4 Fast Debates Formats for the Classroom

Hold Quick Debates in Grades 7-12

Debates are ideal ways to increase student speaking and listening skills. Hero Images/GETTY

While a debate is an adversarial activity,  there are numerous positive benefits for students. First and foremost, a debate increases the opportunities for speaking and listening in the classroom. During a debate, students take turns to speak in response to the arguments made by their opponents. IAt the same time, other students participating in the debate or in the audience must listen carefully for positions made or evidence used in proving a position. Debates are wonderful instructional strategies to develop speaking and listening skills.

In addition, it is the ability of a student this or her position, and to convince others of that same position, that is the at the center of these classroom debates. Each of these debate requires less attention on the quality of speaking and more on the evidence in the arguments presented. 

 Topics for arguments can be found on this link Debate Topics for High School or Debate Topics for Middle School.  There are other posts, such as Three Websites to Prepare for Debate, where students can research how debaters organize their arguments and how successful some of the arguments are in making a claim with evidence. There are also rubrics for scoring.

Here are four debate formats that can be used or adapted to for the length of a class period.

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An Abbreviated Lincoln-Douglas Debate

The Lincoln-Douglas debate format is dedicated to questions that are of a deeper moral or philosophical nature.

The Lincoln-Douglas debate is a debate format that is one-on-one.  While some students may prefer a one-to-one debate, other students may not want the pressure or spotlight. This debate format allows a student to win or lose based solely on an individual's argument rather than relying on a partner.

This outline of how to run an abbreviated version of a Lincoln-Douglas debate will run about 15 minutes, including time for transitions or claim starters for each stage of the process:

  • First Affirmative Speaker- Two minutes to introduce the topic
  • First Negative Speaker- Two minutes to restate the opponent's viewpoint:
    • Example: "it is often said" or "many people assume that my esteemed opponent believes that" 
  • Second Affirmative Speaker- Two minutes to disagree:
    • Example: "on the contrary" or "on the other hand" 
  • Second Negative Speaker- Two minutes to explain why you are right (using evidence)
    • "for example" or "this is why" 
  • Break for Preparation Speaker- Two minutes transition
  • Negative Summary/Rebuttal Speaker- Two minutes to conclude with your thesis
    • Example "therefore" or "as a result" or  "thus it can be seen" 
  • Affirmative Summary/Rebuttal Speaker- Two minutes to conclude with your thesis
    •  "therefore" or "as a result" or  "thus it can be seen." 
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Role Play Debate

In the role play format of debate activities, students examine different points of view or perspectives related to an issue by playing a "role". For example, a debate about the question Should English class be required for four years? might yield a variety of opinions.

The points of view might include opinions that would be expressed by a student (or perhaps two students) representing a side of an issue. The role play debate could feature other roles such as a parent, a school principal, a college professor, a teacher, the textbook company salesman, an author, or others.)

To roleplay, decide in advance by asking the students to help you identify all stakeholders in the debate. You will need three index cards for each stakeholder role, with the provision that there is the same number of index cards as there are students. Write the role of one stakeholder per card. 

Students choose an index card at random; students holding the same stakeholder card gather together. Each group formulating the arguments for their assigned stakeholder.

During the debate, each stakeholder presents his or her point of view.

In the end, the students decide which stakeholder presented the strongest argument.

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Tag Team Debate

 In a tag team debate, there are opportunities for every student to participate. The teacher organizes a team of students (no more than five) to represent one side of a debatable question.

Each team has a set amount of time (3-5 minutes) to present its point of view.

The teacher reads aloud the issue to be debated and then gives each team the opportunity to discuss their argument.

One speaker from a team takes the floor and can speak for no more than one minute. That speaker may "tag" another member of the team to pick up the argument before his or her minute is up. 

Team members who are eager to pick up a point or add to the team's argument can put out a hand to be tagged.

The current speaker knows who might be ready to pick up the team's argument.

No member of the team can be tagged twice until all members have been tagged once.

There should be an uneven number of rounds (3-5) before the debate is concluded.

Students vote on which team made the best argument.

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Inner Circle-Outside Circle Debate

In the Inner Circle-Outside Circle, arrange students into two groups of equal size.

Students in Group 1 sit in a circle of chairs facing out, away from the circle.

Students in Group 2 sit in a circle of chairs around Group 1, facing the students in Group 1.

The teacher reads aloud the issue to be discussed.

The students in the inner circle receive 10-15 minutes to discuss the topic. During that time, all other students focus their attention on the students in the inner circle. 

No one else is allowed to speak.

Each member of the outer circle group creates a list of the arguments made by each member of the inner circle group and add their notes about their arguments.

After 10-15 minutes, groups switch roles and the process is repeated.

After the second round, all students share their outer circle observations. 

The notes from both rounds are used in a follow-up classroom discussion and/or for writing an editorial opinion expressing a point of view on the issue at hand.