Five Minutes of Fire: Introducing Debate to the Business and Professional Communication Classroom

Dr. Leslie Hahner
Baylor University


Dr. Scott Varda
Baylor University

In the ancient world, teachers would use debate and dialogue to invite students to vigorously engage with the ideas under discussion. As is clear in the Socratic method, Plato’s dialogues, and Isocratean teaching techniques, argumentation and contestation were the cornerstones of ancient instruction. Debate became the key pathway for students to actively participate in the ongoing discovery of knowledge and enjoy a sense of ownership in that process. Given our own disciplinary ties with this tradition, the practice of academic debate has become a central method of instruction in communication studies. Yet, in the contemporary moment, debate assignments are too often limited to the public speaking or argumentation classroom. In this essay, we argue that debate is an exemplary teaching tool for instructing the millennial generation in business and professional communication courses given that it focuses on experiential learning and instructs students in skill-sets that are currently obstacles.

Recent studies indicate today’s college students suffer from three related deficiencies: an inability to successfully research (Head & Eisenberg, 2010), poor critical thinking skills, and inadequacies in complex reasoning (Rimer, 2011). Of particular importance, especially given the vast amounts of unfiltered information available to the millennial generation, is their woeful ability to decipher opinion from fact, review conflicting views of events, or clearly articulate arguments (Rimer, 2011). Fortunately, these skills also represent a set of abilities that are most improved by an educational program emphasizing argumentation and debate. Dozens of studies, and literally hundreds of anecdotes, confirm that the competitive nature of debate provides a solid foundation upon which the millennial generation can build skills that allow them to compete in tomorrow’s rapidly changing professional environment. It does so by investing the student with the responsibility to understand and carefully craft their own arguments and respond to the claims of others.

One of the ways educators are urged to navigate the difficulties of instructing this generation is to adopt assignments and teaching methods that encourage independent thought, and allow the student the freedom to find their own way within some loosely defined parameters (Monaco & Martin, 2007). The goal, experts urge, should be to deliver to students a set of guidelines without the baggage of excessive instruction. Framing assignments in rough outlines, while leaving the specific details to be worked out by the students, offers the best path for successfully instructing the millennial generation. In our minds, this approach serves well the interests of both teachers (who are able to guide the student’s work to their expectations) and students (who are encouraged to problem-solve and explore the best approach for themselves). The incorporation of argumentation and debate into the business and professional communication lessens current shortfalls displayed by students, as instruction in argumentation and debate encourages critical thinking in an open-ended framework that emphasizes independent thought and research skills (Claxton, 2008; Bartanen, 1995; Freeley & Steinberg, 2009). The approach outlined below is an assign ment we collaboratively invented and employ in our classrooms. The title, “Five Minutes of Fire,” was taken from a former colleague’s course at Truman State University.

This project asks a pair of students to prepare for and deliver an in-class debate on a topic related to the curriculum of the course. There are several components to this assignment: (1) a short written brief that details the research and reasoning that will comprise their in-class argument; (2) an outline that sketches the format of the debate and the arguments of both debaters; (3) the in-class presentation when each debater is given five minutes to prove his/her point. Each component of this assignment is organized to employ active learning models for the millennial student. Further, each aspect of this assignment is geared toward developing those skill sets that are most needed for their professional development.

Learning Objectives

  • To invite students to engage in-depth research techniques on topics related to business and professional communication.
  • To build writing skills that support and develop a well-researched argument.
  • To teach students performance-based critical thinking skills that allow them to distinguish between warranted arguments and mere opinions.

Preparation for the Project

Allow for roughly one week of class-time to prepare the students for this debate and one week of class for presentations. To be effective, familiarize yourself with a working knowledge of argumentation and debate. You should be able to bring copies of articles that make an argument about a relevant topic to class.

The Project

Part 1: Learning argumentation and debate:

Prepare a lecture and activity that teaches students the basic components of an argument and the organization for in-class debates. The first part of the lecture should familiarize students with the basic components of arguments: data, claim, and warrant. A quick primer can be found here: Using an example related to business and professional communication (e.g., the effect of gossip on workplace morale), invite students to craft their own arguments. Additional topics for debate can found in a number of locales, one quality resource is: Next, distribute copies of articles claiming a course-relevant argument and invite students to identify the basic functions of the argument and the strength of the warrant. Students should then counter this argument by inventing oppositional claims. The second part of the lecture should briefly illustrate the organization of a debate: one debater must craft a five minute argument on a relevant topic (e.g., gossip is mean-spirited and takes time away from work), the other debater should adopt the opposite position (e.g., gossip builds healthy social relationships and allows for emotional release).

Part 2: Learning research and writing skills by composing a brief and outline:

On another class day, explain the finer points of research. Take care to use available library sources, and emphasize the value of peer-reviewed research for this assignment. As with the discussion on arguments, ask students to evaluate each source for how well the author supports her/his claims and the kinds of counter-arguments that could be raised against it. Detail for students how to compose a brief that elaborates the current arguments on the topic. This three- to four-page brief should detail the current controversy, high quality research on the issue, and the reasoning that supports the argument the debater will deliver (See Appendix A). Next, explain to students how to organize their arguments into an outline for the debate using research to support their points. Finally, ask students to work in their debate dyads to complete these assignments and prepare for the upcoming debate.

Part 3: In-class debates:

On class days of your choosing, ask students to deliver their in-class debates. One author prefers to have these debates all at once; the other author begins each class for the next several weeks with a debate—typically on the topic of the day.


Once all the debates are finished, or at the end of each debate, ask the class, especially the debaters, to reflect on what they learned from the process. Invite students to think through the kinds of arguments they made, the arguments that proved more successful, and what the class thought about the topic by the end of debate. Facilitate a discussion on how better arguments can persuade an audience and how crucial the ability to argue coherently, yet politely, is in professional settings. Appraisal

The business and professional communication classroom is a unique site in which students can learn important educational tenets grounding argumentation and debate. The demographics of a typical business and professional communication classroom consist of various majors from across the disciplines, but are often heavily populated by business students. This particular demographic composition renders it an ideal locale in which tomorrow's business leaders, politicians, activists, and academics can all experience today an improvement in their critical thinking skills, complex reasoning abilities, and talents for differentiating good from bad arguments. These skills are prerequisites to creating better decision makers and advocates generally, and could only improve the students’ chances in the professional world. We have employed variations of this activity at three different universities in the business and professional communication classroom as well as the public speaking classroom. In each instance, it consistently excited the students and encouraged their professional development.


Bartanen, K (1995). Developing student voices in academic debate through a feminist perspective of learning, knowing, and arguing. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, 16. pp. 1-13.

Claxton, N. (2008). Using deliberative techniques in the English as a foreign language classroom. New York: International Debate Education Association.

Freeley, A. J. & Steinberg, D. L. (2009). Argumentation and debate: Critical thinking for reasoned decision making. (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Head, A. J. & Eisenberg, M. B. (2010). Assigning inquiry: How handouts for research assignments guide today’s college students. Project Information Literacy Progress Report. Retrieved Feb 26, 2010 PIL_Handout_Study_finalvJuly_2010.pdf.

Monaco, M. & Martin, M. (2007). The millennial student: A new generation of learners. Athletic Training Education Journal, 2. pp. 42-46.

Rimer, S. (2011). Study: Many college students not learning to think critically. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved Mar. 5, 2011

Appendix A

Business and Professional Communication
Debate Brief

The Basics

Length: Three to Four pages, double-spaced, 1” margins

Due Date: TBA

Directions: In an essay form, please answer the questions below. Remember to use professional language, and carefully craft your answers using proper grammar, syntax, and punctuation.

  1. What is the dispute you and your debate partner are addressing?
  2. What are the arguments given on each side of this debate?
  3. What highly-qualified research supports the first side? What are the warrants those authors use? Or, how strong are their arguments?
  4. What highly-qualified research supports the second side? What are the warrants those authors use? Or, how strong are their arguments?
  5. What argument will you make in the debate? What research and reasoning supports your view?