Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Judging Competitive Debating - Part 2 - The process of judging

This is part of my series of introductory articles, which explain the basics of competitive debating and follows on from "Judging competitive debating - Part 1 - A general framework."

Note taking 
Not massively relevant, but I couldn't resist.
- Creative Commons, Photopin. 

The first thing to say is that while you are watching a debate you should take notes of what the speakers are saying so you can refer back to them later, and to make comments to yourself (e.g. “good structure”, “have they responded to previous speaker?”).

Notes should be concise and clear as possible as you’ll have to refer to them quickly during adjudication. You don’t need to write down literally everything a speaker says (and given how fast they often speak that may be impossible) but you should try to include the important points of analysis and engagement.

The standard way to do this is to take a sheet of A4 paper and fold it in half or quarters, with each speaker in the appropriate place. Multiple colours of pen can help for distinguishing speakers, comments and POIs, and it can be useful to highlight important bits. I tend to use blue and black for the different teams (so will write a blue POI in a black speech) and red pen for comments.

Recently I’ve started taking notes on a laptop because my handwriting is terrible and slow (dyspraxia yay). This is fairly unusual but seems to be becoming more common (and I think may be more common in the US). I’ve made templates for judging which I use, which divide the page in quarters, one plain and one in colour (if they are cut off on the side of the screen switch to "web view" rather than "print view"). I then add comments, POIs, etc using bold, italics and underlining.

However amazing your memory is you really need to take good notes, as you should be able to supply evidence for your conclusions during the discussion, without notes everything tends to blur together, and you will be more likely to confuse what particular speakers said.

You should hang on to your notes after a debate so that if speakers ask you for personal feedback between rounds, or at the social in the evening. Though as a general rule I’d say not to share your notes with speakers as they should contain your unfiltered opinions on a debate, and you may self censor if you think people will read them.

Judging discussion

After the debate has finished and all the speakers have been herded out the room, the judges will have about 15 minutes to discuss the debate, come to a call and assign speaker points. This discussion will be moderated and structured by the chair, generally the most experienced judge on the panel. Given that time is tight, and if judging runs over the whole tournament can be delayed (resulting in rage and violence from the conveners, and getting food/drink late) you should try and present your opinion of the debate in a clear and concise way and focus on relevant parts of the debate.

Creative Commons - Stockvault
Immediately after the debate has finished the chair judge will ask everyone to take a few minutes to go over their notes and come to a rough call. Ideally ranking all teams in order, but its also helpful to have general conclusions about which teams definitely won or lost, which side/half of the debate was better or what issues in the debate you want to discuss.

Don’t worry about getting this a hundred percent right instantly. Chair judges are usually looking for something around which to structure discussion. Having a ‘wrong’ call quickly to get discussion started, and being smart, responsive and engaged with the discussion is much more helpful to you than spending five minutes having the ‘right’ call. You won’t be held to it and should be willing to change your mind during the discussion. But it is useful to know where all the judges stand in order to structure the discussion in the most useful way possible.

Once initial calls have been compared the chair will choose sections of the debate to discuss (e.g. did Opening Government beat Opening Opp? What was Closing Governments extension?). Then the overall call will be decided based on that discussion.

The purpose of the discussion is for people to look at different parts of the debate they may not have noticed, and discuss and compare different points in terms of how important they are and how well they are explained. To be a good wing you should try and point out important bits of the debate, and explain clearly and concisely why you think certain arguments are important or well explained. Try and avoid vague comments like "I liked their arguments" or "they had good structure." Avoid use of pronouns such as, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘it’ or ‘that’. Be specific with what you are referring to. If you thought that Prime Minister’s first point was good, say, “The point the Prime Minister gave on the topic of ‘legitimacy’ was effective against Opening Opp’s arguments on that", rather than, "The first point he made beat them."

In higher level debates speakers will often do a lot of the comparing of points themselves, particularly in the sum, so you can consider which framing of the debate is more convincing. But often you will have to rely on your own judgement about what is important and well explained, (e.g. widespread deaths probably beat narratives if both are equally well explained).

To be a good wing judge, be generally polite and allow other people to speak without cutting them off or talking over them. Follow the chair's lead in what parts of the debate they want to prioritise discussing, remember that they have been put in this position based on their experience. The Chair will get round to every comparative and clash in time, and you should stick to the comparatives and clash that the chair has indicated is important. In order to have a productive discussion it is necessary to focus on one thing at a time and structure the discussion around specific questions, it is irritating and unhelpful when someone tries to divert the discussion to something else.

The point of the discussion is to share information and discuss the debate that happened, not to try and "win" by making everyone else agree with your original call. Changing your mind in response to new evidence or good points is not only okay but encouraged.

In general judges try to come to a consensus on all issues, but if there isn't enough time, or there are irreconcilable differences the chair can call a vote, in which they have the casting ballot. (E.g. if two judges are on either side of a vote the chairs vote breaks the tie). This rule reflects that generally the chair will be the most experienced judge of the group, so while they are not always right their opinion is more trusted. While being experienced doesn't make chairs infallible, and you can vote against them if you genuinely feel they have not explained their position well enough to convince you, I would generally avoid splitting unless you are very sure.

The judges will then also award speaker points for each speech in the debate. This is a bit complex, but basically points are awarded between 50 and 100, with 75 being the average speech at the World Universities debating Championships. A team's total speaking points should reflect their position in the debate (e.g. the team in first will have more total speaker points than the team in second) with the difference reflecting how close they were (e.g. if one team very obviously won they will have a bigger gap between them and the next team). You can find the guidelines for points brackets used at international competitions here.

These results are filled in on a ballot and sent to the tab room to generate the rooms for the next round.

Brief note on terminology: “Rolling a chair” refers to when the other judges on the panel (often called wing judges) outvote the chair. A “split” refers to when a vote is called on a result, this happens more often with “out-rounds” (finals, semi-finals etc.) so you might hear someone announce a result as “Going through on a 3-2 split...”.


How to give good feedback could be a post in itself, but basically:

Creative Commons
- Pixabay
The standard method is for the chair to announce the result (Opening government took the first....) then make comparative justifications between the teams (We thought the argument about X beat the argument that Y...). It is important to differentiate this from comments that are intended to help the speaker do better in the future but were not part of the reasoning for the decision (e.g. you could have done with better structure, you could have talked about this thing...). Depending on time and other considerations the chair may also make general comments after the comparative feedback.

In “closed rounds” (generally the last and/or second last rounds of a competition) no feedback is given, but teams can (and should) find the chair, or another judge, after the results have been announced to receive the result and feedback.

As a speaker you may ask for individual feedback from any judge on the panel, including the chair. I highly encourage speakers of all levels to do this as much as possible. This is a very good opportunity to get more in depth feedback, discuss the call, and ask about how you could improve in the future.

Obviously the teams who did worst in the debate will have the most specific stuff to learn, so should probably be the first to get feedback so they can improve, but there may still be useful things for winning teams to learn about how they could have done even better (and do well in harder future debates). Personally I find that the teams who ask for the most feedback tend to be the ones who do best in the long term, regardless of how well they did in a particular debate.

Also, as a novice judge one of the best ways for you to improve is to talk to your chair judges after a debate about how you did and generally talk to more experienced judges about how to improve. Judging experience is also very useful for getting better as a speaker yourself, as it allows you to better identify what is important in a debate, so means you can make better choices about what to say.

Thanks for everyone who commented on draft versions of this post. Obviously I haven't been able to cover absolutely everything, but if there's anything important you want me to add comment here or message by the usual channels. 


  1. I would be interested in a post on how to chair especially how to arrange notes you've written into a coherent feedback narrative / comparing teams it is overwhelming for me

    1. That next on the list actually. In general its more a matter of experience than an explicit method sadly. The general method of getting judges to say their rough calls, then talk through disagreements with people taking each side works well. There's also a balance to be struck between including everyone in the discussion and managing it efficientl with time constraints.

      If you drop me a non-anonymous message I can let you see the draft version when I have it.

  2. It would be interesting to have a post written by someone who actually chairs at competitions.

    1. Think I've done that once or twice...