Lesson Plan: 2020 Presidential Debate Viewing Guides

Do debates matter in elections?

State debate commission officials and political scientists discussed the role that debates play election outcomes. They explained how optics, soundbites and talking points influence how candidates and voters approach debates.


The Commission on Presidential Debates will hold three presidential and one vice presidential debates during the 2020 campaign. This lesson has students use one of several viewing guides and activities to help them understand and analyze these debates. Teachers can choose to have students analyze the debates by using a rubric, through a BINGO activity, or by focusing on topic, criterion or modes of persuasion. These activities can be adapted for classes meeting face-to-face or virtually.



    Before having students analyze the presidential or vice presidential debates, provide the students with an introduction to a debate’s role in elections. Have students view the following video clip and answer each question.

    Video Clip: Do Debates Matter in Elections? (4:28)

    • According to Dr. Green, what factors impact voters' opinions of candidates during and after debates?

    • Based on Dr. Bennion's comments, how can candidate behavior impact voters' perceptions of candidates? What examples does she provide?

    • What is a soundbite? How do candidates try to use soundbites during debates?

    • According to Dr. Green, why do candidates often pivot and talk about other topics when asked direct questions during debates?

    • Based on the speakers, summarize how debates impact elections.

    The following presidential and vice-presidential debates will be hosted by the Commission of Presidential Debates. Choose one of the following debates for students to view and analyze. Individual links will be added as the debates air on the C-SPAN networks.


    Students will view one of the presidential or vice-presidential debates listed above. While viewing this debate, have them complete one of the following viewing guides to help them analyze and evaluate the candidates’ debate performances.

  • Debate Analysis by Topic/Issue:

    This option has students evaluate the debate topically. They will analyze how each candidate performs on each topic/question. Have the student view the entire debate. As they watch, have them complete the notetaking chart linked in the handout. They should identify the topic and question and make notes on the content, message, and effectiveness of each candidate’s performance in the debate.

    Handout: Notetaking Chart by Topic

    After the debate, students should use the handout to answer the following questions:

    • Which candidate was more effective at conveying his/her point for each of the topics during the debate? Did you learn anything new from either of the candidates? In your opinion, did one candidate clearly do better than the other? Explain citing specific examples from your chart and the debate.
  • Presidential Debate Rubric:

    This activity has student view the debate, take notes and then use a rubric to evaluate the candidates’ performances. Students will use the handout below to assess the candidates’ performances on the following criteria.

    • Organization and clarity of arguments

    • Use of facts and examples

    • Relevance of supporting arguments

    • Visual and non-verbal performance

    • Preparation

    After completing the rubric, students will answer the question:

    Using the information above, explain which candidate (if any) you think performed better during the debate. Explain your answer by citing specific examples from your chart and the debate.

    Handout: Presidential Debate Rubric (Google Doc)

  • Presidential Debate BINGO:

    Using the handout linked below, students will play a BINGO game while watching the debate. They should complete the chart on the handout by writing words, topics or phrases that might be discussed during the debate. As students watch the debate, they should mark their board when a candidate mentions the word, topic, or phrase. They should indicate which candidate discusses this and record any notes about their responses.

    Handout: Presidential Debate BINGO (Google Doc)

    After viewing the debate, use the BINGO chart and the notes to answer the following prompt:

    Based on this debate, identify which topics and issues each candidate focused on the most. Which topics did each candidate focus on the least? Why do you think this is?

  • Modes of Persuasion: Logos, Ethos & Pathos: This option will have students analyze the debate using the three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos and pathos.

    Have the students view the debate in its entirety. Using the handout below, the students will take notes and analyze how each candidate uses Ethos, Pathos and Logos (Nature of Writing Website).

    Handout: Modes of Persuasion (Google Doc)

    From their notes, students will address the following prompts:

    • Use examples from the debate to explain how the candidate uses these modes of persuasion.

    • Evaluate how effective each candidate is in using each of these.
  • Debate Analysis by Criteria:

    This option has students evaluate the candidates’ debate performances based on the categories listed below.

    Performance Criteria-

    • Clarity of Answers to Debate Questions

    • Use of Examples and Facts

    • Rebuttals (Responses to other candidates’ answers)

    • Visual and Non-verbal Elements of the Debate

    • Possible Soundbites

    Students should use the following handout to take notes for these categories and answer the prompt:

    Using the categories listed above, explain which candidate (if any) you think performed better during the debate. Which elements of the debate did each candidate excel at and struggle with? Why was one candidate more effective than the other? Explain your answer by citing specific examples from your chart and the debate.

    Handout: Categorical Notetaking Chart (Google Doc)


    Create your Own Clip- View and search through the debate. Find what you think is the most important moment of the debate. Using the clipping guide, create a clip to present to the class.

    Logical Fallacies- Using the logical fallacies explained on the Purdue Online Writing Lab website, identify and explain how these logical fallacies were represented in the debate.

    Previous Presidential Debate Comparisons- View one of the past debates from the C-SPAN Classroom Campaign 2020 site. Compare the 2020 presidential debate to the historical one you chose to view. Include the following in your discussion:

    • Topics/issues discussed

    • Format of the debate

    • Tone of the candidates

    • Role of the moderator

    • What issues are being raised by the candidates? Are there any one or two issues that are most dominant?

    • What stances are the candidates taking? What policy proposals are being offering in conjunction with each candidate?

    • Are there any issues currently a part of the public policy debate that the candidates are not addressing?

    • Was the debate an effective way to obtain information about the candidates’ positions on issues?

    • What are the purposes of debates?

Additional Resources


  • Campaign
  • Candidate
  • Debate
  • Electorate
  • Ethos
  • Incumbent
  • Logos
  • Margin
  • Non-verbal Cues
  • Pathos
  • Rubric
  • Soundbite
  • Talking Points
  • Tone
  • Townhall


Campaigns & Elections


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