The Case For Judges Providing Written Comments On Their Ballots

Contention One: Inherency

In the status quo, the vast majority of high school policy debate judges (at least those at “national circuit” tournaments) do not provide written comments on their ballots. A very small subset of judges—approximately ten percent based on an unscientific assessment of the publicly-posted ballots from the St. Mark’s and Blake tournaments—provide any written content at all. Of that subset, an even smaller group of judges provides “substantial” written commentary (defined as more than a short, one or two sentence reason for decision). Some tournaments have responded to this norm by eliminating ballots entirely—The Glenbrooks, for example, only provides small judge cards that are not copied or scanned for the competitors.

Thus The Plan:

High school policy debate judges should provide written comments on their ballots. This commentary should supplement—not replace—post-round oral disclosure and discussion of the debate.

Contention Two: The Advantage

The plan is superior to the status quo for all three relevant constituencies: debaters, coaches, and judges.

Subpoint A: Debaters

In order to improve, debaters require feedback from their judges. Currently, this feedback is provided almost exclusively in post-round discussions that center around the judge’s reason for decision. Most often, this discussion focuses on the losing team: the judge explains why they voted the way that they did and then proceeds to explain to the losing side why their arguments were not successful and what they could have done differently to emerge victorious. Some judges, at least some of the time, also provide helpful comments for the winning side. But for the most part, post-round discussions center around the judge’s decision—and that is as it should be.

While the decision is obviously important, however, it does not exhaust the feedback that students need in order to improve. In many cases, significant opportunities for improvement are not addressed because they did not proximately cause the win or loss. In order to help students identify and correct shortcomings in their debating, it is vital that judges communicate more thoughtfully regarding aspects of a given round that were not decisive —at least not directly—in determining the outcome.

The following is a list of areas that judges can briefly discuss via their written commentary on the ballot.

1. Feedback Regarding Constructive Speeches

Most post-round discussions hinge on the argumentation and execution of the final two (and sometimes three) rebuttal speeches. When constructives are discussed, it is usually only to the extent that they effected the way the final rebuttals were debated. Other aspects of the constructive speeches are typically left unaddressed—only the opaque judgment provided by speaker points signals to debaters the judge’s impression of their performance.

Smart debaters often ask questions to solicit feedback from their judges—”how was my time allocation in the 2AC?”, “how was my politics speech in the 1NR?”, and other similar questions are commonly advanced. But unless the judge has written notes during the debate, it can be difficult to provide specific, meaningful answers. By providing written comments on the ballot as the round progresses, judges can better convey their opinions of each debater’s performance.

2. Feedback Regarding Cross-Examinations

In the vast majority of high school debates, the cross-examinations are not instrumental in determining the winner. Most post-round discussions reference the cross-examinations only if an important concession was made or if an important issue was unclear and should have been clarified. It is even rarer for debaters to inquire about their cross-examinations, further pushing these vital components of the debate into the background.

Instead of complaining about the poor quality of most cross-examination periods—a frequent occurrence in judges’ lounges—judges should write comments that highlight things that debaters did well during CX as well as things that debaters could improve. “The cross-ex of the 1AC lacked focus and wasn’t helpful in setting up any of the 1NC positions,” for example, would be a helpful comment. So would “the cross-ex of the 2NC did a good job of attacking the solvency of the counterplan, but you should explicitly reference the 1AC cards by cite that you are relying on to establish your claims.”

Even if the cross-examinations are not discussed in the post-round, the fact that students have an opportunity to reflect on the judges’ written comments after a tournament can help them improve their CX strategy and tactics.

3. Feedback Regarding Arguments Not Central To The Debate

Judges sometimes comment on the overall strategy of a given team, but they typically do so only after having seen a debate unfold. Common post-round comments include:

  • “The negative should have gone for politics and the counterplan instead of the critique—I thought you were much farther ahead on those arguments.”
  • “The 2AC needed more offense on the disadvantage—you spent way too much time on the critique and didn’t get to the DA with enough time.”
  • “The 1NC wasn’t very strategic—without better case defense, you couldn’t really win the DA, leaving you only with T and the K.”

These can be helpful comments, but the details of a judge’s reaction to the initial presentation and development of arguments that are not ultimately extended in the final rebuttals is often forgotten by the time the post-round discussion rolls around. Did the 2AC’s topicality frontline leave something to be desired? Did the 2NC’s extension of the counterplan miss a golden opportunity to exploit a hole in the affirmative case? Could the 1NC have read better evidence to support their case hit? By writing comments on the ballot as the debate progresses, judges can provide debaters with important feedback that would otherwise never be communicated.

4. Feedback Regarding Stylistic Practices, In-Round Presence, and Ethos

Many debaters speak in a way that can only be honestly described as awful: they are too loud or too quiet, they fall into annoying cadences, they distract everyone by banging on tubs or stomping their feet, and most of all they are incomprehensible. While judges will often comment on debaters whose speaking represents an extreme instance of “needs improvement,” they typically let most borderline offenders slide without explicit criticism. The result, of course, is that many students continue their bad habits under the assumption that if they were doing something bad enough, their judges would say something.

Other stylistic practices and “ethos issues” deserve comment, too. Is a debater being too aggressive or too passive in cross-ex? Does a debater throw their blocks on the floor after reading them? Does a debater rely on certain “crutch” words like “at the point at which” or “we’ll always win that”? Does a debater wander around the room during their opponents’ speeches instead of sitting down and flowing? Judges should communicate these criticisms to debaters on the ballot so that they can work to make improvements.

Subpoint B: Coaches

Better feedback for debaters means better feedback for coaches and more opportunities to teach—that much should be obvious. But in addition to the kinds of comments that debaters would find helpful, judges can provide feedback specifically aimed at a team’s coach. Instead of relying exclusively on their debaters to inform them about a judges’ comments after a debate, written ballots can provide coaches with an objective source of documentation that can be used to guide their conversations with students after a tournament—improving the quality of these “debriefings” exponentially.

What kinds of comments can be especially helpful for coaches?

  1. Comments about interpersonal relations. This can involve a student’s relationship with their partner—Is one partner dominating the other? Does one partner jump in at the first opportunity to take over a cross-ex? Do the debaters visibly argue with one another during the round?—or their relationship with their opponents. This kind of feedback is rarely communicated in post-round discussions and when it is, it is not something that debaters often share with their coaches.

  2. Comments about the allocation of preparation time. Did the 1NC take two minutes of preparation time despite having a strategy developed before the round? Did the 1AR take six minutes of prep while the 2A attempted to pre-script large parts of their speech? These tactical errors can be rectified—but only if coaches know about them.

  3. Comments about knowledge of content areas. Did the 2NC seem to struggle with their explanation of the case arguments? Did the 1AC demonstrate their expertise of the case when cross-examining the 1NC about the counterplan? Was it clear that one or both teams did not have a strong understanding of a central argument or concept? Informing coaches about deficits in familiarity with specific content areas ensures that these shortcomings are remedied.

In addition to their utility as a tool to teach students, written ballots can also provide coaches with important insights into a judge’s philosophy and tendencies. While nothing can replace a post-round oral critique when it comes to gaining perspective on the way a judge views debate, written comments are probably the next best thing. Does a judge frequently comment about the debaters being unclear? Coach your students to slow down. Does a judge find a certain disadvantage unpersuasive? Coach your students to defend a different position. The opportunity to read the comments that a judge has provided as they were experiencing the debate can help coaches better prepare their students to debate in front of that individual in the future.

Subpoint C: Judges

Writing comments on the ballot during a debate obviously requires a bit of effort on the part of judges. And equally obviously, the vast majority of judges have determined that it isn’t worth it. But if the benefits previously described are valid, this norm should be changed.

Most directly, judges have an important educational role to fulfill and written commentary can help improve the quality of their service to the students that are debating in front of them. By improving the feedback that they provide to debaters, judges can directly improve the caliber of future debates. At a minimum, written comments can help debaters better adapt to a given judge in future rounds—resulting, hopefully, in a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Written comments also have immediate benefits for judges themselves. By outlining one’s thoughts about the round as it is unfolding, judges can construct better oral critiques and ensure that post-round discussions are as targeted as possible. Because issues not central to the debate are communicated on the ballot, judges can focus their oral commentary on the major issues while still ensuring that debaters and coaches receive feedback regarding the range of other issues that arose in the debate.

I’m now open to cross-examination.

15 thoughts on “The Case For Judges Providing Written Comments On Their Ballots

  1. Scott Phillips


    I never said I would forget anything so I don't know what all that is about. Web surfing was obviously a joke. Herd thinning is a metaphor- I don't actually mean kill people or remove them from the activity ( i doubt anyone leaves due to a lack of judge written comments)- perhaps I should have said the cream rises to the top to make it more clear. It's already hard to find qualified judges because they don't get paid much, tournaments take up a lot of time etc. If the choice is
    A. debaters get their act together and write it down
    B. Add burden to judge

    The choice is clearly A. I think you made other points but I have no idea what they are and am not going to trace back the 1-3 subpoints from A and C/A them for you.

  2. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips

    I knew you'd kneejerk disagree with this. 🙂

    A2: "1. Writing sucks"

    1. I didn't intend for ballot to mean only paper—electronic/email feedback is obviously superior. But regardless of the medium used, I think judges should write comments during the debate that are given to debaters and coaches after the tournament.

    2. I'm not advocating the replacement of oral critiques and post-round discussions; I think those are awesome, obviously. I simply think that judges should supplement their oral comments about the way they resolved the debate with (type-) written comments about the debate as it is occurring.

    3. No link to the "Judge Torture DA"—depending on the round, a judge can choose to write only a few things or a lot of things. And sometimes you're just too exhausted—no big deal. I just think the consensus should be *for* written comments instead of *against* them.

    A2: "2. Evolution"

    1. Cross-apply Subpoint B—written comments help coaches "thin the herd" by giving them unfiltered feedback regarding their debaters.

    2. Cross-apply Subpoint C—written comments improve judges' abilities to provide constructive feedback after debates. Most judges cannot answer questions like "how was my time allocation in the 2AC?" or "what could I have done differently in the 1AR to improve the speech?" after a debate while referring to specific details—by the time the debate has ended and the decision has been made and discussed, secondary issues like this become forgotten.

    A2: "3. As for judges not giving useful information after the round"

    1. Non-Unique: offense/defense only a risk judge!

    2. Written comments help coaches refine their opinions of judges—this improves pref sheets and adaptation.

    3. Even good judges struggle to provide the kind of feedback that is discussed in Subpoint A when they don't write things down during the debate.

  3. Scott Phillips

    What is the warrant for judges not writing things down during the debate/needing to write on the ballot to do this? I usually write many things down during the debate…

    It seems to me you have basically pulled a fort and are now agreeing with anything that runs contrary to what you said earlier, you said "High school policy debate judges should provide written comments on their ballots." which has now become "judges should give more detailed comments in any form" (in fact i'm pretty sure "supplement not supplant" was a big fort phrase bill… hey wait, isn't bill short for William??)

  4. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips

    "What is the warrant for judges not writing things down during the debate/needing to write on the ballot to do this? I usually write many things down during the debate…"

    Those written comments don't get to students and coaches. I don't want people to write down their RFDs like they would at a round robin or a tournament that prohibits oral critiques; I want them to write *comments* as the debate unfolds regarding the things discussed in Subpoint A. If you're already doing that, great—I just think you should provide those comments to the debaters and their coaches.

    I'll ignore the Fort Hays ad hom… don't want things to escalate and people to lose their jobs. 🙂


  5. Scott Phillips

    1. Writing sucks- having recently judged at some tournaments where oral critiques are banned, there is no way comments on ballots are nearly as good. You can’t write very fast, there isn’t much room on the ballot, no one can read your writing etc. It also makes my hand hurt and during what time are we supposed to do this- i guess prep since we are “paying attention” during the rest of it- when am I to surf the internet, or answer fem ir questions on gchat? if anything you should do an antonuchi style blog so you can type this stuff up- writing on the ballot seems like something a caveman would do. Whats next- chisel the comments onto stone tablets because kids crumple up the ballots?

    2. Evolution- if kids don’t want to write down comments, ask questions, take those things to their coaches etc. then they don’t belong in the life boat. I understand where bill is coming from – having coached kids who would come back having lost and claim they had no idea what arguments where in the round, why they lost, or how they could of done better. But having spent a lot of time with kids like that it becomes obvious quickly- the herd needs to be thinned.

    3. As for judges not giving useful information after the round- the ones that don’t are the least likely to write insightful comments.

  6. Daniel L

    You say writing sucks
    A. Dave Henning(Batterman can elaborate later if he so chooses), simply put he is a beast at the ballot writing
    B. You should be able to remember a speech long enough to write during prep and if it helps the debate community, in general, sorry if you lose some web surfing time C. You could just have a tab up on your flow if writing is too primitive

    You say Evolution
    A. C/A points 1-3 from subpoint A-Constructives are forgotten, cross-Xs are forgotten as well, and so are kicked arguments
    B.Herd thinning bad, debate needs more people, some schools have small programs and some states suck because of those small programs. WI, specifically, has only 3 or 4 strong programs

    You say judges who don’t give good orals wouldn’t have insightful comments on the ballot
    A. C/A points 1-3 from subpoint A and C/A the analysis
    B. Judges can forget during the course of the round so writing it down, or typing it could improve quality

    I have too much time on my hands

  7. Michael Antonucci

    I agree with the aff in principle. However…

    I really tried to commit to writing down ballots. I started a blog for this purpose. I noticed, however, that I rarely followed up, especially at college tournaments. I don't think this is really "neg ev" – but a few observations.

    1. Too hard. It's especially difficult for me to keep up when staying fresh is really critical to coaching well. There's always a sort of utopian ideal of the uber-judge/coach, who is ideally useful and available to all. I fully embrace this ideal, and deeply respect the people like Repko who go all out trying to put it in place…but sometimes I just want to do my job, play some Combat Bears, and call it a day.

    2. No tangible payoff. It didn't really create any pref sheet shifts; the teams that don't take me weren't reassured. I mean, some people were really complimentary, and I appreciated it, but I still got stuck in JV for GA State presets for obvious demographic reasons.

    I understand this – filling out pref sheets has to prioritize success. It would be dumb for a K-horrid squad to promote me just because I'll give a lot of useful feedback along with a loss.

    One interesting idea…

    At the old Iowa City West tournament, Greg Myrberg, previously of Westminster, had a ballot competition. The three best written ballots received prizes. Although these were not cash prizes, debate types will do a lot to win competitions. I wrote 3 single spaced pages, and took runner up. Dwight Codr (now professor at Tulane) drew some pictures and took first. I got totally boned, of course, but those were some good ballots.

  8. Wayne Tang

    I would echo Bill's sentiments about the usefulness of written ballots for coaches. The content of oral critiques, although valuable, are always filtered by the debaters who are vulnerable to hearing what they want to hear and interpret and writing down the filtered version of comments. By the time such comments from an oral critique get back to the coach they are of little use and require guesswork to piece together what actually happened or was said. Written ballots have the advantage of providing a more objective view of what actually occured in the round. This is especially true of more inexperienced debaters who may not understand the entirety of an oral critique.

    I am sure that technology will give us the means to address the "writing sucks" criticism in the form of a ballot template in the near future. That may even prompt me to get a lap top (probably not).

    I don't think there is any coach out there that doesn't find written ballots in useful. Judging from antecedotal experience (my debaters asking to see their ballots after every tournament), debaters also like reading ballots. The main problem is that writing ballots is no longer an expectation of judges despite the fact I have yet to hear a compelling argument why writing a ballot in addition to an oral critique would be furthering the activity. The objections seem to rooted in the fact that judges don't want to do this onerous chore on top of an oral critique. However, there are many things that judges do for the pure goal of increasing education in the activity such as showing up for 8:00 AM rounds, giving oral critiques, etc. that are expected behavior because of community norms. Apart from giving best ballot prizes there is nothing being done to encourage the practice and make it a community norm again. Maybe workshops should send coaches written feedback in the forms of ballots from practice debates as part of value debaters receive to start the ball rolling. I know that SDI and Wake did this in the past. A little bit more radical, maybe tournaments should require a written ballot for every debate.

  9. Antonucci

    Wayne – I probably wrote about 20 pages of feedback for the Georgetown Debate Seminar.

    Why prefer mandates to prizes? Judging often blows. Judges deserve more good stuff, not requirements. I don't think uniqueness presses really answer the linear da – especially when I'm cp-ing in uniqueness.

    I'm generally baffled by a rush to punish in an activity that needs to be more rewarding, not more difficult.

    If best three ballots got a "get out of jail free" card, the norm would change rapidly.

  10. David Petersen

    Maybe a counterplan of sorts and I know this doesn't have anything to do with the judge but recording a debate round seems like a very useful way to capture a lot of the advantageous. The one thing it does lack is a diversity since it would be your team (coaches/debaters) and not the judge who would be giving feedback. But there might be a few n/bs to recording.
    First, you have complete focus on watching the debate and approaching it from a stand point of "how can I do better" like Scott indicated there are things that side track judges during a debate round or the judge is too caught up in the debate to catch everything.
    Second, you can spend as long or as short as you want talking about a given debate round. Yes normal ballots provide a lot of space but again see Scott's post on why hand written ballots are a pain. Additionally, being able to spend more time on a given debate allows you to see neat tricks/good things each team did.
    This year after Corey Stone/Kyle Vints doubles round against Foley and Kearney at GSU we watched the recording of the debate and this is a short list of what we found (i probably am forgetting some things its been a bit).

    Mizz States cross-x of the 1AC was articulated to set up for T (you could tell they were going for it after the cross-x)
    Found ineff. use of prep time
    Kearney is good at dropping jokes which is an ethos booster
    Noticed areas of undercoverage and overcoverage based both on time on # of cards/args
    Picked up on multipule areas where improvements in style were needed
    Makes setting up practice debates easy because coaches watching the practice debate can actually see the round

    The one downside obviously is that you don't get the judge in the room at the time to watch the video with you but I am sure we all trust our coaching staffs. As for getting feedback on what that paticular judge likes/dislikes with the Judge Phil page and coaches knowledge of the judging field its less and less important to hear what the judge liked in a given round, and usually if it is something that important the judge will indicate he/she did or didn't like something specific.

    Now of course both Bill's idea plus this are not mut exclusive but maybe with written ballots becoming more of a hassel/time suck/whatever the disad this is an adeq. alternative.

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