Authors: The University of Wyoming coaching staff
Matt Liu, University of Wyoming Director of Debate
Lawrence Zhou, University of Wyoming assistant coach; former NSDA LD champion
Brent Lamb, University of Wyoming assistant coach and 4-year debater at UW
Note: a more in-depth article on this subject by Lawrence Zhou can be found here.
We believe that the single most important factor there is for improving at debate is having a conversation with your judge about whether you won or lost and why. Post round disclosure and oral feedback is the lynchpin of success at competitive debate. Although debaters currently receive written feedback on ballots, nothing comes close to the educational gains that are made when you can talk to your judge. Set aside inscrutable handwriting (of which I am certainly guilty of) and indecipherable photocopies: even simple clarification questions make a world of difference in educational pedagogy. If a debater doesn’t understand a comment that I wrote, their opportunities for recourse are slim. If they don’t understand something I’ve said, they can ask for clarification and I can rephrase and expand my comment until it makes sense to them. Oral critiques facilitate complex conversations over the complex issues we ask our students to debate in a way that written ballots simply can’t mirror. A written ballot isn’t as useful as an oral critique in the same way that a textbook is no substitute for a teacher. Not to mention the fact that by the time debaters receive their written ballots, post tournament, the details of debates become fuzzy. Facilitating a conversation with debaters in the moment is key.
A written ballot isn’t as useful as an oral critique in the same way that a textbook is no substitute for a teacher.
Disclosure of who won and who lost is an essential element of feedback. The efficacy of feedback is gutted if debaters don’t understand the relationship between the advice they’re receiving and why they lost (or how it did help them win). Imagine a medical student practicing a procedure poorly but not being told it would kill the patient: there’s less incentive to change. We believe the most beneficial thing a judge can do for debaters after voting is begin their decision by disclosing who they voted for, then talking to the losing debater or team about why they voted and how the debater could improve, then turning to the winning debater and offering advice to them as well.
There are a couple of potential objections to post round disclosure and feedback we can envision. The first of which is the time it takes. We believe oral feedback is worth making the time for. As judges and coaches, we are educators, and the rendering of the decision is our only window to educate students in-person, during a timely window where they are tuned-in and likely to listen to us. We also believe speaking to students is easier and faster than writing a ballot (especially one with feedback that would help students improve). Written ballots have surely delayed tournaments as well. There are also time-saving mechanisms we can build into tournaments to create time for this worthwhile experience. Electronic ballots are a massive time-saver: no need to run across buildings to deliver the ballot (and built-in checks if ballots are filled out incorrectly, saving the time of tracking down rogue judges). We can also place reasonable time limits on feedback, though, time limits should not be enforced just on feedback back on the start time of rounds. Electronic balloting can help with this by immediately identifying rounds that are running late (rounds where the judge has not pressed the “start round” button). The Pattern A/B structure can also be helpful in this regard. Needing to give up a room does not necessitate ending a conversation. Feedback can continue in the hallway or the cafeteria. Finally, if necessary time for feedback can be curtailed on travel days (mollifying reasonable concerns about long drives and curfews). However, we thoroughly believe that disclosure and feedback can be built into the schedule without making the days go longer. We each draw on a long empirical record of witnessing tournaments that run smoothly and efficiently with disclosure.
Some may worry students will react poorly to losses, or argue with the judge. This is a lesson students need to learn. Losing with grace is an important life skill. Not to mention, tantrums during the post round have consequences. The students that cannot behave well during a decision will quickly find the reputational costs of that behavior affect the likelihood of their future short-term success. If a student would behave poorly with disclosure, then this is a lesson they need to learn.
Others may worry losing students will get deflated. More than a decade of coaching novice debate has taught me the opposite lesson. Although there are emotional moments for everyone, heaps of empirical evidence from around the country demonstrates that debaters thrive with disclosure. Additionally, debaters still eventually learn their record. Finding out you lost every debate after the fact doesn’t remove much of the sting from losing every round. However, it does deny the opportunity to improve and change your course by doing a better job of listening to your judges during the tournament.
Finally, some may be concerned about lay or parent judges. Will disclosure dis-incentivize parent judges from participating? First, we should note that we do not think there should be a firm mandate to disclose. If a judge does not feel comfortable disclosing, they should not have to. However, I would encourage them to by telling that what I firmly believe: adaptation is a skill debaters need to learn, and failure to do so is a failure of persuasion on the part of the debater, not the judge. Any parent or lay judge should feel comfortable telling debaters they relied too much on jargon or failed to adapt. Additionally, parent judges improve our community by keeping debate grounded in persuasion. We can value them best by listening to the valuable things they have to say to our students.
Therefore, we propose the following action points:
1) Coaches and judges should embrace disclosure and oral feedback.
2) Tournaments should encourage and build limited time into the schedule for oral feedback.
3) Rules barring disclosure or feedback should be revisited.
Encouraging post round disclosure and feedback upholds the best principles of good pedagogy. Debate is more than a game: it’s an educational setting. Disclosure and feedback are essential to enabling the most important role of the judge: that of an educator.
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