Debate as Formative Assessment Essay

Awhile back I made it a goal to never assign worksheets or the questions out of the book. Once I’ve provided students with the content, I want them to play with it, create with it, and put their own stamp on it in some way. It’s more memorable, and more fun.

Debates are excellent formative assessments that check a lot of boxes:

  • Debates hit all the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Not only do students have to know their material, they have to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, and their opponents.
  • Debate prep is excellent student-led reteaching. You’ll never see students so eager to review content than when preparing for a debate.
  • Debates get students up and moving. Please, please don’t make your kids sit all period. They have to do that all day!
  • Debates done in groups require students to work cooperatively.
  • Debates naturally provide differentiation.
  • Debates can be interactive for the whole class.
  • Students enjoy debates.

If that sounds good to you, here are 7 Steps to Hold a Debate.

1.) Have an interesting question without a clear answer

Most recently we debated, Was the Mongol Empire Ultimately Good or Bad? An ideal question should be able to go either way, depending on the strength of your students’ understanding, oratory and analysis during the debate. If the question is already decided, it won’t be much of a debate.

2.) Make sure they are already familiar with the content

Debates are great formative assessments, but not so great if they don’t know or haven’t been much about the content. When you hold a debate, you’re asking them to analyze both sides of an issue. We had studied the Mongol conquests, strategies, and policies, so students already had a lot of information. To start the day we put that information into a simple t-chart under “Good” and “Bad.”

3.) Make heterogenous groups

No all-star teams. That’s no fun. 3-6 is an ideal size for role division, without having too many students stand around.

4.) Choose the groups

I pass out a playing card to each group, and have reds argue one side and blacks the other.

5.) Show students the debate format and have them choose roles

My debates have three parts and corresponding roles which I’ve posted below. Lower students can do very well at the opening and closing statements, so those can be prepared ahead of time. Higher students typically relish the back and forth of the debate.

Opening Statement: 1 Minute
Clearly and emphatically state what you are arguing. Offer your 3 BEST arguments. Using powerful and dynamic language.

Debate: 4-10 minutes
You will have the opportunity to ask your opponent questions, and engage in a back and forth. They will also ask you questions.  Prepare questions that highlight your strengths and/or their weaknesses. Prepare answers for questions you anticipate hearing (what are your weaknesses?).

Closing Statement. 1 Minute
Restate your basic argument. Offer your 3 best arguments again, and a rebuttal of their best arguments.

6.) Give them time to prepare

During this time, go from group to group and test them. Play devil’s advocate. Throw out lines of reasoning they need to be familiar with and see how they respond.

7.) Keep score and have the class do the same

When it’s time to debate, I make a simple t-chart to score the debate and have all students not participating do the same. I take notes and put a plus on the side I believe that won.

Debates typically lead to a good reflection discussion afterwards. What ideas were the strongest? The weakest? Did anyone change their opinion after hearing the debates? You can grade students on participation and performance of the debate itself, or have them write a reflection paragraph.

High School
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