By Lucas Li • Singapore
I am deeply grateful to Mr. Adil Hakeem, Ms. Ameera Natasha Moore, Mr. Chua Jun Yan, Mrs. Geetha Creffield, Ms. Paulina Robles, Mr. Shih Yi-An, Mr. Siron Pereira and more who have requested not to be named. They helped review this work before submission, and their perspectives were invaluable in shaping and nuancing the final output.
Figuring out how to win against three other teams – including one on your own bench – rather than one opponent is already hard enough for speakers. What more adjudicators who now have to evaluate a high degree of strategic interaction in addition to the substantive exchange! This paper seeks to address common teething issues that Asian adjudicators face when transitioning from 3-on-3 formats like World Schools or Asians, to the British Parliamentary format as adopted by the World Universities’ Debating Championships. This paper will also recommend strategies that judges can adopt to ease the transition process.
British Parliamentary (BP) is the dominant format at the Universities level of debating, but it is also much more complex than commonly-adopted 3v3 formats in Asia – these being the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC) and Asian Parliamentary (AP) styles. While the BP format has made significant inroads to the Asian schools’ circuit in the past five to seven years, 3v3 largely remains the default format at national schools-level tournaments. At the collegiate level, Asian universities toggle between 3v3 formats from January to July, switching into BP for August onward until the new year.
This diversity in debating formats is in some way reflective of the stepped-up difficulty level as speakers graduate into Universities debating. While WSDC and AP are already quite different, the gap between these and BP is wider still; it is far harder to evaluate the comparative contributions of four teams with different approaches to a given topic, rather than just two. While learning BP adjudication is critical to a smooth transition into collegiate debating, this process can be daunting for individuals – especially in the first year when the learning curve is steepest.
Nevertheless, adjudication proficiency and talent retention are both barometers of circuit health. No national or regional university circuit can sustain competitive excellence without a pool of committed judges conversant with the World Universities style. Debating pedagogy must thus prioritize easing the transition from 3v3 formats to BP, building consistent understanding of BP format across different judges regardless of their background or experience level.
This paper aims to aid budding adjudicators as they move from a 3v3 background towards BP. Section 2 outlines the structural differences between the WSDC, AP and BP formats – in particular, how these differences affect what a “model speech” looks like in each format. Sections 3 to 6 delve deeper into the three categories of speech evaluation in the World Schools format (Content, Style and Strategy), discussing how these priorities change with the format. Section 7 looks at the BP adjudication process itself, focusing on the twin complexities of conferral judging and ranking of teams. Each of these sections distills key points of difference that budding BP adjudicators ought to keep in mind. Finally, Section 8 summarizes these key differences, concluding with an exhortation to debating circuits to persevere in deepening BP format proficiency.
Three clarifications are in order before we proceed:
- This paper does not discuss the relative merits and demerits of each format, nor does it argue for format reform. Those are worthy considerations, but outside of the scope of this essay.
- In some ways, the gulf between AP and BP is not as wide as that between University formats and WSDC. For instance, both AP and BP adopt holistic adjudication and eschew technical rigidity, while WSDC does not. While these considerations are worth an entirely separate study, this paper’s priority is easing the transition for Asian judges new to BP e.g. at the Asian British Parliamentary Debating Championships (ABPs). Hence, it focuses instead on drawing distinctions between BP and other formats.
- The Australasian (Australs) format of debating is another very prominent 3v3 format, used in Australia and New Zealand with some participation from Asian universities. However, this paper does not cover the Australs format, as it is typically not debated at the pre-collegiate level in Asia.
Description of the Formats
The key differences between the prominent 3v3 formats debated at pre-collegiate level in Asia, and British Parliamentary are listed in Table 1 below.
|Characteristics||World Schools (WSDC)||Asians (AP)||British Parliamentary (BP)|
|No. of individuals per team||5, but only 3 speak in any single debate. Either the 1st or 2nd speaker does an additional (reply) speech.||3, all speak. Either the 1st or 2nd speaker does an additional (reply) speech.||2, all speak once each per debate.|
|No. of teams in a debate||2: titled Proposition and Opposition||2: titled Government and Opposition||4: titled Opening Government and Opposition (OG and OO), Closing Government and Opposition (CG and CO)|
|Preparation time||1 hour||30 minutes||15 minutes|
|Speech timings||8 minutes for main speeches, 4 minutes for reply speeches.||7 minutes for main speeches, 4 minutes for reply speeches.||7 minutes for each speech.|
|Points of Information allowed?||Yes, between first and last minutes of each speech except for the reply.||Yes, between first and last minutes of each speech except for the reply.||Yes, between first and last minutes of each speech.|
|Scoring of speeches||3 discrete categories: 40% for Style, 40% for Content, 20% for Strategy. Average mark is 70/100 with speech scores varying between a 60-80 range. Reply average is half that of a main speech. Half-points are allowed.||Holistic scoring. Average mark is 75/100 with speech scores varying between 67 and 83. Reply average is half that of a main speech. Half-points are not allowed.||Holistic scoring. Average mark tends to be 75, with scores ranging from 60-90. No explicit guidelines on speech score range, but some speeches have historically cracked above 90. Half-points are not allowed.|
|Adjudication format||Usually at least 3 per preliminary round, with the number increasing in break rounds. Each judge fills in their ballot independently. No conferral between judges until after all ballots have been handed in. A winner and a loser are declared.||Usually 1 per round in the preliminaries, with the number increasing in break rounds. Each judge fills in their ballot independently. No conferral between judges until after all ballots have been handed in. A winner and a loser are declared.||Can be anywhere from 1-3 full panelists in the preliminaries, with the number increasing in break rounds. Panelists will confer to come up with a consensus decision, although splits are not uncommon. Teams are ranked 1st to 4th based on their performance in the round.|
|Breaking criteria||In descending order of priority: number of wins, number of judge ballots, total team score. Some further criteria used include score standard deviation, or even a coin flip.||In descending order of priority: number of wins, total team score, net win margin.||In descending order of priority: team points, team total team speaker scores. Some further criteria include: outcome of head-to-head matches, number of 1st places obtained, score standard deviation etc.|
|Premier tournaments for Asia (University-level)||No such tournament… obviously!||United Asian Debating Championships (UADC)||World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC), Asian British Parliamentary Debating Championships (ABP)|
|Premier tournaments for Asia (Schools-level)||World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC), Asia World Schools Debating Championships (AWSDC)||Asian Schools Debating Championships (ASDC)||No such equivalent exists for Schools.|
Table 1: Characteristics of major debating formats in Asia
With frequent practice, coaching if one is lucky enough, or even an addiction to watching YouTube videos of debates, the formats’ structural differences are easy to adapt to. However, the differences in what constitutes a model speech are slightly more fundamental, such that they would pose challenges to speakers and judges seeking to transition to BP from 3v3. Some of these distinctions are immediately apparent from how the speeches are scored, but there exist more subtle distinctions that show up more in practice than any rulebook.
The following sections will delve into these distinctions and the implications for debaters. I assume that the reader is most familiar with the WSDC format, and for ease of comprehension I have classified the subsequent sections into: format structure, the three categories of scoring in WSDC, and adjudication. This classification should also be accessible enough to debaters with more background in the AP format, even though AP adopts the same mode of holistic adjudication as BP does.
Distinctions arising from format structure
The most obvious difference between the WSDC format and AP/BP is the speech scoring mechanism. (1):
- Content: is the argument used by the speaker, divorced from the speaking style. If an argument is weak it will be marked accordingly, even if the other team does not expose its weakness. In deciding the strength or weakness of an argument, judges are not to be influenced by their own personal beliefs or specialised knowledge.
In a speech marked upon 100%, content influences 40% of the scoring total, where points are given between a 24%-32% range.
- Style: is the way speakers speak. Judges will make allowance for different accents, speaking styles and debating terminology; however, debaters for whom English is a second language shall be judged as if they were native English speakers. Regarding speaking aids, the use of palm-cards, lecterns, folders, notepads or other forms of speakers notes do not affect the mark a speaker is given. Speakers are however not supposed to read off their scripts, but instead use notes that they refer to only from time to time.
In a speech marked upon 100%, style influences 40% of the scoring total, where points are given between a 24%-32% range.
- Strategy: covers two concepts: Whether the speaker understands what the issues of the debate are, and the structure and timing of the speaker’s speech. Broadly, a speaker who answers the critical issues with weak responses will get poor marks for content but good marks for strategy.
In a speech marked upon 100%, strategy influences 20% of the scoring total, where points are given between a 12%-16% range.
- The WSDC rules also allow for a discretionary addition or subtraction of 2 points off the main substantive speech, for Points of Information (POIs) which are of a significantly different degree than the main speech. For instance, a speaker with a strong main speech and extremely weak to no POIs might get a 2 point deduction. A speaker with a very weak main speech and absolutely killer POIs could get up to 2 additional points.
- Reply speeches are marked to the same standard as the three main speeches in a WSDC-format round, but the scores for each category and for the total are halved. This means that in the WSDC format, a team receives a point score against a total of 100 + 100 + 100 + 50 = 350 marks. No points of information are allowed in reply speeches.
In contrast, the BP format scores speeches holistically, without assigning weight to discrete categories or for POIs. (2) While speakers should still do well in the components of style, content and strategy, speeches are marked on their overall persuasive capacity. A sample of the marking standard can be found below in Table 2; while there are standards with slightly more granularity, this is a rough guideline.
|Mark Band||Description of Band|
|95-100||Plausibly one of the best debating speeches ever given, flawless and astonishingly compelling in every regard. It is incredibly difficult to think up satisfactory responses to any of the arguments made.|
|90-94||Brilliant arguments successfully engage with the main issues in the round. Arguments are very well-explained, always central to the case being advocated, and demand extremely sophisticated responses. The speech is very clear and incredibly compelling. Structure and role fulfilment are executed flawlessly.|
|85-89||Very good, central arguments engage well with the most important issues on the table and are highly compelling; sophisticated responses would be required to refute them. Delivery is clear and very persuasive. Role fulfilment and structure probably flawless.|
|80-84||Relevant and pertinent arguments address key issues in the round with sufficient explanation. The speech is clear in almost its entirety, and holds one’s attention persuasively. Role is well-fulfilled and structure is unlikely to be problematic.|
|75-79||Arguments are almost exclusively relevant, and frequently persuasive. Occasionally, but not often, the speaker may slip into: i) deficits in explanation, ii) simplistic argumentation vulnerable to competent responses or iii) peripheral or irrelevant arguments. The speaker holds one’s attention, provides clear structure, and successfully fulfils their basic role on the table.|
|70-74||Arguments are generally relevant, and some explanation of them given, but there may be obvious gaps in logic, multiple points of peripheral or irrelevant material and simplistic argumentation. The speaker mostly holds the audience’s attention and is usually clear, but rarely compelling, and may sometimes be difficult to follow. There is a decent but incomplete attempt to fulfil one’s role on the table, and structure may be imperfectly delivered.|
|65-69||Relevant arguments are frequently made, but with very rudimentary explanation. The speaker is clear enough to be understood most of the time, but this may be difficult and/or unrewarding. Structure poor; poor attempt to fulfil role.|
|60-64||The speaker is often relevant, but rarely makes full arguments. Frequently unclear and confusing; problematic structure/lack thereof; some awareness of role.|
|55-59||The speech rarely makes relevant claims, only occasionally formulated as arguments. Hard to follow, little/no structure; no evident awareness of role.|
|50-54||Content is almost never relevant, and is both confusing and confused. No structure or fulfilment of role in any meaningful sense is provided.|
Table 2: Speaker scale for British Parliamentary standard
The AP format also adopts holistic adjudication, but also specifies margin guidelines in addition to rough speaker bands.
|Margin Band||Description of Band|
|0.5 – 4||The differences between both teams are very minor. A tight fight. It will take effort to determine who won.|
|4.5 – 9||One team has a clear advantage compared to the other, but the difference is not large. It is relatively easy to determine that winner.|
|9.5 – 11.5||One team clearly outclasses the other team. This team has a very great advantage and minimum fault, while the other has minimum advantage and major faults.|
|12 and above||One team has a very great advantage in the debate while the other team barely contributes at all. This match-up should not occur in power-matched rounds.|
Table 3: Margin bands for Asian Parliamentary standard (3)
|Mark Band||Description of Band|
|83||Comprehensive logical analysis of arguments, augmented by excellent examples and precedents where necessary. A lot of matter is debate winning material. Analysis leaves little to no lingering questions in the minds of the audience and is extremely hard to rebut. Rebuttals to opponent’s case very effective, many of opponent’s arguments rendered defeated. Use of rhetoric and oratory highly persuasive and compelling. Finally, POIs asked were highly effective in undermining the case of the opponent.|
|80 – 82||Excellent analysis, a lot of which stands true till the end. Many winning exchanges against the opponent that do significant damage to the thrust of their case. Most analysis complete with very few lingering questions in the minds of the audience and very challenging to rebut. Compelling and persuasive use of oratory.|
|78 – 79||Comprehensively analyzed matter substantiated with good examples; very challenging to rebut with some analysis standing true till the end. Effective engagement, many winning exchanges, with some that stand till the end of the debate. Sharp POIs that are challenging to answer.|
|76 – 77||Most matter well analyzed, with relevant examples. Engagement with the opponent effective, with many winning exchanges. Very small amount of matter not consequential to the outcome of the debate.|
|75||Most matter was relevant and substantiated using both logical analysis and a few examples. Most matter from opponent was engaged with, with some degree of success. Speech was clearly structured and speaker role was fulfilled.|
|73 – 74||Some relevant matter, with logical substantiation. Some of opponent’s matter effectively engaged with. Speaker role largely fulfilled, and speech was structured.|
|71 – 72||Some amount of relevant matter, but poor substantiation. Few attempts made at engagement, with very little success. Some elements of role fulfillment and structure.|
|68 – 70||Matter was largely irrelevant and poorly substantiated (no logical analysis, no relevant examples). Engagement was minimal and largely ineffective. Lack of structure or role fulfillment.|
|67||Very little content, or content was of no relevance or consequence to the debate. Hardly any relevant pre-speech or post-speech contribution to the debate.|
Table 4: Speaker scale for Asian Parliamentary standard (4)
What are the implications of these differences for judges transitioning to University styles?
- Focus more on the comparative interplay of issues in deciding the victory: During adjudications, teams in the AP and BP formats usually expect debates to be won on i) content-related issues, and ii) how the arguments are strategized e.g. framing, prioritization, impacting etc. Focusing on these in reaching and justifying a decision is a good start.
For BP specifically, the presence of four teams rather than two results in an increased emphasis on comparative role fulfilment. Besides the criteria on content and argument strategy, judges should compare teams explicitly in their decision (e.g. across the houses like OG vs. OO, down the bench like OO vs. CO, in diagonals like OG vs. CO).
- Do not give an oral adjudication structured around the discrete breakdown of categories: This is a red flag for University teams that their judge is relying on WSDC metrics to judge an AP/BP debate, which is highly inappropriate given that i) the average mark in WSDC is much lower than for AP/BP, and ii) teams are expecting holistic feedback. Judges who do so tend to suffer in the adjudication ranking, especially given that the AP and BP formats mandate team feedback on their adjudicators.
- Use the speaker scale and mark bands: If judges’ clustering tendency carries over to AP/BP format, there will be insufficient granularity to adequately reward speakers for their debate performance. Judges should hence aim to use the full range of AP/BP scale when scoring.
- Winning purely on style is much less common in AP/BP than WSDC: While technically possible, for a team to emerge the winner purely on style is almost unheard of – especially given equity concerns regarding foreign accents and command of the English language in AP/BP tournaments. Judges should not tip a decision solely on style, unless extremely necessary and the teams perform equally well on all other criteria.
Summary of things judges should pay attention to
- Judge teams comparatively, particularly on content and strategic argumentation
- Use the speaker scale and mark bands to adequately reward teams
- Avoid justifying the decision using discrete WSDC categories
- Avoid justifying the decision purely on style unless absolutely necessary
Distinctions in practice: Content
In general, the burden of content and analysis is higher in the University circuit than in the WSDC format. Speakers are no longer just expected to elaborate their arguments with proper links and conclusions. There are also expectations to, among other things: frame criteria by which to judge arguments, prioritize arguments, and warrant arguments (i.e. explain explicitly why the argument matters relative to other arguments, in winning the debate from a given framework) properly given the dynamics of a given debate. First-time university judges often report having trouble keeping up with the pace of analysis, or having to think nearly as fast as the debaters themselves.
What are the implications for judges transitioning to University styles?
- Place higher emphasis on speakers impacting their analysis: It is no longer good enough to have the most thoroughly-elaborated and nuanced arguments – arguments must be directly responsive to the crux of the debate, and more impactful than the opponent’s. Judges should pay attention to whether teams have sufficiently warranted why their arguments ought to matter more in the round, by dint of scale or persistence etc.
As an example, consider the motion “This House fears China’s increasing involvement in Southeast Asia”. Due to their position at the periphery of the debate’s crux, arguments concerning China’s environmental impact are likely to be on face less impactful than arguments about political coercion – unless accompanied by a framework that shows why environmental harms ought to be considered as weightier than politics. Such a framework could talk about i) the lack of political will to mitigate environmental harms as compared to political issues, ii) harms to the poorest of the poor, and iii) the persistent intergenerational effects of environmental degradation as compared to temporal political issues.
- The standard is laxer than in WSDC: When I first transitioned into BP format from WSDC, I was quite shocked and appalled that teams could get away with spamming two-liner arguments in rapid succession, as opposed to step-by-step point-elaboration-example-link construction of substantives. (I still am, somewhat.)
As it turns out, in practice the standard of the “ordinary intelligent voter” that is used to judge argumentative quality tends to be kinder in AP/BP than WSDC. That is not to say teams should skimp on elaboration; in AP/BP, once the argument’s logical links and impact have been made, there is no need to further belabour the point.
- 20 seconds: Warranting why on balance, the likely harms of coercion outweigh any potential beneficial effects that the Opposition team might run. (This optional step is also run by good WSDC teams, but is critical in AP/BP formats)
The reason why an AP/BP team would choose to spend only 10 seconds on why China will apply political pressure, is because that claim is relatively uncontroversial and will not be contested. More time is spent on the “impactful” arguments i.e. how bad the harms are, and why they cannot be resisted. 20 whole seconds at the end are devoted to meta-debating – making the argument relevant to the judge. The reason why this is so, is because AP/BP does not explicitly require arguments to be judged independently on the quality of their construction. A rushed argument can still be round-winning. WSDC does consider argument construction quite explicitly, however. Teams hence have to spend more time fleshing out the arguments they build and run, even the uncontroversial bits.
- AP/BP have a general absence of prepared rounds, which impacts the delivery of arguments: WSDC-format tournaments often feature long preparation rounds, where teams receive the motion and side one to two weeks before the debate takes place. Teams will then engage in painstaking research, writing and rewriting speeches, sparring other schools and alumni, preempting rebuttals and other frantic activities all the way up to the debate days later. In contrast, AP and BP tournaments give teams the motion barely 30 and 15 minutes respectively before the debate – compressing all the existential panic into an unbearably adrenaline-soaked short time. Furthermore, AP and BP tournaments typically feature no content theme, so it is almost impossible to research in advance. Teams only have their head-space of general knowledge to rely on once preparation time begins.
What does this mean for judges? Judges should not expect immaculately-crafted speeches with well-researched statistics and impeccable timing. These should be duly credited if present, but are icing on the cake compared to the raw argumentation and reaction skill. A speech with remarkable direction and sharp refutation should not receive a below-average score just because the flow was not as well-crafted as what can be expected from a week-long prep.
Summary of things judges should pay attention to
- Look out for, and place emphasis on whether teams impact their analysis
- Accept that teams might complete their analysis in a more compressed fashion as compared to the WSDC format
- Do not penalize speeches for being rough compared to those created in a week-long prep period
Distinctions in practice: Style
With a primarily student audience and participant pool, the WSDC format is positioned as an introductory, accessible and – most of all – educational form of debating. Having Style as a distinct category of speech evaluation hence dovetails with these pedagogical aims. Speeches in the WSDC format are expected to be well-paced, rhetorically compelling and enjoyed by the lay person. In contrast, University formats assume their general audience to be the average, sufficiently-informed college student. AP and BP hence tend to be more tolerant of fast-paced, aggressive speaking styles that prioritize matter generation over precise delivery.
What are the implications for judges transitioning to University styles?
- Expect to have to keep up with a slightly faster speaking speed: While the best speakers in AP and BP formats will still adopt conversationally-paced and accessible styles, the average speaking speed of a University debater is still slightly faster than that of most Schools debaters. That said, it is still correct for AP/BP judges to penalize teams that speak so fast to the point of incomprehensibility. Debate is still ultimately a sport of persuasion, and verbal diarrhoea is most definitely not persuasive.
- Do not expect that all speakers will speak in “Queen’s English”: While there are express instructions not to penalize competitors for accents, in the interest of equal standards the WSDC format still holds non-native English speakers to the same standard as native English speakers. At the University level, however, different considerations of equity are prioritized. Almost all University-level major tournaments take great pains to ensure that speakers of English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) are judged on as equal a platform as native English speakers. It is hence generally considered poor judging practice to expect precise English from University-level speakers, much less give a decision against a team because their grammar and word choice were lacking. Judges should still evaluate speeches on the overall grounds of persuasion, taking great pains to give speakers a fair hearing even if their expressions are not in Queen’s English.
- Be mentally prepared for a slightly higher degree of impudence: I acknowledge that this is going to be slightly contentious. While decorum and mutual respect for opponents remains critical to the sport, University-level debating has a wide variety of styles – including those that are slightly less respectful of authority and norms than WSDC might prescribe. Some University speakers might swear for emphasis, and justify doing so because it best underscores their fury at oppressive societal structures. Some University speakers might crack self-deprecatory or light jokes at the opponent’s expense; these tend to still be considered acceptable so long as they do not cross the line into an equity violation.
A NOTE ON EQUITY: Equity is the ideal that all should be able to take part in a free exchange of ideas, and be treated with respect throughout the tournament. To that extent, tournaments often bind an Equity Code of Conduct on participants, committing them not to engage in any behaviour that could attack the purpose of debating or unduly impair other participants’ ability to enjoy it. Among other actions, Equity also prohibits denigrating comments towards others, be they personal attacks or on identity characteristics e.g. race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability or marital status. (5)
Summary of things judges should pay attention to
- Expect to have to keep up with a slightly faster speaking speed
- Do not penalize speakers for less-than-perfect English, so long as they are understandable
- Be accepting of variations in speech formality, so long as speakers do not commit equity violations
Distinctions in practice: Strategy
It is often quipped that most University debate rounds are won on superior strategy, especially in the BP format where role fulfilment and team interactions are critical to emerging the winner. The WSDC format recognizes two main arms of strategy: i) how well a team answers the issues of a debate, and ii) the technical elements of speech delivery e.g. time management, structuring of arguments, signposting of the speech for ease of tracking. While they do so to varying degrees, the AP and BP formats place much more attention on i) and far less on ii).
What are the implications for judges transitioning to University styles?
- Pay special attention to frameworks and prioritisation of arguments: The WSDC format manual is silent on what is considered a “key issue” in a debate – teams are usually left to define and analyse what they consider to be priority arguments in the round. An argument might end up being the most “critical” in the round if all speakers simply spend more time elaborating and rebutting on it. University formats follow the same train of thought, but teams are now expected to frame and prioritise their arguments as a matter of effective strategy. Arguments that are very frequently discussed by one team might be easily eliminated as peripheral by the other team, e.g. if the other team undercuts its fundamental assumptions, or shows that it is logically dependent on a deeper argument. Judges should credit teams that expound on why their arguments should matter more than others in the round, above those that merely explain what their argument is well.
- In BP format, pay especial attention to team interactions: Compared to WSDC and AP where two teams are evaluated against each other, BP adjudication requires ranking teams 1st to 4th in the room, in descending order of their performance. Doing so requires judges to undertake anywhere from 3 to 6 different pairwise comparisons; some of these comparisons might not even be perfectly transitive! It can be very hard to evaluate the relative contributions of teams in the BP format – especially those that do not directly interact with each other i.e. Opening Government and Closing Opposition. While tracking the round, judges should look out especially for how each team interacts with the others – be they through rebuttal, competing frameworks, Points of Information etc.
- Be very careful when deploying role fulfilment as a justification: While role fulfilment is explicitly referred to in the WUDC marking standard, as a term it is still extremely controversial within the BP judging world, and deserves a special note of caution. In its strictest definition, role fulfilment only describes the obligations required of each team by the rules of BP e.g. PM must define the motion, MG and MO must have a unique extension, whips should summarize the debate, CG and CO should not knife their opening houses etc.
However, in practice role fulfilment has become a bit of a lazy catch-all term in oral adjudications. When a judge proclaims “Most of OG’s analysis was defeated by CO, but OG fulfilled its role better so OG gets the 1st ranking”, what the judge might have meant to say is: “OG were thorough at setting up and persuasive in their analysis, given what could have been reasonably expected of them so early in the debate. This overall contributed more to fleshing out the key clashes than CO’s refutation of their material, which was convenient at times and derivative of OO in others. As such, OG narrowly took the 1st ranking over CO.” However, hearing only the first version would not usefully inform CO on how they can improve – indeed, CO might storm out with sour looks on their faces.
As with other catch-all terms, role fulfilment has also taken on circuit-specific cultural dimensions that are not strictly adherent to its original definition. For instance, an Australian judge might see Closing House role fulfilment as coming up with an extremely divergent extension, while an Asian judge might be satisfied with vertically derivative analysis. Similarly, an Asian judge might expect OG role fulfillment to include proving every conceivable burden, comparative and uniqueness-analysis in the motion, while a judge from Oxbridge would be satisfied if the PM skimmed over the non-contentious parts to zoom in on the clashes.
- Credit, but do not necessary require technical rigidity: As a training format, WSDC explicitly prizes technical aspects in evaluating speeches. Good WSDC speakers are expected to have masterful control of their speech timing, properly allocating time to the most important issues. They are also expected to have lucid speech structure, and to signpost clearly when progressing from one point to the next. University formats assume that most speakers already have these as basics, and consequently place less emphasis on technical rigidity. Thus, University judging does not automatically penalize dropping of peripheral arguments, integrated rebuttal structure or even (sometimes) stream-of-consciousness-type analysis. Speakers should by all means receive credit for technical proficiency, but it is not the only way to give an excellent oratory.
Summary of things judges should pay attention to
- Do focus on how teams frame and prioritize their arguments
- For BP, do especially focus on how teams interact with each other in the comparative
- Be very cautious about role fulfilment; stick to the strict definition and be as specific as possible if it crops up in your justification
- Do give credit for technical mastery, bearing in mind that it is not absolutely essential for giving a solid speech
Distinctions in the adjudication process (particularly for BP format)
Perhaps the greatest difference between the WSDC and AP, and BP formats lies in adjudication. Deliberations in the 3v3 format are straightforward; judges fill in their ballots, find out whether the decision is split or unanimous, and thereafter confer about how the teams can do better. However, in the BP format the conferral takes place before any ballot is filled up. With four teams and twenty-four possible outcomes, it is much harder to get an outcome call “right”. The conferral process hence involves the chair judges and her panelists seeking to build consensus towards a single call, out of the entire range of plausible calls for a given debate. Split decisions only tend to happen if the judging panel is unable to build consensus, or are running out of time and hence are forced into a vote.
What are the implications for judges transitioning to University styles?
- Do not be afraid to dissent, but do so with dispassionate and comparative reasons: Some junior judges have expressed fear that if they espouse a different view from their more experienced chair, they will automatically get poor feedback and not break into out-rounds. While I cannot deny that such nasty chairs do exist, an observed trend is that the gradual globalisation of debate circuits has given rise to situations where diverse views of debating may interact in the same tournament. This makes dissenting – and respect for dissent – more likely than it ever was in the past. Good chairs will treat their panelists with due respect; the Asian circuit goes further to mandate that panelists submit feedback on their chairs, and vice versa.
Judges should hence not be afraid to dissent against a chair. Not just because the global debate environment is now generally more tolerant of diverse viewpoints, but because it is necessary to arrive at a robust decision. However, to ease the potential pain of conferral later, judges are strongly advised to be i) dispassionate and ii) comparative between teams in their reasons for arriving at a different call than the chair. Too many new BP judges fall prey to “stepping into” the debate because of preconceived notions about how arguments should be framed or run. This is unacceptable. Equally, too many new BP judges often consign a team to 4th place – and in Asia this team is the OG more often than not – because they did not argue as well as they could, even if this team was still comparatively better than others in the room. Judges are advised to avoid these pitfalls if they hope to dissent well.
- During conferral, leave room for negotiation if necessary: It is often joked that the four BP teams constitute the less consequential debate in a given round, and that the judging panel’s discussion after the round is much more important. This quip is true to a large extent, as a lot of the final adjudication ranking is determined by how the conferral discussion is framed and argued. As a new judge, one does not always have sufficient influence to sway a decision; indeed, sometimes the new judge might be unsure of their call due to inexperience. In cases where there is conceivable doubt between two teams, it is advisable for new judges to express their willingness to discuss. Doing so is more likely to generate fruitful exchange of views, and demonstrates to the panel chair that the new judge is self-aware of their limitations.
For example, a potential call that leaves room for negotiation could be: “I felt that Opening Government was a clear first place as their nuanced arguments and comparative still stood in the round at the end. Closing Government was a clear fourth place for me as they effectively had no unique extension, unlike all the other teams in the round. However, both Opposition teams are very close for me in terms of matter contribution and impacting. I’m happy to discuss between second and third place.”
- Expect to have to negotiate regional differences: While sometimes frustrating to teams, it is par for the course that judging panels at WUDC will strive for regional diversity. While this is fit to be the subject of an entirely different essay, it is no secret that different regional circuits have varied adjudication tendencies and priorities. This may give rise to wildly different judging conceptions of the same round, within a single judging panel. To draw a hypothetical example based on circuit tendencies, an Asian judge might hinge his decision on which team argued the comparative better. An Australian judge might argue that an Opening team’s core principles went uncontested and hence they deserve to get first place. A European judge might take issue with how the same team failed to demonstrate clear impacts of their arguments, and push for a lower ranking. Even within the same region of IONA, there could be differences in the way you see principles in debate rounds, depending on whether you come from a London institution or from Oxbridge.
This does not mean that any region’s judge is necessarily more correct than another. It does however mean that you should be willing to listen with an open mind if another judge from a less familiar circuit has a call different from your own. At the least, kindness and understanding are good ways to bring fellow panelists around to your point of view. At the most, you could be wrong about how you see debating, and the other panelists can be invaluable learning opportunities in reshaping how you see debates.
Summary of things judges should pay attention to
- Do dissent if necessary, but have comparative and objective reasons for doing so
- If you feel the need to, leave the room with your initial call for the panel’s discussion
- Be sensitive and understanding when dealing with regional perspectives different from your own
Conclusion and Next Steps
A summary of the key points that judges should look out for, can be found in Table 5.
|Category||Points to note|
|Format structure||· Judge teams comparatively, particularly on content and strategic argumentation
· Use the speaker scale and mark bands to adequately reward teams
· Avoid justifying the decision using discrete WSDC categories
· Avoid justifying the decision purely on style unless absolutely necessary
|Content||· Look out for, and place emphasis on whether teams impact their analysis
· Accept that teams might complete their analysis in a more compressed fashion as compared to WSDC format
· Do not penalize speeches for being rough compared to those created in a week-long prep period
|Style||· Expect to have to keep up with a slightly faster speaking speed
· Do not penalize speakers for less-than-perfect English, so long as they are understandable
· Be accepting of variations in speech formality, so long as speakers do not commit equity violations
|Strategy||· Do focus on how teams frame and prioritize their arguments
· For BP, do especially focus on how teams interact with each other in the comparative
· Be very cautious about role fulfilment; stick to the strict definition and be as specific as possible if it crops up in your justification
· Do give credit for technical mastery, bearing in mind that it is not absolutely essential for giving a solid speech
|Adjudication||· Do dissent if necessary, but have comparative and objective reasons for doing so
· If you feel the need to, leave room in your initial call for the panel’s discussion
· Be sensitive and understanding when dealing with regional perspectives different from your own
Table 5: Summary of key points for judges new to University formats
I would like to conclude with two exhortations. First of all, debate circuits should also take care to promote greater adjudicator education, especially if the circuit is not naturally exposed to top-tier BP debating. Compared to a decade ago, debaters today are extremely lucky to benefit from faster Internet connections, widespread availability of streamed rounds and even online seminars by luminaries in the art. These make BP instruction accessible, but even that is incomplete without a circuit-wide effort to promote better judging.
Some possible suggestions for further study could include:
- A judge mentorship scheme for novices, where individuals can sign up to be mentored under a more experienced senior adjudicator in a tournament in the event they do not break. During the out-rounds, the group can collectively shadow-adjudicate a debate and discuss thereafter how they would derive a verdict. This can provide much-needed on-the-job training for new judges who would otherwise be debating in the same tournament. This was tried in the 2017 World Universities Debating Championships for elimination rounds.
- A comprehensive adjudicator feedback regime: not just teams on chairs, but also teams on panelists, chairs on panelists and panelists on chairs. This has already been implemented to a significant degree in the Philippines (6), and might be worth considering in other national circuits for tournaments where there is sufficient time in the schedule.
- Webinars involving top adjudicators from different regional circuits e.g. IONA, North America, Asia, Australasia etc. where participants can actively field questions and hear from a diversity of viewpoints. It is probably too much to hope for a common understanding of the BP format across the entire world, but this could promote the sharing of cross-cultural perspectives and at least build mutual understanding of how other regions conceive of debates.
Finally, if you are a new BP judge who feels overwhelmed with the sheer number of things to pay attention to – you are not alone. Many have gone before you grappling with the same concerns and fears, and still transitioned to successful judging in the University circuit. Learning a new format may be difficult at first, but AP and BP can be very fresh and exciting intellectual challenges.
(1) World Schools Debating Championships, Rules Document. Accessed on 8 January 2017 at https://debate.uvm.edu/dcpdf/wsdcrules.pdf
(2) World Universities Debating Championships 2013 Berlin Speaker Scale. Accessed on 8 January 2017 at https://debate.uvm.edu/dcpdf/WUDC%20Berlin%20Speaker%20Scale.pdf
(3) JDF Handbook for Asian Parliamentary, Third Edition. Accessed on 8 January 2017 at https://debate.uvm.edu/dcpdf/JDF_Handbook_for_Asian_Parliamentary_Third_Edition.pdf
(4) Adopted from the 2014 Asian Schools Debating Championships briefing slides.
(5) NUDC Code of Conduct for 2013-14. Accessed on 9 January 2017 at http://oxfordiv.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/NUDC-Code-of-Conduct-2013-2014.pdf
(6) I observed this practice in the 2016 Philippine Debate Open.
 There is considerable debate over whether this clustering tendency is in line with the spirit and principles of WSDC. However, a discussion on the merits of clustering is out of the scope of this essay.
 I did think of providing some tips on how to track better at the AP/BP level, but people have different ways of visually and aurally recognizing and processing information, and any proposed tracking method would not be universally effective. Furthermore, the nuances of tracking will require an entirely different essay – perhaps some adventurous soul may want to give it a try for the next edition of International Debate?
Hailing from both Brown University and the University of Cambridge, Lucas has seventeen years of debate experience: as a coach, debater and adjudicator; across Asia, the UK and USA; and in both the Schools and the Universities circuit.
Lucas made the Semi-finals of the Oxford IV and SMU BP IV, the Grand Finals of the Singapore Debate Open, Imperial Open, NALSAR IV and WUPID, and won the Warwick IV, MMU IV, SMU Hammers and UADC.