges are supposed to focus on when watching a debate are: structure, effectiveness of arguments, effectiveness of examples and support, effectiveness of rebuttal, and overall presentation. Judges are encouraged to give oral critiques to commend debate participants and to provide constructive feedback. A sample debate rubric has been provided for you below.

Create Debate Worksheets

Sometimes it's helpful for students to be able to handwrite their evidence and arguments, which is why we put together debate worksheet templates. The templates on this page are found in worksheet format, as well as an organizer for students to outline both sides of the argument. Tailor as needed for the student's grade level and reuse as often as you'd like.

Debates are extremely useful for helping students improve many important skills that will translate into their writing and everyday lives. Some of the most important skills students will learn include: public speaking, research, teamwork, critical thinking, independent learning, and creative thinking. In addition, engaging in debates encourages students to develop and inform their values and ideas, and how to articulate them in an effective way. Debates differ from typical public speaking forums in that students are expected to not only participate, but challenge their opponents’ assertions.

Common Debate Topics and Categories


  • Election Campaigns
  • Policy Issues
  • Merits of Laws
  • Taxes


  • Abortion
  • Animal Testing
  • Gun Control
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Death Penalty
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sports
  • Global Warming and Climate Change
  • Environmental policies
  • Euthanasia
  • Violent Video Games

School Policies

  • School Uniforms
  • Recycling Programs
  • Eating in Class
  • Extra Time Between Classes
  • Later Start Times
  • Shortening or Lengthening the School Year
  • Bullying and Cyberbullying
  • Defending Arts Programs
  • Abolishing Prom Court

Suggested Student Activities with Storyboard That

  1. Use Storyboard That to plan out both sides of a debate when preparing for a debate.

  2. Use Storyboard That to reenact key moments and bloopers from important political debates.

  3. Have students use the rubrics to analyze presidential debates and other political debates, including for school elections.

  4. Have students use the Judging a Political Debate rubric below for the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate in 1960. Have half of the class analyze the candidates while looking away from the screen; have the other half of the class analyze the candidates while watching the debate. Have students come together and share who they think scored better on the rubric, and note the stark differences between the students who watched, and the students who listened.

Find more activities and lesson plans like this in our High School ELA Category!
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