Learning about Arguments by Making Arguments

This page authored by Zornitsa Keremidchieva, Macalester College. The guidelines for the oral debate component of the activity are based on an original handout by Erich Fuchs, Pennsylvania State University.
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This group activity is a part of a semester-long course on Argumentation and Advocacy. Students form several groups that are then divided into a government and an opposition team to debate a topic of the students' choosing.The activity has three major components: (1) Each team collaboratively develops a written policy brief on the topic that the group chose; (2) The groups engage in a structured oral public debate of the topic; (3) Each student writes a peer review and personal reflection paper in which s/he articulates what s/he learned from his/her own debating experience and from watching the other students debate.

Learning Goals

Learning goals:
Locating, selecting, and evaluating evidence
Making inferences and synthesizing ideas
Critical thinking
Oral presentation

Context for Use

The activity is currently used as part of an introductory class on argumentation that can serve a variety of majors. Optimal number of students is 18 to 24. With its various stages, the activity can take between 2 and 4 weeks. No prior experience with debate is necessary. The activity can be adapted to upper level courses by re-focusing the topic of the debate and the permissible forms of evidence.

Description and Teaching Materials

The teaching materials include:
  1. A general description of the policy debate assignment (Microsoft Word 25kB Apr23 09)
  2. Guidelines for the oral debate component (Microsoft Word 47kB Apr23 09)
  3. Rubric for grading the written policy debate briefs (Microsoft Word 24kB Apr23 09)
  4. Rubric for grading the oral debate performance (Microsoft Word 26kB Apr23 09)
  5. Rubric for grading the peer review papers (Microsoft Word 24kB Apr23 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  1. Students need a lot of assistance with the research stage of the assignment. I usually collaborate with a librarian to acquaint them with the research databases that are available through the college library. Also, we have in-class workshops on interpreting and evaluating evidence.
  2. Students often have high speech anxiety. It is best to have opportunities for public speaking and mini-speaking activities on as many occasions as possible prior to the actual debates. Provide specific advice on body language and speaking tone and rate.
  3. Examples of policy briefs can be found online.


The assessment of the students' performances is formal, i.e., it is based on the students' enactment of the components outlined in the assignment guidelines. The components are also visible in the grading rubrics, which are all shared with the students in advance.

References and Resources

For a good description and a sample policy brief, see:
Rieke, R. D., Sillars, M. O., & Peterson, T. R. (2008). Argumentation and critical decision making (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.