For Judges: Giving Ballot Feedback

Michelle H writes:

“Hey Drew and Joe! As a parent of competitors, I would love a post for judges, giving input for feedback! We will be attending our first couple of tournaments in the next two weeks. I love judging, but don’t always feel like I’m very good at giving constructive feedback and encouragement.”

Hi Michelle, great question! Ballots are the ultimate source of feedback. Before we talk about how to improve them, here's something every judge should know:

Confusion Is Not Your Fault

I so often see judges shy away from judging with the fear that their inexperience with forensics renders them unqualified to judge a round. Ever hear someone say something like this?

"I don't feel like I'm smart enough to judge this round. Everything would go over my head."

Competitors have the sole responsibility of making the round clear. If they don't, and you leave the round confused and frustrated, they have failed you.

Too often have I seen students rejoice when they get an alumni judge and sigh when they get a judge from the community. This is backwards! Community and parent judges are the best test of a student's explanatory skills. For one, they represent the largest judge demographic in most high-school leagues. And unless the student intends to work on a desolate oil rig in Alaska after high-school, chances are decent they’ll need to be able to communicate with everyday folk. Parent and community judges require you to develop that skill.

If the round was confusing, use the ballot to tell them.

Affirmative: "You used an analogy of gold and a safe to establish both of your contentions. This was very confusing and didn't help you at all. Try using a real-world example for each of them!"

Negative: "You didn't tag any of your arguments and made it nearly impossible to keep track of them. When you give me a new argument, tell me what to write down!"

Confusion is the undoing of most debate rounds. As a judge, you should be the first to tell students if they lost you. Here's two tips for better feedback.

Tip 1: Track Arguments

Write down every argument you get. Follow each one to the end of the round, letting each team know where it went and if it mattered. For example:

“Affirmative: You had two applications in the 1AC. But in the 1AR, you dropped one of them. That means I can only consider your one application in my decision.”

“Negative: You began with a Res Analysis that seemed important, and when the affirmative gave you pushback in the 1AR, you fired back with three responses. However, I couldn't understand why you needed this RA to win the round... all it said was that the resolution was a general statement.”

Follow the arguments and tell them what happened. Be blunt and precise.

Tip 2: Reveal the Winning Path

It's quite often that a debate round will end with either team being confident of their victory. You may have plenty of feedback for the losing team based on the things that stuck out to you in the round, but always finish by describing what they could've done to win the round. This helps discourage that feeling of post-tournament helplessness ("there's nothing I could've done") and puts them on a specific path for improvement. For example:

Negative: You only ran arguments that mitigated the plan's benefits through harm responses. You said that the plan may not save as many lives as originally thought, but never told me they wouldn't save any lives at all. I voted aff because they left me with a better world, and you didn't.

To win, try to come up with strong disadvantages to their plan and use those to outweigh their benefits. Rather than just give me reasons to NOT vote affirmative, give me offense: reasons to vote FOR the negative side."

A Word to Competitors

Your ballots are sacred. At the end of each tournament, pour over them to figure out how you could've improved. Every new competition should bear witness to a newer, sharper version of yourself. If you keep losing and you're not sure why, meet with me and I’ll help you shatter the losing streak.