Tradition, Advocacy, Innovation

Debate is a Game

Posted on July 25th, by Sarah Spring in Debate Pedagogy. 1 Comment

Re-post from HoustonDebate on

I’ve recently been putting together curriculum for next week’s Houston Urban Debate League (HUDL) summer workshop and I’ve been looking for new ways to teach debate to students who are encountering debate for the first time.

The amazing part of debate, even to outsiders, is the passion and enthusiasm it creates in students for even the most arcane and complex topics. High school students spending hours researching the history of US foreign policy towards Latin America? Yes, it happens. Competitive debate somehow motivates students to learn even the most impenetrable subjects. How? Competition. The thrill of the game creates highly engaged students because they want to win.

But the impenetrability of the material is also the problem.Novices are often overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of debate jargon in addition to the difficult content of the topic that they are asked to debate. This avalanche of information discourages students from participating and becomes a barrier to discovering the motivation that debate encourages.

Solutions to this problem typically include intentionally limiting the content that is covered, and slowing introducing pieces of the knowledge base that debate requires. While simplification is a important tactic, the problem is that when we teach debate we seem to forget our most important resource — competition.

Yes, debate rounds are competitive, but why limit the value of competing to a tournament or practice rounds? In fact, getting students to compete in their first debate is often a struggle.

Games & Student Engagement?

Student engagement, a educational “buzzword,” can help understand this dilemma.

National Survey of Student Engagement

Student engagement represents .. the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities…


Debate can be a powerful driver of student engagement.People who teach and coach debate will often report that students expend enormous efforts preparing for debates. For instance, Jeff Parcher, in a broader justification of the value of debate, argued that:

The knowledge gained by students about the subject of the debate topic has been compared to masters research

But how and why does this happen? My intuition and experience leads me to believe that the key is competition. Given the importance of student engagement, in fact, debate educators need to find more and better ways of measuring and explaining debate in these terms (but that’s a subject for another day).

In fact, another movement in education also seeks to apply competition to learning outcomes — gamification.

Gamification attempts to harness the motivational power of games and apply it to real-world problems – such as, in our case, the motivational problems of schools.

Lee & Hammer 2011





Debate’s success in creating student engagement, even on a limited scale, can be seen as empirical evidence of the potential of games in education.

Leveraging Competition

Which brings me back to my original problem. Lectures about debate are not very effective. They are dry, boring and I suspect that most students don’t retain much of the information.

I often tell novice debaters that they just need to go to a tournament, have even one debate round, and that will teach them more about debate than I can in hours of lectures. While hyperbolic, my advice is based in the experience that motivation and engagement only come from actual competition. But do we really have to drive across the country or state to just find that spark? Eventually, yes. It helps to compete against rival schools in new places.

But in the meantime, why don’t we gamify teaching debate? We know that most students that self-select and are curious about debate can be motivated by competition. This doesn’t have to mean that in each lesson that there are winners and losers, but it can still be fun.

To test this idea, I’ve put together some memory and vocabulary games for the aforementioned HUDL workshop. I decided to use the site Memrise, because it incorporates interactivity and mobile platforms. I’m not sure it will work, but its worth a try!



The question of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and debate is still on my mind, but that’s a topic for another day!

One thought on “Debate is a Game

  1. Pingback: Slate Series on the Value of Competition | UH Policy Debate

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