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Understanding Different Debate Formats

Instructor: Sharon Linde
The rules and structures for debate forums can be confusing. This lesson will explain the rules, structures, and challenges associated with two major debate formats to 'keep you in the know.' Read on for details.

Defining Debate Formats

Jean is a high school student interested in becoming a lawyer, and she has been told debating is good practice for law school. She's decided to start a debate team, but first she must research the different debate formats, or ways debates are structured, so she understands debates her future team might participate in.

Her research turns up an interesting fact: debates are not intended to be comprehensive. In fact, debate formats are constantly being created and adjusted. Two of the most commonly used formats in the United States are parliamentary debates and policy or cross-examination debates.

Parliamentary Debates

Parliamentary debates are modeled loosely on the British Parliament and forms of this debate style are used worldwide in university student competitions. Jean discovers that, while it is also used for high school debating in the United States, it is not the most popular debate form for her age group.

Many of the terms used in parliamentary debates are borrowed from the British Parliament. The flow of the debate is interesting: the government team, which consists of a prime minister and a member of government, makes a proposition, or request, for a policy change. The opposition team, consisting of a leader of the opposition and a member of the opposition, then tries to show why that policy change should not be instituted.

The order of speeches for parliamentary debates is highly structured with strict timing rules, though there is usually a 30-second grace period.

  1. Prime Minister: constructs argument for the proposition (7 minutes)
  2. Leader of the Opposition: constructs argument against the proposition (8 minutes)
  3. Member of the Government: additional arguments for the proposition (8 minutes)
  4. Member of the Opposition: additional arguments against the proposition (8 minutes)
  5. Leader of the Opposition: rebuttal of government's arguments with no new arguments allowed (4 minutes)
  6. Prime Minister: rebuttal of opposition's arguments with no new arguments allowed (4 minutes)

Jean also learns there are a number of points that make this style of debate unique:

  • The topic of debate and which side of the argument they are debating is only revealed to teams shortly before the debate begins (usually 10 minutes or less).
  • There is no requirement that arguments be factual. Skilled parliamentary debaters will lie if they find it to their advantage.
  • Constructive speeches can be interrupted by the other side by using a point of information, which refutes a point or distracts the current speaker from his or her argument. The speaker has the option of ignoring these requests, but ignoring too many negatively impacts score.

The rules and format of parliamentary debates emphasize the skills of wit, humor, persuasion, and logic while minimizing preparation and evidence. It is widely considered to be the most entertaining form of debate to watch due to the lively back-and-forth nature including humor and quick moving discussion.

She also learns that when participants believe a rule of debate has been broken they call a point of order for one of two reasons:

  1. When the speaker goes over the grace period
  2. When the debater brings up a new argument during a rebuttal speech

In either case, the competitor can stand and say 'point of order,' at which time the speaker stops talking. The person who called the point of order states why and the judge either rules 'well taken' (agreement that a rule is broken) or 'not well taken' (disagreement).

Jean thinks this format fits her style, but wants to find out about other formats before she makes her decision.

Policy or Cross-Examination Debates

Policy debates (also called cross-examination debates) emphasize using large quantities of evidence and long preparation times. Teams in policy debates know in advance which policy they are going to be debating, often weeks or months ahead, but they must be prepared to argue either for or against the policy at the competition. The affirmative two member team argues for the policy and are opposed by the negative team.

The order of speeches for policy debates is structured and timed just like the Parliamentary style was, though this debate structure has ample back and forth discussion between sides. The first half is constructive arguments and cross-examination.

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