How Debate and Writing Center Tutoring Intersect

two people talking and debating.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Anyone who has tutored for a freshman-level rhetoric course can attest to the fact that the art of argument is one of the most commonly discussed subjects in the writing center. The ability to set up a claim, evidence, and impact is invaluable, and it can transfer to a variety of types of essays. Learning argument, one of the foundations of learning how to write, has also been shown to reap similar benefits when taught and practiced competitively in the form of forensics. Students benefit from debate and writing center tutoring because their participation bolsters their ability to understand how arguments are formed, diverse perspectives, and how to communicate with others. Both forensics and writing center work promote self-efficacy and self-advocacy in those that participate.

Forensics, formerly known as speech and debate, cemented my understanding of the art of argument. The events I participated in dealt with either creating arguments on an abbreviated schedule (about five minutes, in the case of extemporaneous speaking) or over a period of weeks (in the case of congressional debate). While the content of my speeches varied widely depending upon the event, all members of my team used the parts of an argument on a daily basis. Our job required constantly generating content with a claim, evidence, and impact (that is to say, an argument, data to back it up, and reasons that the people listening should care about it) in relation to an issue regarding policy, and to be able to defend that content to others. Students who learn those techniques are more likely to be able to use said techniques to explain them to other people.

When considering my time in the UT Dallas Writing Center, it is apparent that much of my ability to explain the art of argument to students comes from having to use it daily. The research process used in debate also bears some remarkable similarities to the process of finding evidence for a research paper because it requires asking questions about a topic and making use of scholarly resources to locate them. Explaining the process of evaluating sources, determining bias, and sorting out which sources are most beneficial to an argument is simple and straightforward when it comes from time spent doing the same thing with the intent of crafting the strongest possible argument for competition.

The competitive nature of debate meant that we were not casual observers of argument; rather, we were active participants, conscious fighters that wielded data and rhetoric as weapons. We generated content near-constantly. At one point, I wrote 25 congressional speeches in about three hours. We had to refine our material ceaselessly as we went through rounds. In the case of forensics, we would sometimes have to revise our points within seconds of someone bringing up a flaw in the content. The culture of consistent editing leads to a rhetorical skill-set unique to debaters, wherein students understand how to engage with the parts of an argument and determine which parts are faulty and capable of being picked apart, both for ourselves and our teammates.

Being able to refine content quickly and constantly is also an invaluable skill for writing tutors because it makes weaknesses or logical fallacies within a student’s paper apparent almost immediately upon reading. Because they have had to recognize and correct those mistakes before, former and current debaters who become writing center tutors are also aware of how to repair logical fallacies and determine what content is impossible to support with facts. The capacity to make such revisions means that students who take debate can understand the flaws in an argument just as easily as they can build one, making them capable of helping students learn how to find those flaws for themselves.

The process of refining speeches and debate cases comes from other people questioning the content in rounds, judges’ remarks on ballots, and active confrontations with students during debates. This last, adversarial form of questioning was one of the most valuable because it taught my team the value of using directed questions to point out logical fallacies and other areas that could use improvement. This debate tactic translated to writing center work in the form of circular questioning—questions dedicated to bringing about a desired answer—and boiled down to an art form. If one of us wanted to get information from a peer, we knew how to do it in a way that would be respectful, simple, and easy to understand. If we wanted to get a specific answer from a peer, or we were looking for a defined word or two, we also knew how to ask directed questions designed to get a specific response. The ability to ask those questions translates easily to writing center tutoring. Questions dedicated to gaining new information, as well as those aimed at drawing connections to forgotten or misunderstood information, were tools that we used often, and that we grew increasingly comfortable with over time.

Debate also provided an increased understanding of how to adapt debate cases to the knowledge level of a wide variety of people. One of the factors that varied across forensics events was who would be judging. There were many types of people, from parent judges who were totally unacquainted with the material being discussed, to coaches familiar with the material, to janitors or bus drivers who were pulled in due to a shortage of available coaches. Judges are to debaters what students are to tutors; they are a variable factor to which one must adapt in order to succeed. My team had to learn how to create arguments that could be understood across a variety of levels of education, familiarity with topics, ages and ability levels, among other factors that could shift the bias of any given individual. By virtue of repetition, we learned that there was no shame in explaining things to people at a basic level, and we learned how to adapt our explanations based upon feedback (even non-verbal feedback, like a furrowed brow). Everyone came to us at different levels of understanding, and it was our job to determine that level and reach out to them, wherever they may be.

In the same way, tutors must adapt their tact and methods of explanation to students across all levels of socio-economic class, religion, race, and ability, among other factors. This allows former forensics students to use their skills in a new light: judging what someone else is thinking or feeling, as well as their level of comprehension, and changing the way they communicate without offending or being condescending to their audience.

Students who are in writing center tutoring and forensics gain the ability to self-advocate. Students who participate in forensics quickly learn how to analyze material, find mistakes, and generate solutions to holes in arguments; writing center tutors apply and teach a similar method of problem solving. This skillset means that tutees can learn how to defend their beliefs and to create strong, cohesively structured arguments. According to Melissa Wade, a leader in the Urban Debate League movement, “Students learn to use their intellect to advocate for themselves—to use words in a way that would command the respect of decision makers” (qtd. in Morris & Rockoff, “League”). Much like the Urban Debate League’s young participants, students who regularly visit the writing center for help quickly demonstrate sharpened self-advocacy skills.  

The effects of tutoring on students’ self-efficacy are also significant, as there is a general trend in writing center scholarship demonstrating that tutees feel more capable when it comes to writing after leaving the writing center. As a result, students generally feel better prepared to tackle writing-based work. Similarly, there is a substantial body of anecdotal evidence to say that students who participate in debate demonstrate a greater degree of self-efficacy. According to Officer Angelo Brooks, coach of Baltimore’s Walbrook School debate team, debaters “use the tools of debate in other classes: flowing [a charting style used in policy debate], shorthand, careful listening. On average, their grades have gone up 10 to 15 points” (Morris and Rockoff). The Texas Forensics Association also notes that students who participate in forensics have higher high school graduation rates and retention rates than their peers, and are likelier to have better critical thinking skills and higher SAT scores.

At the most basic level, debate functioned as a training ground for understanding how to create and defend an argument to a wide variety of audiences. Forensics experience promoted a fluid, adaptable understanding of argument, one that could be purveyed to people still learning English, those fluent in it, and even simultaneously to people from both groups. They are helping people understand the art of argument and persuasion in addition to providing all of the tools necessary to generate those things—proper punctuation, rhetorical devices, and other assorted facets of grammar and style. The ability to reach out to people from diverse backgrounds is one that is learned rather than taught. Both tutoring and forensics promote students’ understanding of how to approach people from all walks of life, meet them where they are, and help them understand an argument without any form of condescension or derision.


Works Cited

Hoover, Eric. "Resolved: Change Happens." Chronicle Of Higher Education 49.46 (2003): A28. ______Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Morris, Holly J., and Jonathan Rockoff. "League Of Their Own." U.S. News & World Report                   132.21 (2002): 50. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

"Scholastic Benefits of Speech & Debate." Texas Forensic Association. Texas Forensic      Association. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <>.