Debate Matters: Making the Case for Debate

What is the Atlanta Urban Debate League?

The Atlanta Urban Debate League is a Civic and Community Engagement program of Emory University’s Campus Life division that is committed to providing excellent debate education programs, services, and opportunities to diverse students, educators, and members of the Atlanta community by teaching, empowering, and equipping them with advocacy and life skills necessary to make a profound and positive impact in the world.

What is Policy Debate?

Policy debate is a competitive, academic activity. Michael Bartanen and Robert Littlefield define it as a “form of high-level, intellectual play that involves critical thinking, skillful speaking, and a thorough knowledge of subject matter.” In a policy debate, two teams consisting of two students participate in structured, evidence-based argumentation with one team affirming the proposed government policy and the other negating it. A typical Atlanta Urban Debate League tournament takes place on a Saturday and includes four 60-minute debate rounds followed by an awards ceremony.

Among the many academic programs targeting the development of reading, writing, critical thinking, communication, and research skills, part of what makes policy debate unique is that it’s a form of play which produces a game-based learning environment. This playful, competitive aspect of debate generates a sense of fun and flow that is uniquely conducive to skill development, especially among adolescents. Policy debate is also a form of participatory, expressive learning that research has shown is significantly more effective than traditional models of passive learning centered around memorization and lectures.

The value of the playful element of policy debate is supported by a growing body of research that suggests play is a fundamental activity of human development and an incredibly powerful learning tool. The power of play as a learning tool stems not only from intrinsic motivators like fun and flow, but also extrinsic motivators like rewards and tangible goals. Bartanen and Littlefield argue that debate presents opportunities for “intellectual, social, and personal growth precisely because of the understanding that comes from the repetition of a speech or argument in a new and unique setting during each competitive round[.]” Furthermore, Bartanen and Littlefield suggest that the repetition and adaptation required by debate “encourages greater flexibility and the ability to apply competitively derived skills to a wide variety of situations.”  Debate, then, not only successfully teaches essential academic and life skills, but does so in a way that encourages students to adapt and apply those skills in different settings and contexts.

The model of policy debate as a community program can be better understood through the Positive Youth Development framework. A 2015 study by Susannah Anderson and Briana Mezuk—“the largest and most comprehensive quantitative study to date to examine the mediators of debate participation and academic achievement”—describes the Positive Youth Development framework as a method “for understanding the patterns of risks and protective factors in adolescence that promote healthy ‘social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development[.]’” Anderson and Mezuk explain that “[r]ather than targeting a single behavior, Positive Youth Development programs aim to impact a cluster of development factors including bonding, resilience, social and emotion competence, and prosocial norms.” 

One of the main ways Positive Youth Development programs can improve a wide range of developmental factors is by creating a community environment that encourages healthy socialization in an educational setting. More so, when compared to other Positive Youth Development programs, Anderson and Mezuk suggest that participation in an urban debate league may better facilitate “discrete behavioral and psychosocial improvements” due to “its highly structured nature, which involves the development and application of ‘non-cognitive’ skills (e.g., self-control, working with peers, communicating effectively, resolving conflict, listening to others) as well as academic skills (e.g. reading, writing, analytical thinking).” In this way, Anderson and Mezuk argue that debate is able to bridge academic and social skills.

The Academic Benefits of Policy Debate

The academic benefits of policy debate are well-documented. Debate teaches language skills, critical thinking, research skills, public speaking, and evidence-based argument construction. Moreover, policy debate reinforces secondary literacy skills, without which students are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to be prepared for college. While many school programs seek to improve basic literacy, Mezuk et al. note that relatively few initiatives focus on secondary literacy skills, which include interpretation, the ability to develop arguments about complex texts, and the inference skills necessary to formulate a broader understanding of a subject area through particular texts.

A 2012 study by Anderson and Mezuk found that students who participated in policy debate through the Chicago Urban Debate League were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to drop out of high school compared to students who didn’t participate in debate. That same study also found that students who participated in policy debate scored significantly higher on every section of the ACT, especially English and Reading, and were more likely to achieve the college-readiness benchmarks for the Writing, Science, and English sections of ACT than students who didn’t participate in debate. More so, Anderson and Mezuk’s findings account for key predictors of academic performance including prior achievement, poverty, and special education status and their results held true for high-risk students and low-risk students regardless of the students’ race or gender. 

A 2011 study by Mezuk et al. found that students who participated in debate also showed greater improvements in Grade Point Average than students who did not participate in debate. The authors found that “students who debated had an average spring 12th grade GPA of 3.23 as compared to 2.83 for comparable students who did not debate.” Mezuk et al. note that a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher is a significant predictor of college-readiness.

Debate produces the aforementioned academic benefits through a variety of mechanisms, including the element of play, the repetitive extra-curricular practice of several key language and critical thinking skills in different contexts, the organization and structure urban debate leagues offer for students’ lives, as well as increased school engagement (defined as students’ behavioral and emotional connectedness with school), and civic and social engagement.

Furthermore, in their 2012 study, Anderson and Mezuk found that while two aspects of “participation intensity – quantity of participation (e.g., number of rounds completed and number of tournaments attended) and competitive success (e.g. winning percentage number of times a student finished in the top weight of teams) – were significantly associated with the likelihood of graduating[,]” the quantity of participation was most predictive of high school graduation. This suggests that students can access the academic benefits of debate irrespective of how competitively successful they are. More so, in their 2015 study, Anderson and Mezuk found that “even students with low competitive success and limited participation in debate tournaments were still more likely to graduate from high school and reach college-readiness benchmarks on the ACT.”   

Anderson and Mezuk conclude that “[p]articipation in an UDL has the potential to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of low parental SES [socio-economic status] determining their children’s educational attainment and subsequent social status in adulthood,” which is a transformation that can have “reverberating benefits to health and development throughout the lifespan[.]” Anderson and Mezuk’s research thus strongly suggests that policy debate is an incredibly valuable program for supporting at-risk youth. 

The Social and Emotional Benefits of Debate

Social and emotional skills, a subset of noncognitive skills, are associated with extracurricular participation, community engagement, extroversion, mindfulness, and a sense of self-control. Although the cultivation of social and emotional skills is influenced by several dimensions of the school environment, academic research strongly suggests that targeted programs designed to develop the social and emotional skills of students can succeed in teaching these crucial noncognitive skills. Furthermore, the successful development of social and emotional skills has been shown to increase academic performance and positive social behavior and to reduce behavior problems and emotional distress. 

When compared to improvements in cognitive skills, such as math skills, academic research has also shown that improvements in student’s social and emotional skills has a greater positive effect on overall academic achievement, including increased high school graduation rates, grade point average, and on-time grade progression as well as decreased suspensions and absences.  More so, noncognitive skills are becoming increasingly important for full-time employment and earnings.

The urban debate model is particularly well-suited for developing social and emotional learning skills. Debate practices and tournaments provide a significant, sustained opportunity for students to engage in low-risk socialization with their peers and adult mentors in an engaging academic setting. In their 2015 study, Anderson and Mezuk found that students who participated in debate reported significantly greater social conscience and social competence than students who did not participate in debate, both of which are traits associated with a greater chance of graduating high school and a lower chance of dropping out of high school.

The Civic and Community Benefits of Debate

One of the founding beliefs of the Atlanta Urban Debate League is the idea of debate as a powerful form of civic activism. This belief in the power of debate as a training ground for civic activism stems from debate’s central role in the history of progressive reform of public policy in the United States.[][] The Atlanta Urban Debate League is also unique for its prioritization of community as a central value of the program, which positioned the league “both inside and in opposition to the traditional debate paradigm” while establishing “a delineation between the competitive nature of traditional debate and what was considered a debate ‘family.’” 

In a time of significantly decreased youth civic participation, policy debate empowers students to effectively deliberate with diverse peers over “facts, assumptions, values, and opinions underlying public debate over matters of civic importance.” It also teaches students the importance of logical reasoning and forming ideas with thorough evidence, both of which are essential aspects of being an informed and active citizen. Through in-depth deliberation over different ideas and perspectives, students develop communication skills, greater cultural awareness, and appreciation for diversity. 

Policy debate topics change each year and are centered around a contemporary issue of great importance to society, such as immigration law or education policy. By researching and debating the rotating topics, students are able to learn about specific socio-economic problems and policy issues in great depth. More so, students learn to discuss pressing, divisive issues productively amongst their peers. 

The 2015 study by Anderson and Mezuk found that students who participated in debate reported significantly greater civic engagement than students who didn’t participate in debate. The study measured civic engagement by the strength of the students’ agreement that they have a responsibility to be interested in state and local issues, that they have the responsibility to be involved in community issues, that they expect to be involved in bettering their community, and that they have valuable ideas for solutions to issues in the community.

The Atlanta Urban Debate League: An Accessible Pathway to Debate

While the benefits of debate are enjoyed by participants of all backgrounds, access to participation in policy debate remains mediated by a range of socio-economic factors. The Atlanta Urban Debate League aims to increase access to policy debate education by providing low-cost debate programming, including tournaments and summer camps, and public debate resources, including a shared evidence packet, access to instructors, scholarships to summer debate camps, and a weekly online workshop open to all students called the Digital Debate Center. The Atlanta Urban Debate League facilitates participation through community partnerships that reduce the resource burden on students and schools. By expanding access to the benefits of debate, the Atlanta Urban Debate League seeks to empower underserved youth and provide a space for the development of life skills necessary to make a profound and positive impact in the world.   


Akerman, Rodie & Ian Neale. “Debating the evidence: an international review of current situation and perceptions.” CfBT Education Trust, 2011.

Anderson, S. and B. Mezuk. “Participating in a policy debate program and academic achievement among at-risk adolescents in an urban public school district: 1997-2007.” Journal of Adolescence, 2012.

Anderson, S. and B. Mezuk. “Positive Youth Development and Participation in an Urban Debate League: Results from Chicago Public Schools, 1997-2007.” The Journal of Negro Education, 2015.

Bartanen, Michael D. and Robert S. Littlefield. “Competitive Speech and Debate: How Play Influenced American Educational Practice.” American Journal of Play, 2015. 

Bellon, Joe. “A Research-Based Justification for Debate Across the Curriculum.” Argumentation and Advocacy, 2000. 

Cridland-Hughes, Susan. “The Atlanta Urban Debate League: Exploring the Making of a Critical Literacy Space.” American Educational History Journal, 2016.

Gray, Peter. “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights.” Psychology Today, 2008.

Hall, Georgia. “Civic Connections: Urban Debate and Democracy in Action during Out-of-School Time.”  Civic Connections, 2006.

Hogan, Michael & Jessica Kurr. “Civic education in competitive speech and debate.” Argumentation and Advocacy, 2017.

Mezuk, Briana et al. “Impact of participating in a policy debate program on academic achievement: Evidence from the Chicago Urban Debate League.” Educational Research and Reviews, 2011. 

Mitchell, Gordon R. “Pedagogical Possibilities for Argumentative Agency in Academic Debate.” Argumentation and Advocacy, 1998.

Plass, Jan, Bruce Homer, & Charles Kinzer. “Foundations of Game-Based Learning.” Educational Psychologist, 2015. 

Shor, I. Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

The Hamilton Project. “Effect of Noncognitive and Cognitive Skills on Earnings and Full Time Employment.” 2016.

The Hamilton Project. “Impacts of Noncognitive Skills Development Programs on Students Outcomes.” 2016.

The Hamilton Project. “Occupational Skill Requirements, 1980-2012.” 2016.

The Hamilton Project. “Relationship between Cognitive or Noncognitive Skills.” 2016.

The Hamilton Project. “Seven Facts on Noncognitive Skills from Education to the Labor Market.” 2016.

Academic & Scholarly Literature