Big Questions Debates

Big Questions is a debate format supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. High school students will grapple with complex worldview questions as they debate both sides of 2016-2017 topic:

Resolved: Science leaves no room for free will.

Tournaments, districts, and classrooms that hold Big Questions debates will be eligible to receive up to $1,700 per event. These debates can be held as a tournament event, stand-alone event, intra-school scrimmage, classroom event, or supplemental event as long as the application requirements are met.


Shortened Speech Times

Speech times have been shortened, and the third question segment has been removed. Each round is now about 45 minutes. We hope this reduces the preparation burden on students and helps you fit these rounds into your tournament or classroom. Please review the Format Manual for details on the new speech times.

Compete as an individual or with a partner!

Students may compete as an individual or with a partner. In this format, rounds can be one-on-one, two-on-two, or pairs can compete against individuals. Students who are competing in pairs will alternate speeches and share their prep time, much like Public Forum or Policy Debate. A partnership will count as two students under the grant.

Learn the Format

Student Manual

Judge Training

Learn More

Explore Event Resources


Required Survey

Take the Survey

Application Requirements

  • Rounds must follow the Big Questions format described in the Big Questions Format Manual.
  • Minimum student participants: 15
    • A partnership counts as two students
    • Only students who compete are counted as participants, not audience members
  • Minimum number of rounds: 3
  • There must be a suitable number of different judges relative to the level of participation.
  • Elimination rounds are encouraged, but not required.
  • Your own school’s students qualify under the grant and may be counted toward your total number of student participants.
  • You can apply to host multiple events.
  • You do not need to be a member of the NSDA to apply.
  • Please apply early, even if your event is months away! Application info can be tentative.
  • You will receive $300 upfront after your application has been accepted. The second portion of the award will be received after reporting documents have been turned in.
  • The amount of the award will depend on the tier your total number of student participants falls into. Our estimates in the table below will serve as a general guideline for award amounts, but are not guaranteed.
Tier Number of Students Money awarded upfront Money awarded after reporting Total money awarded
1 15-24 $300 $400 $700
2 25-34 $300 $600 $900
3 35-44 $300 $1,000 $1,300
4 45+ $300 $1,400 $1,700
  • The NSDA reserves the right to bill back tournaments for the $300 provided upfront if the minimum number of students or rounds is not met.

Nationals Capstone Event

The 2017 National Tournament will include a Big Questions capstone event featuring around 50 students. There will be no qualifying tournament at the district level; students will be invited based on their success in the event throughout the year. Students will be selected based off of the number of rounds they have competed in, their win/loss record, number of elimination rounds won, final placement, and the level of competitiveness of the tournament they attended.

  • $20,000 in scholarships will be awarded to the Top 4 at Nationals. 
  • Invitations will be sent out in early April.
  • Competitors are welcome to compete in supplemental/consolation events.
  • Big Questions rounds will not be counted in sweepstake calculations.

Event Cancelation

If the grant recipient cancels their event and is unable to reschedule, the NSDA will bill the recipient for the $300 provided upfront, the shipping costs of the awards, and will ask that awards be returned.

Tournament Requirements

Before the Tournament
      1.    The tournament will follow the debate round format described in the Big Questions Format Manual.
      2.    The tournament invitation should include the following language and have the appropriate links to the NSDA site:

“Entries from participating schools and any judges they provide consent to the rules of the Big Questions event, including the format and topicality guidelines. Schools should provide their judges with access to the National Speech & Debate Association’s judge training resources prior to the tournament. Event resources for students and coaches are provided by the NSDA. Judges and competitors will also be asked to complete a brief survey before leaving the tournament site.”

        1.   Tournaments are encouraged to charge entry fees to increase the likelihood that students have thoroughly prepared for the event and as an additional way of raising money.
        2.    All hired judges should be provided access to the NSDA’s Big Questions judge training prior to judging.
At the Tournament
      1. The tournament must use Big Questions ballots designed by the NSDA.
      2. The tournament will print a copy of the judge primer for each judge to keep. The judge primer will be distributed before the start of round one.
      3. The tournament must have a staff member checking in Big Questions ballots. They must check that all parts of the ballot are filled out properly, as well as receive verbal confirmation from each judge that the winning debater(s) did not run any non-topical positions. If a judge votes for a side that did not run a topical position, the following will occur:
        1. The winning debater(s) on the judge’s ballot will be forfeited by tab
        2. The judge will be permanently removed from the pool, forfeit their payment (if hired by the tournament) or the school that provided the judge would be fined
      4. At minimum, the tournament will provide the top three students in the division with a Big Questions plaque purchased from the NSDA Trophy Shop. The cost will be $10 per award + $4 per award shipping. The amount owed for awards will be automatically pulled from the final grant payment. If you are hosting Big Questions as an additional event at your tournament and are purchasing the other event awards through the NSDA trophy shop please contact Katie Hines for special pricing options. 
      5. The tournament will have every student participant and judge in the Big Questions division fill out the required survey after at least three rounds are completed. The tournament will request any audience members who watched at least one Big Questions round to take the survey as well. The NSDA recommends the following procedure:
        1. Before the first round begins, remind all judges and students that they will be required to take the survey before they leave the competition.
        2. Collect the email addresses of judges or students who need to leave early. Send the emails to Katie Hines so the NSDA can contact them with the survey.
        3. Before awards, call together judges, students, and any audience members that participated in Big Questions rounds. Request that they bring laptops or cell phones that can access the internet.
        4. Direct everyone to the survey link with the survey. Distribute paper copies of the survey to the participants without access to the online survey. The survey is about 15 short questions and should take no more than 15 minutes to complete.
      6. Remember to take photos and videos of the event and share them with us on social media!
After the Tournament
      1. Scan and email the paper copies of the survey to Katie Hines or mail them to the National Speech & Debate Association at 401 Railroad Place, West Des Moines, IA 50265.
      2. The tournament will return all reporting materials within one week of the final date of the tournament. The materials include all survey data, the reporting form, and an excel spreadsheet of the results for the Big Questions division. The excel spreadsheet must list every student participant, their school name, record and their final placement. The excel spreadsheet should also contain the names of every judge for the division.
      3. The tournament host will receive a call from the Big Questions Project Manager to review all procedures.

Apply Now

Apply to host Big Questions Debates!


Apply to host two or more Big Questions Debate events!


Reporting Materials

All materials need to be turned in one week after the final day of your Big Questions event. Materials include:

1. Survey data

Judges and students have completed surveys. Any paper copies have been scanned and emailed to Katie Hines or mailed to:

               National Speech & Debate Association

               401 Railroad Place

               West Des Moines, IA 50265

2. Results for Big Questions Division

The final question on the reporting form (below) will ask you to submit the results within an excel spreadsheet. The excel must include every student participant in the Big Questions event, their school name, record, and their final placement. It should also contain the names of every judge for the division.

3. Reporting form

The link below will ask you to fill out a few questions about the event. Please answer them as comprehensively as possible. Have your full results packet ready to be submitted for the last question of this form.  

Fill out the Reporting Form!


Big Questions is designed to enhance students’ current debate experiences, opening their minds and encouraging them to engage in life discussion that may not align with their previously held beliefs. Whether or not students change their opinion, the rich experience of this debate event will advance their knowledge, comfort, and interest in learning more about the subject matter.

Special thanks to the John Templeton Foundation for providing the grant support to make this event possible.

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