Lesson Plans

Back to lesson plans archive
October 19, 2020

Lesson Plan: Four mini-lessons on presidential debates


History, U.S. Government, Civics

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period, plus one half-class period to follow up after the debate

Grade Level



  • To explore the history of presidential debates and analyze debate formats and candidate strategies.
  • Students will discuss civic issues that matter to them and reflect on how those issues are covered in the next presidential debate.


This mini-lesson series is meant to serve as a tool for students to examine the history of presidential debates; analyze current debate formats; think critically about how we can improve those formats; discuss issues that matter most to them and their generation and watch and reflect on an upcoming presidential debate. The lesson series encourages young people to engage in conversation around our civic responsibilities as voters; discuss issues that affect their lives and understand that their voice matters in the 2020 election, whether they can vote yet or not. 

Each mini-lesson includes videos, news articles and prompts for student reflections, which you may ask students to post as recorded video or as text. 

The next and final presidential debate will be October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville starting at 9 p.m. EST.

Lesson One: Presidential debates, the backstory

Although public political debates have been around since the earliest days of the United States, the first nationally televised presidential debate was held in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debate drew over 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million, making it proportionally one of the most watched broadcasts ever. After the 1960 debate with Kennedy and Nixon, presidential debates did not become regular tradition until 1976. Still, many voters have come to rely on debates to help inform them and ultimately choose how to cast their votes.  

Activity—class poll: Have you watched any of the presidential or primary debates so far in 2020?

Activity—collaboration board: What do you remember from the debate or debates you watched?

Activity—watch video: The following video presents some of the more memorable moments from televised presidential debates. You may also want to check out this archive from PBS NewsHour that includes every televised presidential debate since 1960.


Optional reading: Washington Post—”Nine semi-important and kind-of-fun facts about political debates

Student reflection: Why do you think presidential debates are important in helping Americans decide whom to vote for?

Lesson Two: Exploring debate structure

Although presidential debates follow the same structure with a specific set of qualifications to participate in the debate, a moderator or group of moderators and a question format with a set amount of response time and possibly rebuttal time. However, each debate format is distinct in some ways. Debate commissions and sponsoring networks get to set the format and rules in consultation with campaign organizations. Most presidential debate seasons feature multiple formats, including town halls which allow participating citizens to ask questions to candidates directly.

Activity—explore the format: Have students in class research the format and questions of the debate they will be assigned to watch and compare what will change from the first presidential debate of the season, which was criticized by some for being too disorderly for viewers to take away clear details about policy. (Note, if you would like to use an EXTRA lesson on the first debate, click here.)

Activity—watch video: The following video offers some critiques of presidential debate formats and what sort of information they provide viewers and potential voters. As your students watch, have them list some of the criticisms made of our current debates.

Student reflection:In two paragraphs or a 90-second recorded video reflection, explain how you would change the debate format to make it more informative for viewers, and why you would make those changes. Share with #PBSExtraDebate over Twitter or Instagram. Be sure to tag @NewsHourExtra.

Lesson Three: The issues

In this lesson, have students work in groups to explore each candidate’s platform and the key issues to their campaign. First have students familiarize themselves with the 2020 issues tracker developed by NPR.

Resource: NPR election 2020 issues tracker

Class activity—collaboration board: Separate the class into groups, or allow each student to work alone. Have the groups or individual students choose one issue from the tracker and research each candidates’ position on the issue. Then present those positions to the class, if there is time.

Activity—watch video: The following video is taken from the Face the Facts Town Hall by Student Reporting Labs, which was broadcast on October 6, 2020. In it, students reflect on civic engagement and what issues are important to them as they prepare to vote for the first time.

Student reflection: Have students write two paragraphs or record a 90-second video explaining what issues are important to them and why. (Note, if you would like to use an EXTRA lesson on Face the Facts, click here.)

Lesson Four: The debate

After the first mini-lessons are complete (whether you assign all or just one), assign your students to watch the upcoming presidential debate. Have students take notes and address the following questions. Have students share the answers to their questions and their reflection during your next class session after the debate.

  1. What moment do you feel stood out the most during the debate? Explain.
  2. Do you feel the candidates were able to clearly express their views on the key issues? Why or why not?
  3. Do you feel the debate format favored one candidate over the other? Explain your response.
  4. Did the candidates fully explain their positions on any issue that you identified as mattering most to you? Explain.
  5. Did either candidate describe policy positions that differed from their positions as explained on the NPR tracker? Explain.

Student reflection: Have students write two paragraphs or record a 90-second video describing what struck them most about the debate and how the format either helped or hindered clear explanation of the candidates’ policies. Share with #PBSExtraDebate over Twitter or Instagram. Be sure to tag @NewsHourExtra.

Related Lessons:

Hosting a Presidential Debate

PBS NewsHour Extra – Debating Our Destiny: Do Presidential Debates Matter?


Lesson by Chris Allen, education project manager at PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs.

Follow us:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PBSNewsHourExtra/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NewsHourExtra

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/newshourextra/


PBS NewsHour education stories newsletter

Updates for EXTRA’s Super Civics 2020 election teaching resources doc

  • Tags:

  • Related Stories

    Tooltip of related stories

    More Lesson Plans

    Tooltip of more video block

    RSS Content

    Tooltip of RSS content 3