Debating - the Evidence is In!

The benefits of debating seem obvious to us, here at Rise & Shine, but you don’t have to take our word for it on how incredible debating is – take a look at the research yourself.

The benefits of debating tend to seem obvious to us, here at Rise & Shine. It gives children practice with speech and communication skills, research skills and self-managed study; in writing their speeches they construct arguments and think critically about evidence; in the ‘live’ debate they practice multi-tasking, critical listening, note-taking, and grace under pressure – and it does all of this while encouraging them to become interested in and informed about the social issues of the day. As a resume, it’s pretty impressive!

However, one of the things we teach in debating is to look for empirical evidence to support an argument. What, then, is the empirical evidence that demonstrates the benefits of debating?

Improving Academic Achievement

Debaters are 25% more likely to graduate from high school than their peers (Mezuk et al., 2010), and consistently receive higher academic grades; the average debate student rises to the top 10% of their class (Minch, 2006). Their reading comprehension improves up to 25% more than their peers (Collier, 2004).

Debating is a skillset that gets applied to a new topic each time. As a result, debaters become comfortable with new concepts and language, learning techniques to conquer the unfamiliar. They become self-directed learners, skills that allow them to continue to learn throughout their lives. (Carr, 2002)

Of course, correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps it’s simply that the sort of student who is interested in debating performs better academically. Sam Greenland (2010) found that previous academic ability had no particular correlation with success in debating – that is, that debating is not just for the ‘smart kids’, but can be done by almost all students.

There does appear to be a run-on effect, however: in a 2005 survey of the Minneapolis Urban Debate League, 100% of students reported an increased interest in their classes by the end of their first year of debate (NAUDL, 2010).

Developing Critical Thinking

Debating teaches students to synthesize wide bodies of complex information, helps students to build links between words and ideas that make concepts more meaningful, and promotes problem solving and innovative thinking (Bellon, 2000).

While lectures are better for establishing basic knowledge of the subject material, students acquire better comprehension of complex concepts and critical evaluation skills when controversial topics are taught in the debate format (Omelicheva & Avdeyeva, 2008).

Participating in competitive debate makes a measurable improvement to students’ skills in selecting evidence and structuring and summing up an argument (Jerome & Algarra, 2006).

Mental and Emotional Maturity

Debating requires students to engage with serious subject matter in a mature and thoughtful way. They learn how to phrase their thoughts clearly, and to speak in ways that will encourage others – including and especially adults – to listen to them with respect. As a result, debating significantly improves students’ self-confidence (Carr, 2002).

One survey showed debaters’ personal assessments of their self-esteem to be 15% higher than their peers, and the longer the individual had been debating, the wider the difference was likely to be (NAUDL, 2010).

Debaters show more maturity in the face of adversity, and tend to develop stronger relationships with peers and mentors (Bellon, 2000). Learning to take alternate points of view builds empathy and improves debaters’ ability to cooperate and resolve conflicts (Infante & Wigley, 1986). They also tend to be politically active and have high levels of civic engagement (Bellon, 2000).

Age-appropriate Learning

Debating is often assumed to be the province of teenagers and older, and, indeed, the majority of the research has focused on these students.

While we have more than a decade of anecdotal evidence that debating works for younger children, we can offer peer-reviewed evidence as additional support: a qualitative study focusing on the use of debate with 10 and 11 year-olds found that debate enabled pupils to delve further than usual into historical events and to understand historical contexts and differences between viewpoints from the past (Jensen, 2008).

Future Success

An overwhelming percentage of debaters – 98% – go on to study at a post-secondary level (Luong, 2000). Debaters are also more likely to be offered university scholarships (Billman & Christiensen, 2008). Many top corporate executives and high-ranking officials in all branches of government are former debaters (Colbert et al., 1985), and a 2014 Forbes article recommended former debaters as the most promising leadership candidates in professional business.

So you don’t have to take our word for it on how incredible debating is – take a look at the research yourself. We have a hundred stories to illustrate each boast, and we look forward to being able to tell stories about your child!


Bellon, J. (2000). A research based justification for debate across the curriculum. Argumentation and Advocacy, 36(3), 161-173.

Billman, J. & Christiensen, H. (2008). [Short survey responses from NFL Alumni]. Unpublished raw data.

Carr, J. E. (2002, January). A better investment not found on Wall Street. The Rostrum, 76(5), 25-26.

Colbert, Kent and Thompson Biggers. “The Forum: Why Should We Support Debate?” Journal of the American Forensic Association 21 (Spring 1985): 237-40.

Collier, L. (2004). Argument for Success: A Study of Academic Debate in the Urban High Schools of Chicago, Kansas City, New York, St. Louis and Seattle. Paper presented at the Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences, Honolulu.

Greenland, S. (2010). More Debates in More Classrooms. Keynote Speech at 3rd International Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, Debate and the Pedagogy of Empowerment, Maribor, Slovenia.

Infante, D. A., &Wigley, C. J., III. (1986). Verbal aggressiveness: An interpersonal model and measure. Communication Monographs, 53, 61-69.

Jensen, J. (2008). Developing Historical Empathy through Debate: An Action Research Study. Social Studies Research and Practice, 3 (1).

Jerome, L. and Algarra, B. (2006). English-Speaking Union London Debate Challenge: 2005–06 Final Evaluation Report. Cambridge and Chelmsford: Anglia Ruskin University.

Luong, M. (2000, November). Forensics and College Admissions. The Rostrum, 75(3), 5-6.

Mezuk, B., Bondarenko, I., Smith, S. and Tucker, E. (2010). The Influence of a Policy Debate Program on Achievement in a Large Urban Public School System. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton Atlanta and Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, August 14.

Minch, K. (2006, December) The Value of Speech, Debate, and Theatre Activities: Making the Case for Forensics, The Rostrum, 81(4)

National Association for Urban Debate. (2010). Urban Debate Works Evidence Center.

Omelicheva, M. Y., & Avdeyeva, O. (2008). Teaching with lecture or debate? Testing the effectiveness of traditional versus active learning methods of instruction. PS: Political Science & Politics, 41(03), 603-607.

Sher, R. (2014). “How To Find the Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company,” Forbes,