Judging for Novice Debaters

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Rules and Responsibilities

You are performing an important educational service for the students who have worked hard to prepare for competition. Whatever your age, background or experience, you bring a unique perspective to providing constructive criticism toward guiding young people in their growth as communicators and performers.  Never apologize for a “lack of expertise” if you cannot understand a speaker, the fault is the speaker’s for not explaining or proving what they said.

Our success relies heavily on…

Timeliness: Please be on time for rounds.  Small delays accumulate as the tournament progresses.  Pick up Ballots at the tab table at least 15 minutes prior to each round you are scheduled to judge. If you do not report 15 minutes prior to the round, we may assign a standby judge and assess a “no show” fine against your school (unless you were judging a round during that time, which went late). The schedule is tight. If you arrive at your room and find contestants in another event are still speaking, please wait patiently for them to finish before attempting to start your round. Please return ballots after each round.

Standby: If your assignment sheet lists you to judge a round, but you are not called for a particular section, you are on standby, and must remain until dismissed (when tournament staff has verified that every round has the needed number of judges). Failure to appear for standby assignments is the same as failing to appear to judge an assigned round; they can both disrupt and delay the tournament.

In-Class Rules: Please do not disturb the belongings of the teacher whose room you are judging in. Under no circumstances should any participant touch any computer used by a judge. Ask contestants to straighten the room before you leave, so you can make sure it happens. Please remind students leaving to speak quietly in the corridors as other rounds may still be in session. Please do not swap/trade judging assignments with other judges. We track which judges have seen which students to diversify feedback as much as possible. Schools whose judges swap assignments will be assessed a fine.

Writing Evaluations: It is important that you write a complete evaluation; leave detailed comments during students’ presentations. It is critical for the contestants and their coaches to have the educational feedback that justifies judges’ decisions. Please write legibly, be objective (don’t let your own preconceptions on an idea predetermine your impression of a student’s presentation/argument). We will be introducing new online software to also record your audio, video and notes.

Demeanor: Maintain objectivity (never ask students what school/location they come from). You may give an overall greeting to all the participants in the round and put them at ease before starting, but engaging in personal conversation is discouraged. While oral critiques can be a valuable teaching tool, they are no substitute for documenting your observations in writing, so that the student’s coach can debrief the feedback for a more lasting impact.

If the round finishes early, you may give brief, general comments that apply universally to all participants in the room. Do not give individual praise or suggestions or criticize verbally.  Please avoid any sorts of profanity.  Also please give the contestants your undivided attention and respect.  You’re in the round to judge, not read books, play video games, text-message, etc. Please model appropriate, formal conduct for impressionable young people. Please alert the Tab room with conflicts of interest, i.e., you personally know a student who’s in a room you’re assigned to judge (e.g., past teammate, student you’ve coached, family/relative, personal friend).

Disqualification: Judges do not have the power to disqualify a student! Should you believe a student has violated rules, alert tournament officials to the situation with documentation (the tab table has a form you can complete).  Evaluate the round as if there were no rules violations; tournament staff will adjust results as needed for disqualification.

Prep time: Keep close records of prep time and inform the debaters of the amount used/left.  “Charge” it to the debater as follows: BEFORE the debater speaks, it is that person’s prep time.  If you have warned a debater that prep time has expired, and if s/he continues prepping, deduct that amount of time from the debater’s next speech time.


1. Make sure you’re familiar with rules for each event, or obtain a copy before judging.

2. Report to the judges’ room/meeting.  It is usually the area where coach/judge refreshments are provided.

3. If you are not immediately called/assigned to judge, REMAIN in the judges’ room; you may be asked to replace a missing judge.

4. When you determine where you are judging in Round I, make sure you have ONE all-purpose ballot and evaluation sheets.

5. When you get to your Round 1 room, you should find the same number of students as is listed on the ballot/schematic.  You will generally follow the order of speakers as listed, but if students are cross-entered, they may need to go earlier before leaving for their other events, or they may come later (in which case they should have – but don’t always remember to – written their code/name on the board).

6. Ask for the first speaker who is double-entered, and then the first speaker listed who is present.  Before the speakers begin, ask they if and how they would like you to show them time signals. The speaker may ask you to show the amount of time remaining.  Try to accommodate all speakers’ requests for timing.  (Time limits are on the evaluation sheets. If the speaker does not wish it to be shown, you nevertheless keep time — just don’t show it.  Please wait 10 minutes after the last speaker for any missing double-entered speakers and be sure to alert the ballot table if you had any no-shows.

7. During the speech, make comments on the evaluation sheet for each speaker. Try to make constructive suggestions on how the speaker can improve.  Do not simply say “good” or “weak.”  Instead, explain HOW or WHY a student is doing well or poorly.  If you give a student a poor score, make sure to indicate the problem with the presentation.  Begin writing evaluations during students’ presentations, so you are finished by the end of the round. If you spend a lot of time writing comments in between speakers, it makes the students nervous and delays the entire tournament. Where notes/manuscripts are allowed, you may weigh memorization and the effect that the use of notes has on the performance in your rank/scoring.

8. After all speakers are finished, thank them (at which point, they should leave the room). As you complete the master ballot for the room, you should write students’ codes and titles in the order of presentation (as listed on the schematic), and then write the ranks next to each student, determining the best, second best, etc. and rank them accordingly. The best in the room receives a rank of “1,” the second best a “2,” etc.  NO TIES.  Be sure to transfer this rank onto the student’s evaluation sheet after you have completed the ballot. Return the ballot to the Tab Room immediately.  DO NOT HOLD ON TO IT. NEVER INDICATE THE RESULTS TO ANY STUDENT AT ANY TIME.

9. Double-check the ranks on your evaluation sheets with what you place on the Master Ballot, and especially make sure ranks 1-4 match with the same speakers in their individual evaluations and the master ballot.

10. At the Tab Room, you will receive a ballot and appropriate evaluation sheets for Round 2. This round follows IMMEDIATELY. Repeat for Round 3.  After Round Three, report to the judges’ room for elimination rounds.

11. Do not leave until after the Final Round judges have been announced.

Key Notes for Consideration During Debate Events

1. Judges influence how much success young people have, so the debaters are concerned with your reactions. Therefore, please say nothing throughout the debate (including oral critiques or your decision). Since the students are deeply impressionable, as well as desiring success, they will often translate your mannerisms negatively. Be as neutral as possible, saying nothing except a greeting, and appearing interested and supportive. Decisions should be based on the validity of the argument, not your personal feelings towards the argument.

2. What constitutes a “win?”  This is a difficult question, but there are two general approaches.  The first is “strict logic.”  It holds that if a debater wins one crucial argument, that constitutes a win.  The other view is more “holistic.” It holds that the debater who does the better job establishing a position and refuting that of the opponent should win the debate.

3. Debate judges must allow debaters to dictate the important issues.  A student may advance an argument that appears foolish. If the opponent fails to show the argument is poor, it stands. In fact, it is probably worse not to attack a weak argument than to make one in the first place.  The judge is an onlooker, taking note of what is being said by, noting when arguments are “dropped,” and evaluating which debater is making more sense when there is true clash. Both the Aff. and Neg. are “burdened,” or obliged to prove their position and refute that of their opponent.

4. When the debaters arrive, explain how you are going to give time signals. Tell them that they may finish a sentence when time is up, but no more.  If they continue, simply stop taking notes… they will stop talking when you do that!

5. In general, no new arguments should be introduced in rebuttals. Certainly, new information (data, quotes, etc.) can be used. Additionally, arguments can be extended and developed (or else the debaters would be reduced to mere repetition). However, a totally new idea should not be offered.

6. Flow to see the structure of the debate at a glance. Notate each claim made, placing opposing arguments next to one another. That way you can see who “drops” an argument and who misinterprets another’s argument; you can also check when a debater claims the opponent did not attack an argument.

7. During prep time, write criticisms on the ballot.  At the end of the debate, determine the winner
(Aff or Neg). Write the winner’s code and circle “Aff/Pro” or “Neg/Con.”  Then assign points — the winner receives more than the loser.  No more than 30, no less than 18.  Finally fill out the bottom: reasons for decision.  Try to say something substantive, NOT “one was more persuasive,” or “one spoke better.” Try to list the winning or losing arguments. To aid in standardizing awarding of speaker/team points, please use the following as a guideline:


30 – One of the most exceptional rounds you have ever seen on this level, bar none

29 – Not quite perfect, but an outstanding showing

28 – Very good. . . you’d be very happy with this kind of performance out of your debaters

27 – Not bad, but some room for improvement

26 – Average. . . a few things, though, that need to be polished and developed

25 – A little bit below average


24 – Definitely below the standards you would expect at this level

23 – Serious work needed, but polite

22 – Not only does the debating need work, but the attitude is a bit lacking, too

21 – Real problems with both debating and attitude

20 – Rude, disrespectful. . . behavior is a disgrace to the activity

Below 20 – Student did not complete debate round

*** Half-points are acceptable. ***

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One Response to “Judging for Novice Debaters”

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