Debate Brings Many Benefits to Students

06 May 2023

Nearly three hours after midnight, Tajaih Robinson and Iyana Trotman of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina finally heard the judges' decision. They had defeated the University of Michigan in the finals on April 4.

After 12 debates over four straight days, the Wake Forest team won the 2023 National Debate Tournament (NDT). Their coach, Justin Green, described the moment as: "Hugging, yelling, crying, and laughing..."

Over 500 colleges and universities in the United States have competitive debate programs. The program gives students a chance to work together to argue for or against an issue or statement.

Kelly Phil (standing) and teammate Rafael Pierry from the University of Michigan debate during the final round of the National Debate Tournament, Monday, April 4 in Chantilly, Virginia. (Photo Courtesy of Claire Brickson)
Kelly Phil (standing) and teammate Rafael Pierry from the University of Michigan debate during the final round of the National Debate Tournament, Monday, April 4 in Chantilly, Virginia. (Photo Courtesy of Claire Brickson)

Benefits of debate

Students and their coaches point to several benefits of the activity. They say debate helps develop research skills, critical thinking skills, time management, and public speaking.

John Turner is Director of Debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He said debaters research issues in detail and across many different areas of knowledge.

"We are drawing from academic materials from so many different subfields, many of which are never in conversation with each other. . . we are bringing this full variety of perspectives to bear on a common point."

Turner added that debaters can bring knowledge that other students might not have to their classes, especially in the social sciences. And undergraduate debaters often do as much research in a year as graduate students in master's and doctoral programs.

Kelly Phil is a member of the Michigan team that reached the NDT finals. She said research for her classes seems "incredibly easy" compared to the research for debate. Phil studies political science and history.

Like Turner, she said debate research is useful for classes.

"Debate gives you this big... background reservoir of knowledge that you can draw on at any point when you're writing a paper. . ."

Ana Bittner is another debater from Wake Forest. She thinks she is "more well-read than other students" and that debate has improved her ability to quickly process large amounts of information. For example, Bittner said she quickly looked through a 550-page book in about one hour to find information to support her debate arguments.

Mikaela Malsin is Director of Debate at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She said debate helps students think about both sides of an issue and learn respect for others:

"Not many activities or areas that you encounter... really challenge you to think differently and to take on different perspectives... the switch-side nature of policy debate is really significant."

Like student-athletes, top debaters travel to competitions on weekends. And they can spend up to 30 or 40 hours a week preparing for important tournaments.

Ari Davidson of Wake Forest said a debater might miss up to 10 classes each semester. This makes it very difficult for some students to debate, especially if they have science classes that require time in laboratories.

Phil, of Michigan, said the extra time she spends on debate feels like "just another part of academic life." She also finds that debating makes her more willing to speak in class. She says that when she has a clear idea of what she wants to say, "it's really not that difficult to speak in public."

Both Malsin and Turner said the best debaters can combine large amounts of information and explore many different arguments.

Above all, Davidson and Turner said the activity acts as a laboratory for testing ideas and looking for solutions to big problems.

An international student learns to debate

Kamal Belmihoud came from Algeria to study at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. English is not his first language. In fact, it was his fourth. But that did not stop him from joining the debate team.

For the first year and a half, Belmihoud lost every debate. But his coaches kept supporting him, and he enjoyed the travel and being a member of the debate community. Over time, Belmihoud increased his language skill and confidence. In his last semester, he won several debates.

Now Belmihoud teaches writing at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He includes in-class debates as part of his teaching.

Belmihoud says international students should not let fear stop them from trying debate or other activities. Instead, they should center on the progress they are making and being part of a team.

I'm Andrew Smith. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Andrew Smith wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

coach -n. a leader or trainer of a team

hug -v. to embrace or put one's arms around something

yell -v. to shout or call out in a loud voice

benefits -n. positive aspects or helpful results

management -n. ability to control or organize

academic -adj. relating to schools, colleges, and universities

perspective -n. a point of view or way of thinking about things

bring (something) to bear on -(idiomatic) to cause to have an effect on

undergraduate -adj. referring to students at universities who study for associate's or bachelor's degrees

graduate -adj. referring to students at universities who study for masters or doctorate degrees

reservoir -n. a large container holding water, such as a lake, or a source of large amounts of information

encounter -v. to meet or experience something

challenge -v. to require special effort to do a task or achieve a goal

significant -adj. of special importance

semester -n.In colleges and universities in some countries, one of the two main periods into which the year is divided.