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A debate is a team-based form of assessment where groups of two or more students prepare, present and defend an argument or stance often in front of an audience. Typically, each group is assigned a particular stance on a controversial topic and must deliver a series of oral presentations/arguments to argue their stance, supported by evidence. A debate commonly takes place between two opposing teams but may also involve audience interaction.

Typically used to….

  • assess students’ ability to form or justify an argument.
  • assess students’ capacity to select materials appropriately to support your opinions.
  • assess students’ ability to present and communicate information, arguments and ideas coherently and concisely.
  • assess students’ capacity to consider multiple perspectives and to analyse and question your own thought processes and underlying assumptions.
  • evaluate ‘soft’ presentation skills, e.g. interactivity, ability to collaborate.

Debates are often used in disciplines such as Law, Politics or Social Work where students, as graduates, are expected to be able to present and defend their positions against other parties. However, debates can also be used in many disciplines.

Key considerations when using debates for assessment

Debate-style assessments lend themselves particularly well to digital interactions on teleconferencing and VLE platforms, as they formalise the experience of turn-taking between students (e.g. students listen/respond in turn). When using debate as part of your assessment strategy, keep the following points in mind:

  • What is the purpose of the debate? Is it the most appropriate way to assess student learning outcomes in this instance?
  • Are you intending to use the debate for formative or summative assessment purposes, or both?
  • What criteria will you use to assess the students’ performance? Have you provided students with a rubric? Does the rubric align with the relevant learning outcomes?
  • Will the debate be ‘live’ or will you ask students to pre-record and share their contributions online?
  • If the debate is ‘live’, do you need to record it? For example for moderations purposes, or to facilitate peer assessment/review after the live event? If so, make sure that you are adhering to Trinity’s Privacy Policy and to the University's Records Management Policy.
  • Have you provided students with clear guidelines on the format and requirements of a debate in your discipline? For example, do they have a clear understanding of procedural requirements?
  • How long will your students’ debate be? They can vary enormously in duration, depending on how they are being used and what they’re being used for.
  • Remember that your students may not have “debated” in a digital context before. Check what institutional supports and guides are provided for this and share with your students in advance.
  • Have you provided supports for students with additional needs? For example, a soft copy of the assessment brief in written format may be useful for students with a hearing disability or those English as an Additional Language? See the Trinity Disability Service for more information.


Trinity-supported tools:

A student perspective on debates

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