Getting Better at Debate: Tips for Developing a Personal Debate Curriculum

Last month, The 3NR published the first in a series of articles intended to help answer the most difficult question that debate coaches are frequently asked: “How do I get better at debate?”. Many committed students are frustrated when their hard work does not produce winning records. At times, it can seem like banging one’s head against a wall: despite doing everything that is asked of you, your winning percentage just doesn’t seem to be improving.

A basic, overarching approach to debate training was outlined in the first article in this series. In particular, four guiding principles were advanced to assist students as they developed a personal debate curriculum:

  1. Improvement happens fastest with consistent daily effort.
  2. Reducing broad concepts into small, manageable tasks is essential.
  3. Integrative approaches are the most effective way to pursue meaningful improvements.
  4. The work done outside the classroom determines the value of the work done inside the classroom.

The best way to approach improvement, it was argued, is to develop a personal set of “courses” that are planned in advance and which supplement the training one receives from formal classes and practices. In this article, some of these specific courses will be introduced.

This “course catalog” is not meant to be comprehensive; one of the most difficult lessons that every debater needs to learn is that—unlike in other academic courses—it is impossible to “finish” or “master” the curriculum of policy debate. There is always more to learn and more to prepare. The goal, instead, is to help students construct a personal curriculum that best serves their needs and which offers a pathway to improvement outside the classroom.

GPB: Goal, Process, Benefits

In the introductory article, students were encouraged to think about each day’s work as part of a broader curriculum of study. Each day’s contribution should allow a student to answer “yes” to each of the following questions:

  1. As a result of my work, do I know something better today than I did yesterday?
  2. As a result of my work, are my debate materials more organized today than they were yesterday?
  3. As a result of my work, am I more likely to win an important debate today than I was yesterday?

With this in mind, it is helpful to create “lesson plans” for oneself that explicitly identify the goal one has in mind for the activity, the process that one will undertake to accomplish that goal, and the benefits one foresees from investing time into the activity.

The goals that are identified should be specific. Too many debaters settle for “I want to get better at debate” as the universal goal of every work session; while this is obviously the end goal of all debate work, it is much more helpful to break down each day’s work into a specific activity with a specific goal.

The process, too, should be specific—suggestions are provided below, but err on the side of being more specific rather than less.

Finally, the benefits one seeks from a given activity should be explicitly listed. If this is difficult, reconsider whether the activity you have decided to do is worth the effort.

There are three components of a debate curriculum: topic-specific issues, debate theory issues, and generic issues. While there is substantial intersection between the issues in each broad category, it is useful to conceptualize one’s preparation in this way so as to achieve optimal balance.

Curricular Component #1: Topic-Specific Issues

The most important component of a students’ curriculum involves researching, preparing, and understanding arguments relevant to the current season’s topic. For most students, the bulk of this work will be completed in cooperation with teammates and under the direction of coaches, teachers, and/or senior debaters. A future article will discuss ways to improve the quality of a student’s topic-specific preparation, but the following suggestions will focus on the other things that a student needs to learn and prepare in order to compete successfully in debate.

Topic-specific issues should form the majority of a student’s curriculum. Early in one’s debate career, it is especially important to focus almost exclusively on the basics. Once a student has moved beyond them, however, it is important to supplement the work done in the classroom and at practices with independent study.

Curricular Component #2: Debate Theory Issues

Learning debate theory is one of the most important things that any debater can do to improve their competitive results. While many students find the substantive issues highlighted by the resolution to be more interesting, debate theory is the ultimate generic weapon: in every round on every topic, theory preparation can pay off with a ballot.

Theory Issue Project

Goal: Master a theoretical issue and be prepared to successfully debate it in a contest round.

Process: Acquire and read one or more scholarly articles on a particular theory subject. Outline the arguments presented by the author. Review and organize existing theory blocks and revise them to reflect understanding from the article(s). Practice delivering theory arguments on both sides of the issue. Flow the shell and frontline responses and practice delivering a 2nd line speech that responds to the frontline.

Benefits: Familiarity with important theoretical concepts makes it easier to effectively debate theory arguments. The process of writing and rewriting blocks will increase delivery efficiency and maximize the strategic utility of blocks. Second line speech preparation and delivery will increase familiarity with the jargon of debate theory and facilitate internalization of important concepts and phrasings.

There are a wide variety of theoretical issues and arguments that students should add to their curriculum. The following list provides a good starting point:

  1. Conditionality/Dispositionality
  2. Plan-Inclusive Counterplans
  3. Plan-Contingent Counterplans (Consult, Referendum, Condition, etc.)
  4. Agent Counterplans (incl. International Fiat)
  5. Intrinsicness (vs. DAs)
  6. Permutations (Severance, Intrinsicness, Timeframe, etc.)
  7. Fiat (vs. politics — Vote No, Magic Wand, etc.)
  8. Agent Specification

Topicality Project

Goal: Master a set of general topicality arguments and be prepared to successfully debate them in a contest round.

Process: Organize and revise existing blocks (if applicable) or generate new blocks for generic, recurring topicality issues. Practice delivering the blocks and revise them for efficiency and clarity. Construct simulations of particular disputes between competing topicality positions and deliver speeches to practice refutation skills.

Benefits: Preparing and revising blocks generates familiarity with crucial topicality issues and enables efficient delivery of clear arguments under intensive time pressure. Verbalizing blocks and practicing refutation ensures that blocks are usable and that students are comfortable with key jargon.

While each topic is different, there are a variety of topicality issues that are universally relevant. While this is not an exhaustive list, the following issues at a minimum should be included:

  1. Reasonableness vs. Competing Interpretations
  2. Topicality is a Voting Issue (and is not a Reverse Voting Issue)
  3. “Clash checks”, “literature checks,” etc.
  4. Assessments of Interpretations (intent to define, field context, etc.)
  5. Standards (predictability vs. limits, ground vs. education, depth vs. breadth, etc.)

Theory Impact Project

Goal: Master a set of impact comparisons and be prepared to successfully debate them in a contest round.

Process: Brainstorm a list of theory impacts that often need to be compared in the final rebuttals. Write paragraph-style comparison scripts for each side of the issues. Practice delivering the blocks and revise them for efficiency and clarity. Use flows of previous debates to generate final rebuttal scenarios in which a particular comparison needs to be made and practice tailoring the generic script to a specific overview/explanation for that scenario. Practice delivering the rebuttal overview.

Benefits: Thinking through the interactions between top-level impacts and scripting effective comparisons in advance decreases the amount of preparation time required for final rebuttals, improves comparison quality, and builds confidence. Simulating the incorporation of pre-scripted content into particular rebuttal scenarios improves rebuttal preparation and reduces block dependence.

Theory issues usually come down to a comparison of competing impacts. While there are many impacts that could be prepared, the following list provides a good start:

  1. Education Outweighs Fairness
  2. Fairness Outweighs Education
  3. Aff Ground Outweighs Neg Ground
  4. Neg Ground Outweighs Aff Ground
  5. Err Affirmative vs. Err Negative

Curricular Component #3: Generic Issues

In addition to the theoretical issues that are present on every topic, a host of substantive issues that are debated over and over again have become part of the knowledge base that all competitive debaters need to master. For today’s debaters, the major impediment is no longer access to evidence about “backfile” issues and arguments—it is useable knowledge of the evidence that is freely available. Whether working from one’s own squad backfiles or those that are available online, taking the time to prepare and master the recurring arguments that crop up year after year is a crucial step in one’s development as a championship debater.

Impact Defense Project

Goal: Master defensive arguments against a particular impact and be prepared to debate them in a contest round.

Process: Organize and highlight existing evidence and arguments, prepare and practice delivering extension blocks, brainstorm a list of cross-examination questions about the takeouts and practice answering them, identify the weaknesses in your file, research new evidence to correct weaknesses, and integrate updated evidence into the file.

Benefits: Mastering impact defense protects against new cases and disadvantages and provides a generic tool to win debates. Incorporating file preparation with verbal delivery of extension blocks improves functional communication skills. Assessing evidence for cross-examination purposes improves analytical skills and helps demonstrate superior control of the issues in cross-ex. Researching new evidence helps develop targeted research skills and breeds familiarity with recent developments.

The impacts that are most important for a particular resolution will vary, but there are a limited number that are debated year after year. Using backfiles and in consultation with teammates and coaches, students should brainstorm a list of the impacts they most frequently debate and rank them in order from most important to least important. The following list of ten impacts provides a good start:

  1. Economic Decline/Economic Growth
  2. U.S. Hegemony/Leadership (incl. Soft Power, Air Power, Naval Power, etc.)
  3. Climate Change (General, Ocean Acidification, Agriculture, etc.)
  4. Free Trade/Protectionism
  5. Disease (General, Flus, AIDS, TB, etc.)
  6. Weapons Proliferation (Nuclear, Biological, etc.)
  7. Terrorism (Nuclear, Biological/Chemical, etc.)
  8. Environment (Species Loss, Biodiversity, Pollution, etc.)
  9. U.S. Competitiveness
  10. Food Security (Famine, Food Prices, etc.)

Impact Comparison Project

Goal: Be prepared to effectively compare the most common terminal impacts in debate.

Process: Organize and highlight existing evidence and arguments, prepare and practice delivering comparisons between major terminal impacts, prepare and practice delivering comparisons between impact frames, practice delivering final rebuttal overviews that compare terminal impacts, identify the weaknesses in your file, research new evidence to correct weaknesses, and integrate updated evidence into the file.

Benefits: Many debates come down to impact assessment; preparing to debate terminal impacts using impact framing techniques is a good way to win more rounds. Scripting top-level comparisons improves comprehension of advanced impact assessment and practicing the delivery of these comparisons builds confidence and clarity in contest round rebuttals.

This project could be expanded to include “X turns ABC” preparation. Whether or not that component of the project is included, the following comparisons will provide a good start:

  1. Magnitude Trumps Probability / Timeframe
  2. Probability Trumps Magnitude / Timeframe
  3. Timeframe Trumps Magnitude / Probability
  4. Extinction 1st
  5. Systemic Impacts 1st

Backfile Check Project

Goal: Be prepared to effectively debate “backfile check” arguments.

Process: Compile, organize, and highlight responses to major “backfile check” arguments. Research each argument sufficiently so that it is adequately understood. Brainstorm and prepare a list of cross-examination questions that highlight the problems with each argument and include a paragraph explaining the argument. Practice delivering responses and practice extending them extemporaneously.

Benefits: Backfile arguments win by capitalizing on unfamiliarity. Gathering and organizing necessary evidence ensures that responses exist and are accessible. Written explanations and cross-examination sheets provide important reminders before or during a debate that may be otherwise forgotten over time. Delivering and extending the arguments improves familiarity and confidence.

There are a virtually limitless number of generic backfiles that students might confront at some point in their careers. While not exhaustive, the following list provides a good start:

  1. Spark
  2. Wipeout
  3. Give Back The Land / First Priority
  4. Malthus
  5. Rights Malthus
  6. Anarchy
  7. World Government
  8. Time Cube
  9. Ashtar
  10. E-Prime

Other Project Ideas

There are dozens of other projects that would prove fruitful for students: compile and practice responses to major critique arguments, prepare and practice responses to ethics arguments (Consequentialism, Derrida, Levinas, Fasching, etc.), prepare and practice ‘satellite’ critique arguments against major impacts, etc.

Sample Weekly Curriculum

The following is a sample curriculum that a student could use to plan their week. It requires only two-and-a-half hours of time be invested above and beyond a students’ regular debate schedule and can be adapted to fit any students’ availability. The key is to select manageable tasks that can be completed in small chunks of time.

Sunday: off-day / catch up on homework from tournament

Monday: Intrinsicness Responses

Goal: Upgrade responses to intrinsicness arguments and be prepared to answer them effectively.

Process: Compile and revise existing blocks; read theory articles suggested on 3NR; practice cross-examining 2AC and responding to cross-ex on intrinsicness; practice reading intrinsicness blocks and time them; revise for time; upload for rest of team.

Benefits: Familiarity with the issue will make it easier to answer this argument in rounds… I’ve been struggling to do so and even though I have a block, I don’t feel confident answering the argument. Practicing reading the blocks will help me achieve better clarity and flowability, something that I struggle with when reading theory arguments. I never cross-examine the 2AC about intrinsicness—practicing it will give me a generic point of attack, especially against teams that I know like to go for intrinsicness. Writing additional blocks will ensure that I am making the best arguments and the most specific arguments in any given debate.

Time Invested: 1 hour.

Tuesday: Climate Change Updates

Goal: Upgrade impact defense against climate change impacts and be prepared to effectively use our responses in debates.

Process: Our climate change impact defense file is very good and well organized, but I want to pick a few strong arguments and master them; this includes updating the evidence and writing second level blocks so that I can extend the arguments efficiently and without a lot of prep time. I also want to practice reading the blocks aloud and brainstorm a list of cross-ex lines of questioning that I can use to set up my arguments for later speeches.

Benefits: While I know that I have answers to climate change impacts, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with them and I don’t know them well enough to defeat a good team with them. Updating the evidence on a few key issues will give me an opportunity to learn more about the issues and will ensure that we have updated evidence. Writing blocks will force me to really understand the cards and think through the grounding and warrants that I’ll need to win the debate. Practicing speaking with the blocks will help me internalize them and will give me some speaking practice with a different (science-heavy) vocabulary than I’m used to.

Time Invested: 1 hour.

Wednesday: practice debate / no extra time

Thursday: Give the Land Back

Goal: Make sure I am prepared to defeat “Give the Land Back”.

Process: Compile existing evidence from our squad backfiles and open evidence backfiles. Go through the evidence and construct frontlines using the best cards. Identify holes in the file and research new evidence if necessary. Highlight the evidence and prepare second level blocks. Practice reading the blocks and edit them for efficiency. Brainstorm a list of cross-ex questions that can help setup our arguments.

Benefits: I found out a team in our area reads this argument occasionally and while we probably won’t debate them at the next tournament, there’s a good chance I’ll have to debate this argument at some point this year. I don’t know anything about it so reviewing the cards and organizing them will make sure I’m not caught off guard. Since I have a tournament on Friday, I only want to spend about a half hour on this project; if I don’t complete it, I will finish it up on Sunday.

Time Invested: ½ hour.

Friday: tournament

Saturday: tournament

Next Time

In the next segment in this series, advice will be given to students for improving their interactions with coaches and judges. Future articles will also discuss ways that students can improve their topic preparation, strategies for making the most of one’s class and/or practice time, and tips for students that do not have access to regular coaching.

Have a suggestion for a daily “course” that students can use to improve at debate? Post it in the comments.

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