Category Archives: Skill Development

Decision Fatigue and Debate

John Tierney, a science columnist at the New York Times, wrote an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about the concept of “decision fatigue”. In it, he explains that the mental work required to make decisions is substantially more taxing on our brains than we typically think and that the associated “decision fatigue” leads us to make bad decisions.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

The concept of decision fatigue has several applications to competitive academic debate.

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Tips For Competing As A Small School

The October issue of Rostrum—the National Forensic League’s monthly magazine—features an excellent article written by Josh Brown of Homewood-Flossmoor High School about competing in policy debate as a “small school” (pdf). It echoes much of the advice provided by Dr. David Cheshier in a 2002 Rostrum article, “How Very Small Debate Programs Can Achieve National Success” (pdf). Both articles are worthwhile reading regardless of the size of one’s program.

Summer Lecture Flashback: Debating Existential Risk

Over the course of the summer I recorded several lectures that have been posted to Debate Vision. While some readers might have already seen them, it can’t hurt to share them again here on The 3NR. This lecture introduces students to the concept of existential risk and provides tips for effectively debating it — it is embedded below the fold.

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Summer Lecture Flashback: Learning By Watching

Over the course of the summer I recorded several lectures that have been posted to Debate Vision. While some readers might have already seen them, it can’t hurt to share them again here on The 3NR. On the heels of the film study lecture, this one discusses strategies for learning by watching others debate — it is embedded below the fold.

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Learning From Hip-Hop: Lessons for Debaters from How To Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can—there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.” — Sarah Caldwell

If one looks closely enough, there are lessons to be learned about debate almost everywhere. The book Moneyball—Michael Lewis’s look at the exploitation of market inefficiencies in Major League Baseball—for example, can help us consider ways to exploit market inefficiencies in debate. While management strategies in professional baseball would seem at first glance to have little to do with high school debate, important lessons can nonetheless be learned—if only we take the time to dig a bit deeper.

In the same way that Moneyball inspired reflection about market inefficiencies in debate, Paul Edwards’ How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC provides the astute observer with a wealth of lessons for high school debaters. How to Rap is a comprehensive guide to hip-hop MCing that includes lengthy discussions of content, flow, writing, and delivery. Based on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Edwards’ book “marks a cultural coming-of-age for hip-hop — the first comprehensive poetics of this new literary form.”

While the entire book is fascinating, the section about delivery is particularly useful for high school debate. This article refashions Edwards’ advice to prospective MCs and applies it to debate. Five areas of advice are outlined: Breath Control, Taking Care of Your Voice, Enunciation, Vocal Style, and Presence/Swagger.

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Summer Lecture Flashback: Film Study

Over the course of the summer I recorded several lectures that have been posted to Debate Vision. While some readers might have already seen them, it can’t hurt to share them again here on The 3NR. This lecture discusses the use of film study in debate — it is embedded below the fold. A written adaptation of this lecture will appear in the September Rostrum.

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Good Debating Is Good Writing: 16 Common Inefficiencies

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Debate is a speaking activity, certainly, but it is also a writing activity. Good constructive speeches rely in large part on well-written prepared materials, but rebuttals are where the real writing occurs. To deliver a powerful rebuttal, students must verbalize their arguments clearly and persuasively—but do so extemporaneously, without a script. Good speaking, like good writing, must be clear, concise, and well organized: the content needs to be allowed to shine through.

As part of this summer’s Hoya Spartan Scholars program, students were given an opportunity to transcribe and edit their rebuttal speeches. The transcription process is tedious—it takes a lot of time and concentration to accurately and completely transcribe a debate speech—but the payout is substantial. By transforming a spoken speech into a written text, students can more rigorously assess the content of their speeches and dramatically improve their efficiency and language choices. And by doing so, the connection between good speaking and good writing becomes obvious.

In the course of editing students’ transcriptions, one thing became abundantly clear: debaters do not communicate efficiently. Most rebuttals overflow with filler language, distracting sentence structures, and imprecise word choices. This undermines persuasiveness, of course, but it also directly sacrifices content by wasting precious speech time. The goal of a debater should be to effectively communicate as many important arguments as possible to the judge within the time constraints. Doing so requires not just speed but efficiency. And while gains in speaking speed are certainly valuable, improvements in efficiency can be much more dramatic.

A list of 16 common efficiency problems is provided below the fold. Did we miss one? Share it in the comments.

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