Big Questions Debate

Big Questions is a debate format supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. High school and middle school students will grapple with complex worldview questions as they debate both sides of the 2017-2018 topic:

Resolved: Humans are fundamentally different from other animals.

Programs that do Big Questions debates are eligible to receive thousands of dollars per event. These debates can be held at a tournament, with your team, or in your classroom. The NSDA awarded more than $350,000 to schools in Year One and has more than $500,000 to infuse into schools in Year Two!

Learn the Format

Updated for Year Two

Student Manual

Apply to host a Big Questions Debate Event!


Apply here to host two or more Big Questions events.

March 2018 Update: Funding spots are filled for the 2017-2018 school year. If you apply, host an event, and turn in the reporting materials, you will be first on the list to receive any funding that becomes available throughout the rest of the year. Please note, we have not begun accepting applications for the 2018-2019 school year.

Explore Event Resources


Grant Requirements

  • Rounds must follow the Big Questions format described in the Big Questions Format Manual
  • Minimum number of rounds: 3
  • Minimum student participants: 15
    • A partnership counts as 2 students
    • Only students who compete in 3 rounds count as participants

Additional Opportunities

  • 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 are encouraged to charge an entry fee to increase the likelihood that students have thoroughly prepared for the event and as an additional way of raising money.
  • You may apply to host multiple events. Each event should have at least 50% new participants.
  • You do not need to be a member of the NSDA to apply. To be eligible, schools must be in the United States.
  • 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 received.
  • The amount of the award will depend on the number of students that compete. 15 students will earn you $500. Each additional participants over the initial 15 earns you an additional $25.
  • There is a $10,000 award cap per school or organization. 
  • 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, or the $300 provided upfront and the shipping cost of awards if the event is canceled.

Judge Training

All judges should be provided access to the NSDA’s Big Questions judge training. To access:

  • Create an account
  • Navigate to CONNECT
  • Click the red “Join” button
  • Find the Big Questions Judge Training course under the “Learn” tab

Print Ballots and Judge Primers

  • The tournament will use Big Questions ballots designed by the NSDA.
  • 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.


  • When you apply for an event, you will select the number of plaques you wish to purchase from the NSDA Trophy Shop.
  • 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 purchasing awards for all of your tournament events through the NSDA Trophy Shop, please contact Katie Hines for special pricing options.


Topicality Requirements

  • 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:
    • The winning debater(s) on the judge’s ballot will be forfeited by tab.
    • The judge will be permanently removed from the pool, forfeit their payment (if hired by the tournament), or the school that provided the judge will be fined.

Survey Completion

  • 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.
  • Please have your participants fill out the online survey if possible. Paper copies are available to participants without access to the online survey.
  • The survey is about 15 short questions and should take no more than 10 minutes to complete.

All materials need to be submitted within one week after the final day of your Big Questions event.

1. Survey data

Judges, students, and audience members must complete the online survey. Any paper copies must be manually submitted online by the event host.

2. Reporting form

The reporting form allows us to determine how much you have earned in your second grant installment. The final question on the reporting form will ask you to submit the results within this excel spreadsheet.

2018 National Tournament Details


  • Students can only qualify to the National Tournament by being the top-placing student at their district’s Big Questions national qualifying event.
  • To host a Big Questions national qualifying event, districts must include Big Questions on the NSDA District Tournament Dates form due on November 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.
  • There will be no “at-large invitations” for Year Two.

At the National Tournament

  • Only entries composed of individual debaters may compete at Nationals or Districts. The cost of entry is $50 per student for teams staying in the NSDA hotel block, or $75 per student for teams staying outside the NSDA hotel block.
  • Each qualifier must provide a full-­time judge 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.
  • Students who are eliminated from competition on Tuesday are eligible to enter in supplemental events if pre-registered. Students must re-register during the student 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.

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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