Developing scientific expertise in the classroom involves promoting higher-order cognitive skills as well as content mastery. Effective use of constructivism can facilitate these outcomes. However this is often difficult to accomplish when delivery of content is paramount. Utilizing many of the tenets of constructivist pedagogy, we have designed an Oxford-style debate assignment to be used in an introductory microbiology course. Two teams of students were assigned a debatable topic within microbiology. Over a five-week period students completed an informative web page consisting of three parts: background on the topic, data-based positions for each side of the argument, and a data-based persuasive argument to support their assigned position. This was followed by an in-class presentation and debate. Analysis of student performance on knowledge-based questions shows that students retain debate-derived content acquired primarily outside of lectures significantly better than content delivered during a normal lecture. Importantly, students who performed poorly on the lecture-derived questions did as well on debate-derived questions as other students. Students also performed well on questions requiring higher-order cognitive skills and in synthesizing data-driven arguments in support of a position during the debate. Student perceptions of their knowledge-base in areas covered by the debate and their skills in using scientific databases and analyzing primary literature showed a significant increase in pre- and postassignment comparisons. Our data demonstrate that an Oxford-style debate can be used effectively to deliver relevant content, increase higher-order cognitive skills, and increase self-efficacy in science-specific skills, all contributing to developing expertise in the field.