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.

Add a Big Questions division to your district tournament: Earn up to $1,700 for your district, and send your top-placing student to the 2017 National Tournament!

Learn How

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.

Tentative Overview of 2017 Big Questions Capstone Event Logistics

Note: All information is tentative and subject to change.

Entries/Qualification Process

  • The top-placing student at each district’s Big Questions division will be invited to participate at Nationals.
  • To host a district Big Questions event, fill out this application by April 1.
  • Big Questions entries will not count toward a school’s district entry limits. District committees may choose to add a limit to the number of students that each school can bring in the division, but this will be separate from the district entry limits.
  • Non-members may compete at the district tournament in the Big Questions division; however, if a non-member qualifies for Nationals, the student and school will need to become members before registering for Nationals.
  • The district Big Questions division may be held in conjunction with the district tournament or as a stand-alone event on a separate date. The district event will meet the following requirements.
    • Minimum of 15 high school competitors
    • All students must compete as individuals
    • More than one school in attendance
    • The event must be organized through or with the permission of the District Chair.
    • The event will either a) follow the double elimination format of other district debate events or b) hold a minimum of 4 preliminary rounds and semifinals.
    • The top-placing student will not be eligible to compete in the Big Questions Capstone Event if they have qualified in a main event.
    • If the Big Questions district event is held before the district’s main National Qualifying tournament, the top-placing student’s name may be withdrawn and replaced with an alternate’s if the top-placing student qualifies in another event.
  • “At-large” invitations will also be sent to individual students that have performed well in the event throughout the season if they did not qualify at their district tournament. Invitations will be start being sent on April 15.
  • Only entries composed of individual debaters may compete at Nationals. The cost of entry is $50 per student.


  • Each district must provide a full-­time judge for each team available for the entirety of the competition. The judge may not be entered into any other judging pool at the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
  • There are no hired judges available.
  • Judges must attend judge training on Monday at 9:00 a.m. in the Jackson-Olin building.


  • Students will debate the 2016-2017 topic, Resolved: Science leaves no room for free will.
  • Students must attend the topic discussion on Monday at 9:00 a.m. in the Jackson-Olin building.
  • Students can access topic resources on the Resources page.

Schedule Overview

Preliminary and elimination rounds will be held in the Jackson-Olin building. The final round will be held in the BJCC Concert Hall.


  • 9:00 a.m. Judge training for all Big Questions judges
  • 9:00 a.m. Student topic discussion for all students
  • 11:30 a.m. Round 1
  • 2:00 p.m. Round 2
  • 4:00 p.m. Round 3


  • 8:00 a.m. Round 4
  • 10:00 a.m. Round 5
  • 2:00 p.m. Round 6
  • 4:30 p.m. Postings (All 4-2 records)


  • Elimination rounds 1-3 (Double elimination)


  • Elimination rounds 4-7 if needed (Double elimination)


  • 3:30 p.m. Final Round (BJCC Concert Hall)

Supplemental and Consolation Events

  • Students who are eliminated from competition on Tuesday are eligible to enter in supplemental events if pre-registered. Students must re-register during the local host posting party Tuesday evening.
  • Teams who do not advance to Thursday’s rounds may enter in consolation events if pre-registered. Teams must re-register Wednesday evening.

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 50265-4730

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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