While it does not sell out arenas or command six-figure deals for its players, debate is a sport in its own right. It is a sport of the intellectual variety. A debate is a formal contest of ideas where two groups with opposing philosophies on a single topic try to persuade a third party, like a judge or a mediator, to agree with them. Many secondary and higher education institutions offer debate programs because debates are an effective and engaging way for students to refine their research skills, argumentation skills and delivery skills.

Debate programs and competitions are a great way for educators and institutions to engage students in thoughtful analysis of a given topic while improving their speaking and listening skills in the process. Although there are different types of debate formats, most debates follow similar rules and use similar techniques.

What Are Debate Rules?

A debate team typically has between three and five members, but three-person teams are the most common. Three-person teams are ideal because they give debaters more experience working with a larger group to enhance negotiation and collaboration skills. Working in three-person teams also gives debaters a chance to practice their debate skills during the preparation process since they will often have to persuade at least one other team member to agree with them on team-based decisions about the debate.

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There are two teams opposing each other in a debate competition. The topic of debate is called the motion. The team in favor of the motion is called the proposition or affirmative, and the team arguing against the motion is called the opposition or negative. The burden of proof lies on the proposition, which is why the proposition team both opens and closes the debate. The proposition is charged with the responsibility of proving that the motion is more true than it is false, which makes the proposition’s position more challenging because building a strong case for something is harder than looking for holes in the case, which is the responsibility of the opposition.

While the amount of time allotted to each speaking turn varies according to the debate format, the order in which debaters speak is an important part of the debate rules. The first four speeches (two speakers from each side) are also known as constructive speeches because each speaker is constructing or building an argument. Any points or ideas that each side wants the judge or mediator to consider must be presented during the constructive speeches.

The final two speeches are known as the rebuttal speeches, which are designed to summarize the main points for each side while simultaneously trying to poke holes in opposing arguments. If the rebuttal speeches contain any new arguments that have no foundation in the constructive speeches, judges are expected to disregard those arguments when weighing the merits of each side’s case.

The debate begins with the first speaker for the proposition making a case for the motion and proceeds with the first speaker for the opposition refuting the proposition’s case and introducing new ideas. Each side takes turns presenting their speeches. The speakers in the constructive speeches are responsible for refuting their opponent’s case while using evidence and arguments to strengthen their own ideas. The speakers in the rebuttal speeches are charged with summarizing and making sense of the debate in a way that will persuade the judge to vote for their side.

Speeches may be the primary method of supporting an argument in debates, but prepared speeches are generally not allowed. Once the topic is chosen, debate members have a certain amount of time to research and prepare for the debate. While they can take limited notes, debaters must truly comprehend the material so that they can refer to that understanding and combine it with their own original ideas during their speeches. True debate is more than people reading from a script. It is the expression of ideas and information in an authentic manner, which is why prepared speeches have no place in a formal debate.

Guidelines for a Debate Competition

For most debate competitions, two teams compete against each other by presenting opposing arguments on the same topic. Teams are generally given the topic without knowing which side of that topic they will argue. After researching the topic for the allotted time (usually about 20 minutes or so), teams are assigned to a specific side of the argument, and they get ready to present their case.

Debate competitions typically follow the same standard rules that provide for two teams of three to five members arguing for either the proposition or the opposition. There may be additional restrictions about who can debate, such as members who are enrolled in specific programs and are of a certain age.

The guidelines for a debate competition are like those for any regular debate in that they address specific behaviors that are encouraged and those that debaters should avoid. For example, debaters should focus on the evidence and avoid making emotional appeals. Debaters should always be respectful of others, particularly their opponents and the judge. Other guidelines include not talking out of turn, not interrupting an opponent and not falsifying or distorting evidence. Debaters should also always respect the judge’s decision about the winner.

The Debate Format

Debates can take on many formats. The most common debate format is the Public Forum, which involves opposing teams arguing a given topic that they had limited time to research. In the Public Forum format, a coin toss usually determines which team will get to choose the side they argue. The other team by default must argue the opposing side of whatever the team that won the coin toss chose. The cases for each side are presented according to the standard rules that provide a set time limit for each speaker to argue his points. Like all debate formats, each side takes turns presenting their arguments.

A Lincoln-Douglas debate is the preferred format for the National Speech & Debate Association. This debate format is named after the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 during the Illinois senatorial campaign. The series of seven debates between democratic senator Stephen Douglas and his republican challenger Abraham Lincoln revolved primarily around the issue of slavery. Instead of using teams like most traditional debate competitions do, this format requires students to debate a given topic on a one-on-one basis. Like Public Forum debates, Lincoln Douglas debates allow limited research time before students take turns presenting their ideas. Each student gives a constructive speech and rebuttal speech and can cross-examine her opponent.

A Policy Debate is designed to challenge students to enhance their research, analytical and delivery skills. The Policy Debate format involves a two-on-two debate that centers on a specific policy question. The affirmative debater must propose a plan to enact a given policy. The negative debater, on the other hand, is responsible for offering reasons why the affirmative side’s proposal should be rejected. Students participating in a Policy Debate are given multiple opportunities to cross-examine each other. A judge or sometimes a panel of judges will use the arguments presented to determine a winner.

A Congressional Debate simulates the U.S. legislative process. In the Congressional Debate format, students produce a series of bills and resolutions for debate. Then, in a group setting, debaters take turns delivering speeches for or against the topic. This format requires the appointment of a student to moderate the debate to ensure a smooth flow. Students participating in a Congressional Debate are judged on their knowledge and use of parliamentary procedure in addition to the research, argumentation and delivery skills that other formats assess.

A World Schools Debate involves a more dynamic debating format that combines both rehearsed and unrehearsed topics. This combination of prepared topics with their more impromptu counterparts shifts the focus away from debate theory or procedural arguments and instead emphasizes specified issues. The World Schools Debate format is more interactive than other formats because it gives debaters the freedom to engage each other even during speeches. Strong teamwork and high-quality argumentation are vital components of an effective debate using the World Schools Debate format.

Classroom debate formats are those that can be easily adapted to the unique needs of the organizing teacher and participating students. One example of this is the Full-Class Debate in which the teacher divides the class into two teams that will debate a given topic. A Three-Question Debate focuses arguments to three specific questions related to a single topic and divides the class into two teams to argue each side of the topic. A Small-Group Debate in a classroom looks a lot like a Public Forum Debate in that teams of two to five members take turns presenting their case. A Chain Debate divides the class into two teams but is unique because each debater must either present a new supporting or opposing argument, attack a previously presented argument, defend an attacked argument or extend an existing argument. A Spar Debate ensures wider student engagement by providing students with multiple items from one or more topics that they can debate one-on-one with their peers. Another classroom debate option is the town hall format in which students are assigned specific roles to represent and “citizens” are responsible for voting on the cases presented.

Debate Tips for Students

While most students agree that debate is fun, the process can be nerve-wracking for some students, particularly those who have a fear of public speaking. Fortunately, as with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Students who are debating can enhance their argumentation and delivery skills by adhering to a few simple tips.

One of the most important tips when it comes to debating is to focus on attacking ideas rather than people. Attacking an opponent on a personal level only weakens the argument. Instead, debaters should look for flaws in their opponent’s reasoning and call the logic into question rather than the person.

Students should avoid the use of words like “always,” “never,” “often” or “generally” because they make their arguments more vulnerable to attack from opponents.

If they believe that their opponent is wrong about something, they should point it out in a tactful manner. For instance, instead of simply saying that an opponent is wrong, students should state that their opponent’s idea is mistaken and then back that up with support for why the idea is flawed.

Students should not disagree with truths that are obvious or try to exaggerate evidence to suit their case. While it is acceptable to present an opinion, students should be careful to acknowledge that it is just an opinion rather than trying to present that opinion as a fact.

Students should use appropriate tone of voice, maintain their composure throughout the debate and avoid bickering. If students remain focused on supporting their ideas and refuting the ideas of their opponents, they are likely to succeed.

About the Author

Kristina Barroso earned a B.A. in Psychology from Florida International University and works full-time as a classroom teacher in a public school. She teaches middle school English to a wide range of students from struggling readers to advanced and gifted populations. In her spare time, she loves writing articles about education for TheClassroom.com, WorkingMother and other education sites.