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Conducting a Formal Debate



Conducting a Formal Debate           

Vocabulary Terms

Argument:  a position or statement of opinion to be supported.

Contention:  a part of an argument, a contention is a statement to be proven.

Affirmative:  the positive side (pro) that supports the resolution.

Negative:  the side of the debate that is against the affirmative position (the con)

Resolution:  a specific statement of what is to be proven or refuted; the formal resolution begins with (example):  "Be it resolved that there is no justifiable reason to take the life of another.”

Refute:  to disprove

Rebuttal:  questions as to challenge points made by the opposition.

Summation:  conclusion, the last appeal to the audience/jury.

Brief:  pre-planned statements of position before rebuttal.

Logical fallacies:  these are errors in thinking and mistakes in logic.  Some of the most famous are: post hoc fallacy, false authority, part/whole, either/or, rationalization, red herring, and improper date.  These fallacies are also called a great number of other things by other authors, so for our purposes if you know them, use them.  If not, forget them for now. 

Organization and Planning:

     A.)  Two teams with equal number of participants create the formal resolution with all ambiguous terms defined. 

     B.)  Pro's and con's positions are chosen.

     C.)  Research:

              1.)  Primary source documentation (quotes and parsing)

               2.)  Secondary source documentation (dictionaries, literary criticism, historical research, laws, court case summaries, contemporary relevant examples)

    D.) Organization:  deciding who speaks when. 

            In general, the introduction and opening position arguments should be given by the shyer participants because they can write, and read or memorize these statements (briefs).  The more poised and quick-thinking members should work on rebuttal arguments because they involve knowing the literature and research well, listening to the opponents' arguments, finding the holes in their logic, and refuting them quickly and effectively by using textual support, research, and logic.

II Rules of the Procedure:

      1.)  First speaker(s) Pro (Introduction:  Opening argument and basic outline of approach to resolving the debate question)  5 minutes

     2.)  First speaker(s) Con (Opening argument and basic outline of approach to resolving the debate question)  5 minutes

     3.)  Second speakers Pro:  10 minutes (Often used with a brief)

     4.)  Second speakers Con:  10 minutes  (Often used with a brief)

     5.)  First Rebuttal  Pro:  5 minutes

     6.)  First  Rebuttal Con:  5 minutes

     7.)  Second Rebuttal Pro:  10 minutes

     8.)  Second Rebuttal Con:  10 minutes

     9.)  Summation Pros (Conclusion):  3 minutes

     10.)  Summation Cons (Conclusion):  3 minutes 

     11.)  After all discussion the whole class writes a brief reflection on how their thoughts have or have not changed.

III Protocols (Rules for debate conduct and etiquette)

     1.)  Contentions should be stated clearly (perhaps even listed) at the onset of the debate (in the introduction and opening arguments)

     2.)  A moderator should serve as a source of appeal for rulings about etiquette or breach of protocol. In this case the teacher is the moderator.

     3.)  The moderator only interjects comments or ruling when appealed to by a debate member...or in cases of blatant violation of protocols.

     4.)  Questions or challenges should not be personal or insulting.

     5.)  Initial briefs (introduction and beginning opening arguments) are to be offered without clash or reference to the statements made by the other side.  Clash and refutation occur only in rebuttal.

     6.)  Each speaker is accountable for team position statements and research; speakers must defend their team's positions.

     7.)  The moderator may call a recess in proceedings in the event of doubt in an appeal or other act of God (dropping your notecards all over the floor, fainting, vomiting, etc.)

     8.)  Members may appeal to the moderator for environmental or personal needs (see above list).

IV  Strategies:

     1.)  If you don't want to debate a point, don't bring it up.

     2.)  Don't get mad; get even through the use of logic.

     3.)  Use the moderator to your advantage.  Memorize these rules and protocols and use them when possible.  Insist that the rules always be followed.  (This is especially true when the moderator [teacher] is also scripting the debate for assessment and may miss something that you saw as a violation.)

     4.)  Control the floor when it's your turn.  Asking an open question, gives away your power to the other side.

     5.)  Negative body language (eye rolling, mocking tone, etc.) does not serve to give any judge or moderator a positive impression of you.

     6.)  Appear to be listening sympathetically--then devastate the other side with logical attack.

     7.)  Use formal language.  Slang, name-calling, or cursing undercuts your power and makes you seem unprepared and unprofessional.  Also watch colloquial speech expressions such as "Hey, you guys said" and that killer "and...ummm..."

     8.)  Ham it up.  Speak with passion and intensity, but don't be melodramatic (=no drama queens with attitude).

     9.)  Logic is not loud.  A quiet, authoritative voice and poised, planted body language command attention, respect, and often intimidation.

     10.)  Choose your experts and sources wisely.  This is why I have you cite your sources.  "An entry from the OED defines this as..." carries more scholarly weight than "Wikepedia says..." 

     11.)  Take time to read the primary source carefully and exactly.  Racing through the reading may cause you to stutter or misread.  Cite the source always.

     12.)  Use your parsing in your team's best interests.  Remember:  language is always to a certain extent ambiguous.  Words always have echoes of other meanings (and other words) especially connotatively.  Use that knowledge to your best effect.

     13.)  Use short anecdotes, famous quotes, or secondary source materials (laws, court records, historical events, and literary criticism) when possible. Always give context as to who said it, when, and what year.  In citing court cases, give the name and date.

      14.)  Know the position of the other side as well as you know your own.  Debating is like chess.  You have to plan a couple of moves ahead, or you'll lose.

     15.)  Don't sound patronizing or condescending.

     16.)  Watch your posture and try not to fidget.  Body language speaks volumes.

     17.)  Don't overuse any single strategy.

     18.)  Don't say "I don't know," "You're right," without following through with "That may be true but have you ever thought about..."

     19.)  Save your best quote, strongest point, and highest impact emotional appeal for your summation and final statement.  Just don't forget time and leave it out!

  Formal Debate Assessment:                     

Directions:  Students will participate in a formal British style debate that resolves the following:  There is no justifiable reason for taking the life of another.  The following criteria will be used to help students earn bonus points after the murder trial activity:









Debaters are random in logical development.

There is no clear sequence of information or effective building of the argument.

Debaters mostly perform in a logical sequence so that audience can follow.

Debaters present information in a logical, interesting, and passionately skilled (rhetorical devices) manner, which the audience can follow.

Subject Knowledge

(Textual Reference)




Debater has much difficulty in providing textual support and page numbers for excerpts.

After reading an excerpt, student has much difficulty providing clear analysis or parsing (or both) to prove claim

Debater has a little difficulty providing some argument and page numbers for excerpts.  After reading passage, student has difficulty providing a clear analysis or parsing to prove claim.

Debater provides claim for argument and page numbers of excerpt.  After reading the passage, student provides a clear and articulate analysis and/or parsing to prove claim.

Secondary Sources



No secondary sources were utilized

Secondary sources were utilized but in a vague and ineffective way.

Secondary sources were utilized, cited, and analyzed on a high level (analysis and evaluation)

Team Cohesion

Team had much difficulty collaborating with or assisting each other.

Rude behavior is demonstrated (either toward own team or opponents.

Team had a reasonable approach to collaboration but one or two individuals “carried” the team.

Polite, appropriate behavior is demonstrated.

Team collaborates well and assists each other.  No one debater enabled others to “Velcro.”

Respect is always modeled toward the opponents and team members.


Debaters were unprepared to refute the arguments of their opponents.

Vagueness, blankness, inaccuracies about the novel, or comments that use movies as a source instead of the novel would fall under this


Debaters have difficulty with the presentation of the spontaneous arguments needed for a successful rebuttal.  This would be characterized by an inability to find appropriate textual support, disorganization, and/or flustered, illogical responses.

The rebuttal arguments have been clearly brainstormed and strategized, as is evidenced by “poise under fire” and ready references and specific accurate details from the text and/or secondary sources to parry the challenges of the other team.

Participation and Attitude

Debater is uncooperative, unprepared, immature, or passive aggressive (“I’m shy, and I don’t participate in this sort of class”)

Debater tries his/her best despite the fact that debate may not be a favorite hobby or pastime.  No sulking, shouting, or personally attacking any members of the class—or the teacher, God Forbid!

Passionate but appropriate responses characterize the debater’s physical and verbal manner.

Debater looks like he/she was having fun.  Rhetorical devices are utilized.  Correct and appropriate language is always used.