Rules for How to Judge Debates

A debate podium.
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Competitive debate is a tool for teaching students to speak in public, think critically and prepare coherent arguments. The activity relies on teachers and parents volunteering their time to moderate and judge debates among students. Although there are many different formats of debate with variable speech times, speech orders and topics, a few basic rules for judging debates apply to all of them.

1 Know the Details

Before judging a competitive debate, review the tournament-prescribed rules and topic for the debate. The most important details to note are the duration and order of speeches, since younger students may be unfamiliar with the rules and require your guidance. For example, high school Lincoln-Douglas debate features consecutive speeches of various determined lengths under 10 minutes, alternating between the affirmative and negative sides. Knowing the precise language of the topic is also important, since the outcome of the debate may hinge on a single word. Some formats, like college-level Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA) debates, use the same topic all year long. Others, like parliamentary debate, use a different topic for each individual debate.

2 Keep a "Flow"

Keeping close notes on the debate is essential for a judge. The style and practice of taking notes on a competitive debate is called "flowing." Instead of simply scribbling as much information as possible across the page, debate judges divide their papers into vertical columns and confine their notes from each individual speech to a single column. This allows the judge to keep arguments from both sides about the same subject aligned. For example, if the affirmative side argues the death penalty is immoral from a utilitarian perspective, the judge would write negative's argument that utilitarianism is a bad moral framework in the column next to the original argument.

3 Stay Neutral

Judges should try to avoid allowing their personal feelings about the debate topic influence their assessment of the debaters. Even if you have strong feelings about the issues being discussed, remember that the debaters involved didn't choose which side of the topic to take. Instead, focus on the quality of their arguments and the persuasiveness of their presentations. Even if you disagree with a particular side, you should vote for them if they presented a more persuasive case than their opponents.

4 Complete the Ballot Thoughtfully

In most debate formats, the judge fills out a ballot including three things: a decision about which side won the debate, an explanation of that decision and speaker points for each individual who participated. Judging is a subjective activity, so don't worry about making a "wrong" decision. Instead, try to be as neutral as possible and write a thorough explanation of your thinking on the ballot. Include tips or pointers for each speaker, too, to help them improve at their next tournament. Speaker point scales and typical scores vary wildly from region to region and format to format, so ask experienced judges or the tournament director how to allocate them.

Nick Robinson is a writer, instructor and graduate student. Before deciding to pursue an advanced degree, he worked as a teacher and administrator at three different colleges and universities, and as an education coach for Inside Track. Most of Robinson's writing centers on education and travel.