University of Wisconsin–Madison

Using Oral Debates to Find an Argument

Rebecca Lorimer (English 201)

When student writers struggle to write argument-driven—rather than report-driven—research papers, it is often because they misunderstand the difference between a research topic and a research argument. In order to help students move from topics to arguments, I stage in-class debates with students before the research writing begins.

My goals for conducting an in-class debate are to help students

  • Find a research topic that is relevant to the course
  • Narrow down the topic so it is specific enough to be researched
  • Find an argument about that specific topic
  • Practice using persuasion

I lead students through the following steps to prepare for and carry out the debates. These usually occur over the course of two class meetings, but could easily be abbreviated for one class or extended to multiple meetings for more in-depth debate.

  1. Watch a clip of a debate. You can find debate clips easily on YouTube. I’ve often used Jon Stewart’s appearance on the now-defunct CNN show Crossfire to great success. Watching a debate elicits students’ thinking about what successful persuasion looks like. After we watch the clip I ask students:

            Who did you find more persuasive? Why?

            How would you characterize the success of this debate? What was accomplished?

 

  1. Set parameters for a successful debate. Through the conversation above, the students and I come to an agreement about what will constitute a successful debate in our class. This usually includes the following:

Civilized discourse—genuine listening, acknowledging what other side has just argued

Honest arguments—claims are reasonable and logical, use evidence for support

Changed minds—arguments that “win” persuade a listener of something they were disinclined to believe

No attacks or outbursts—speakers appeal to emotions, but not to the sacrifice of their ethos

 

  1. Explain debate format. Formats are very flexible, but this loose structure has worked in the past: each debate side gives a two-minute speech that presents their arguments; both sides debate for six minutes. The audience asks questions for five minutes and then writes for five minutes about who has been more successful in the debate.

 

  1. In-class preparation work. Depending on how much time is available during a class meeting, you can assign groups, debate roles, and topics, or else let students choose all of these. When I have time to let students choose, I do the following:

      Ask students to write down one debatable topic relevant to the course and write it on the board.

                 -As a class we decide if it is indeed debatable or not. (Do people disagree on this topic?)

      Assign students to small groups and let them choose the topic from the board they’d like to debate.

                 -Students decide who will be on which side of the debate.

      Have students choose roles: Who will give the speech and who will present which claims?

 

  1. Out-of-class preparation work. Students research their topic in course material and outside reading. They email each other support they’ve found and write notes. Whoever will give the speech writes their two-minute speech.

 

  1. Students debate. Groups move to the front of the class to carry out their debates according to the format above. The rest of the class acts as an audience, writing down at least one question for the debate group as they listen. The audience asks questions for five minutes and then everyone writes for five minutes, answering the following questions:

Which side did you find most persuasive and why?

What was their topic and argument?

What was your view on the topic before the debate and what is your view now?

I read students’ responses to these questions and tally which arguments the class found most convincing—these groups get the pleasure of a “win.” But the exercise is intended most of all to accomplish the goals stated above. Student responses show me whether or not they understand the difference between topics and arguments and whether or not they can describe persuasive techniques. Some students end up writing their papers with their debate argument or other arguments they saw presented by other groups. Other students research an entirely new topic but follow the process practiced in the debate.