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Debate is a valuable activity for students of all skill levels. Debate teaches useful skills for other academic pursuits and life more generally. Debaters build confidence speaking in public and expressing their ideas eloquently. That comfort speaking in front of others is useful in so many areas of life, from interviews to school presentations to discussions in college seminars. In having to master an issue from both sides, debaters learn to flex their analytical muscles, gain tolerance for competing viewpoints, and understand the intricacies of a world filled with nuance. According to Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, debate is “uniquely suited” to build skills required of a modern citizen, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
These skills help students express their thoughts better in their academic work, in the community, at your dinner table, college, and their future careers. The College Board recently revamped the SAT test to focus more on exactly the sorts of skills debate teaches. As the New York Times explained, students taking the new version of the test must write “a critical response to a specific argument” based on analysis rather than personal experience. Debaters are used to responding to unfamiliar arguments in time-sensitive situations; thinking critically about a written passage on the SAT is not so different from responding to an opponent’s argument in a debate round. Studies have found that debaters outscore non-debaters on every section of the ACT. Studies across the country have found that high school debate improves reading ability, grades, school attendance, self-esteem, and interest in school.
For those who commit to speech and debate, it offers a lifetime of benefits. Forbes published an article titled “How to Find the Millennials Who Will Lead Your Company,” suggesting that the leaders of the future are ex-debaters. As that article notes, debate teaches “how to persuade, how to present clearly, and how to connect with an audience,” exactly the skills businesses look for in their young employees. You’ll find ex-debaters in every area of public life, from Bruce Springsteen to Oprah Winfrey to Nelson Mandela. 60% of Congressional representatives participated in debate, as well as at least a third of the Supreme Court. There are ex-debaters excelling in business, law, politics, academia, and many other fields.
Perhaps most important of all, debate is fun! You may have to cajole your son or daughter to go to their test prep class or do their homework, but debate makes learning a game; students build their critical thinking and speaking skills without it ever feeling like work. Debate gives students a rare opportunity to take ownership over their own intellectual development. And throughout the years of practice and competition, debate builds lifelong friendships and community, teaching teamwork as well.
- Research has confirmed repeatedly that debaters (a) have an advantage in college admissions and (b) are more likely to meet college readiness benchmarks, as measured by standardized test scores. Yale's Dr. Luong found that even without winning major awards, debaters stood a 4% better chance of being admitted to college than similar non-debaters. This is a higher improvement in college admission chances than any other extra-curricular activity. Winning a state or other major award in debate improves an applicant’s chances by at least 22% (Luong, “Forensics and College Admissions”, Rostrum, November 2000).
- Debater helps students perform well on standardized tests. One researcher, using a hybrid longitudinal and cross-sectional design, found that students in competitive forensics made larger gains from eighth-grade to tenth-grade than similarly matched students (in Honors English but not in forensics) on their state standardized tests. The larger gains were built on similar eighth-grade scores, ruling out self-selection bias. Furthermore, the students in competitive forensics also earned higher ACT scores, confirming the results on the state tests (Peters, “An Investigation into the Relationship between Competitive Forensics and Standardized Test Scores”, Rostrum, October 2004).
- However, the most definitive research comes from administrative-level data in Chicago, which has allowed researchers to control for self-selection. The data set, covering a decade of U.D.L. participation from 1997 to 2007, crucially contained the eighth-grade (pre-debate) standardized test scores. Using this as a control variable, researchers found that, debaters attained higher scores on the A.C.T. and “were also more likely to reach the college-readiness benchmark on the English, Reading, and Science sections of the ACT. It is noteworthy that debaters in every risk index group were more likely to reach the college-readiness benchmark… ” [emphasis added] (Anderson & Mezuk, “Participating in a Policy Debate Program”, Journal of Adolescence, 2012). A previous version of their research found that African American males were twice as likely to hit the college-readiness benchmark on the English A.C.T. section–even after accounting for eighth-grade test scores prior to debating (Mezuk, “Urban Debate and High School Educational Outcomes for African American Males”, Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2009). While the connection between the English and reading sections to debate is obvious, the science result is fascinating. Approximately 60% to 70% of the A.C.T. Science section is based on the interpretation of experimental evidence and evaluation of two or more conflicting hypotheses, a skill debaters have marked practice with, even though in a social science, not natural science, context (A.C.T., Science Test Description, accessed March 2017).