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Judging Debate

The National Speech & Debate Association seeks to connect, support, and inspire students in order to make them more effective advocates for the things they believe in. Part of being an effective advocate means being able to speak to a wide variety of audiences, and your commitment to serving in that capacity, regardless of your experience level, makes you an important part of our mission.

This page is designed to give you an overview of judging debate events and point you to additional resources about judging each event. Thank you for serving as a judge; speech and debate tournaments could not happen without you!

Group of students standing on stage at the National Tournament with their trophies

Debate Round Overview

Choose a tab below for more info!

Team Composition

  • In debate, each round will have two opposing debaters (or teams, depending on the event). 
  • Lincoln-Douglas is a one-on-one debate. 
  • Public Forum and Policy are two-on-two debates. 
  • World Schools is a three-on-three debate. 
  • Big Questions may have one-on-one, two-on-two, or even one-on-two debates.

Sides of the Debate

  • There are two sides to every debate: one side supports the topic (called a resolution) being debated, and the other side negates the resolution. 
  • In most debate events, students will know the topic being debated well in advance of the tournament and have a chance to prepare their evidence and arguments before they arrive. 
  • Throughout the course of the entire tournament, they will likely debate both sides of the resolution, and they must be prepared to present and argue against arguments on all sides of the topic. 
  • In Policy, Lincoln-Douglas, Big Questions, and World Schools, the side that the debaters/teams will defend has been decided before the round. 
  • In Public Forum, the students will flip a coin at the beginning of the round to determine which side they will debate.


  • All debate events have a unique order to the round. However, every debate event features a series of speeches; some speeches are read off of pre-prepared materials, and some will be prepared on the spot. 
  • These speeches alternate between the side defending the resolution and the side attacking the resolution, and if there are multiple students on a team, they will alternate speeches among team members.
  •  A speech in a debate round consists of a debater presenting and reinforcing their arguments while refuting their opponents’ arguments. Judges should flow, or take notes, during speeches.


  • Most debate events feature a few time periods called cross-examination. 
  • Cross-examination is for debaters to ask questions. 
  • Some questions are about clarifying arguments the other side made, but most questions should be asked to position the debater(s) to make stronger arguments for their side in the upcoming speeches.
  • World Schools does not have cross-examination, but Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, Policy, and Big Questions all have several cross-examination periods throughout the debate.

Preparation Time

  • Most debate events also feature preparation time. 
  • Each side is given a set amount of prep time for competitors to silently prepare for the next part of the debate. 
  • Competitors typically take a portion of their prep time between speeches, and they will notify the judge when they begin and end their prep. 
  • Prep time is rolling throughout the round for each side.
  • World Schools does not have prep time, but Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, Policy, and Big Questions do have a set amount of prep time for each side to be used at any point between speeches of the debate.

Review Your Ballot

  • You will receive a paper or electronic ballot. 
  • The ballot lists both of the debaters/teams, has a place for the judge to enter the results of the debate, and typically includes space for the judge to write feedback about each competitor. 
  • Depending on the event you are judging, debaters/teams may be pre-assigned sides of the debate for that round.
  • The ballot will also tell you which room you are assigned. You will meet the students in the assigned room and confirm that the students in the round match the students on your ballot. You will also confirm who is on which side of the debate. 

Prepare to Judge

  • You will watch the entirety of the round, which typically lasts between one to two hours. 
  • Silence your notifications so that the speakers can have your full attention!
  • Bring a computer or notepad so you can take notes on the debate.
  • Have a cell phone or stopwatch with you if you would like to time each speech.


It is up to you whether you would like to time the debaters’ speeches. Whether you time or not, the debaters should be timing themselves as well.


  • It is common for judges to “flow” a debate, which means the judges will take notes about the speeches in order to keep track of the arguments made in the debate. 
  • Speeches should be flowed, but judges typically just listen during cross-examination and prep time. 

Be Attentive

  • You will be a silent observer throughout the entirety of the round. 
  • Minimize anything that could be distracting for the performers like cell phone notifications and make it clear that you are giving the competitors your full attention. 
  • Perception can be reality for debaters. For example, if you are judging online, you may be fully attentive while your camera is off, but the competitors cannot tell!

Remain Impartial

Debates are fundamentally about persuasion, but judges must be careful not to let their views on a topic or beliefs about an ideal response to certain arguments factor into their decision.

Complete Your Ballot

After all of the speeches have finished, you can take a few minutes to look over your flow and determine which side won the debate. Then, you will complete your ballot. The ballot will ask you to:

  • Pick the Winner: Select the team that won the debate.
  • Assign Speaker Points: Assign speaker points to each competitor in the round. Speaker points are separate from the win/loss and can indicate the excellence of the individual in question. Typically, speaker points range from 20-30, with 30 being perfect.
  • Add Comments: Write the reason for your decision (RFD) about who won the debate that references specific arguments and features from the debate itself. Additionally, write comments about what each side did well and what each side could improve in future debates. The students and their coaches receive this feedback at the end of the tournament and use it to improve!

You should return their ballots to the tournament organizer in-person or electronically depending on the tournament’s procedures. 

Talk to the Debaters

  • Depending on the tournament, you can give an oral critique or disclose the results of the round. 
  • An oral critique is when the judge provides the debaters with immediate feedback by talking with both sides after the debate. 
  • Similarly, disclosure of the decision is when the judge reveals which side won the debate right after the round. 
  • Be sure to check with the tournament organizer about whether oral critiques and/or disclosing are required or allowed.

Debate Judging Resources

There are several different events that fall within the category of “debate.” Some of these events are partner events, all of them have different speech times, and some of them receive a new topic each round.

Select an event from the table to find resources specific to judging that particular event!

Public Forum (PF) is a two-on-two debate in which competitors will use a new resolution every one to two months. Unlike other debate events, PF teams will not know which side or order they are debating in a particular round until a coin flip is conducted before the debate. 

Lincoln-Douglas (LD) is a one-on-one debate format. Debaters use a new resolution every two months, and debaters know the side they will be debating in advance of each round.

Policy (CX) is a two-on-two debate format. Debaters use the same resolution all year round, and teams know the side they will be debating in advance of each round. 

World Schools (WS) is a three-on-three debate format. Only three competitors will participate on a team in each round; however, one WS team may consist of three, four, or five competitors, and the team can choose which debater(s) will sit out for a particular round if there are more than three competitors on the team. In World Schools, there is no cross-examination (instead, there are points of information), preparation time, or evidence. There is a new topic in each round, called a motion. Some rounds may be prepared, meaning students received the topic in advance, and some rounds may be impromptu, meaning students received the topic one hour in advance.

Big Questions is a format in which debaters can choose to debate on their own or with a partner. That means in any given round, judges may adjudicate a one-on-one debate, a two-on-two debate, or a one-on-two debate. Debaters use the same resolution all year round, and teams know the side they will be debating in advance of each round.