This article is based on a fuller article: Debate: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

A reasoned debate allows students to explore and gain understanding of alternative viewpoints and, for the participants, develops communication, critical thinking and argumentation skills. They are commonly associated with disciplines such as Law, Politics, and Social Work where practitioners are required to present and defend particular positions. They can be used in other disciplines too, for example, students in design-based subjects can use the skills they have learned through debating to defend design choices in response to a project brief.

Suggested Room Configurations

debate-circleThe circle or square configuration encourages wider participation in the debate by enabling the whole group to see and address each other directly. This diagram shows the lecturer’s role skirting the outside of the room and making occasional interventions by entering the debating circle.

This configuration lends itself well to a variation of the activity where people sit on one side of the room or the other based on their personal view on the issue. Participants can be allowed to physically move when their view changes.


The traditional classroom layout can be used for debates, with the advocates positioned at the front and the rest of the cohort forming the audience.

Potential Supporting Technology

An Electronic Voting System (EVS), sometimes known as a Personal Response System (PRS), is well suited for use during debates as it allows the persuasiveness of the debaters and their arguments to be recorded. For example, an EVS could be used to display which way the people in the room are leaning in ‘real-time’ during the debate at key points. This can help the group to identify the most persuasive arguments without disrupting the flow of the debate.

Several different EVS products are being used at SHU, ranging from dedicated keypad-based solutions such as Turning Point, through to web and mobile tools like ResponsewareSocrative and PollEverywhere.

Extending the discussion beyond the room

Technology also allows debates to incorporate a wider range of views and experiences by including participants who would be otherwise unable to attend the university to take part, such as professional experts from around the world, patients, prisoners, or those who would simply prefer some anonymity. The use of tools such as Skype or Blackboard Collaborate enable these people to take part in the discussion from anywhere in the world via the internet. Similarly, social networking tools such as Twitter also allow outside parties to engage in the discussions and provide alternative viewpoints.

In addition, recording debates, either as audio or video, can be done with common technologies such as smartphones and tablets. These recordings can then be used later to review the debate, or enable the debaters to reflect on their performance and analyse the persuasiveness of specific arguments.

Further Resources