Arri Kurniawan, M.Pd

English Department of Universitas PGRI Madiun



The assessment made of any debate is inherently a subjective exercise. The adjudicator forms a personal judgment regarding the argument, style, organization and impact of a debate, which in many cases, could differ from that of another adjudicator’s. The main objective in providing these guidelines is to ensure, as much as is possible, that the adjudicators make judgments within a framework of procedural rules and guidelines that direct attention to specific issues and thus help limit subjectivity.

The adjudicator’s role is crucial in the discipline of debating – with the divine responsibility of sitting in judgment upon the efforts of debaters. As in any other competitive activity, a thorough understanding of the rules is a prerequisite for the referee and ensuring that these rules are consistently interpreted and applied becomes a critical aspect of the competition.

In assessing debate, you have to adopt the role of an average reasonable person with an average reasonable knowledge of the subject under debate but with expert knowledge of the rules of the debate. Debating is an exercise in the skills of persuasion, where the target audience is assumed to be an average cross-section of the community who is open to persuasion. In this context, it is important that the adjudicator’s judgment is not influenced by his or her personal likes and dislikes, prejudices or any other preconceived opinions on issues. There is no denying that each adjudicator carries into the debate an opinion baggage that could be based on personal experiences, expert knowledge of the subject matter, or a set of prejudices. An element of the real test of a debater is, of course, the ability to persuade the adjudicator of the validity of arguments advanced, which may be in contradiction with the adjudicator’s views and perspective on the matter under consideration. But you must be able to eliminate any special or exceptional attitudes which would not be shared by an average group of reasonable people.

The most important thing to realize is that you are sitting in judgment on the relative merits of the two cases that are proposed by the competing teams of the debate, and it is this ability of comparison that assumes importance in adjudication.

It should be noted that the task of an adjudicator is not to decide whether his or her views coincided with those expressed by one of the teams. The adjudicator has artificial constraints that influence his decision – including the proportional worth of the elements of matter, manner and method, and the weight of each individual speech to the overall case of the team. The adjudicator is assessing a process that consists of every single speech and his final judgment is a function of the contribution of each individual in the debate.

There are three important functions performed by adjudicators in any debate:

  • To decide which team has won the debate,
  • To provide an explanation of the reasons for that decision, and
  • To provide constructive criticism and advice to the debaters.

The function of deciding which team has won is, of course, the most important function that is played by the adjudicator. In this context, it is very important to note that the decision is made by the adjudicator and not by the marks awarded. In other words, the marks should reflect the adjudicator’s decision; they should not make that decision.

It is not rare in close debates to find the total marks awarded reflect a different decision from the adjudicator’s impression of the debate and the relative merits and demerits of the two cases under consideration. In such circumstances, you should review the notes of the debate and attempt to identify the cause of this discrepancy. For example, you might realize that your final impression was too heavily dependent on a strong third speech, in which case your decision should be modified to reflect a correct weighing for that speaker’s contribution in the overall context of the debate. Or, you might realize that the marks awarded to a particular debater’s speech does not reflect his true contribution to the advancement of his case. What is important to note is that the marks and the adjudicator’s decision should be consistent and it is the final decision should be consistent and it is the final decision of the adjudicator that determines the outcome of the debate.

Debaters are entitled to know the basis of any judgment and you, as an adjudicator, have the obligation to explain your decision and offer constructive criticism. What should be highlighted in such discussion should be critical differences between the two teams and no attempt should be made to replay the whole debate. Adjudicators should also be careful of getting drawn into a further debate with the team members as to the merits of the judgment. While explaining the reasons for the decision, you should be specific in weighing the relative merits of the cases and the important elements of the cases that were crucial in determining your verdict. These issues will be handled in detail later when assessment of the debates are discussed in terms of matter, manner and method.

It should be remembered that the level of explanation provided should be tailored to the experience of the debaters. Very experienced speakers are likely to be concerned with the interaction of argument and the structure of team cases; novices are likely to wish to receive more detailed comment on speaking style, merging into the ‘constructive criticism’ discussed below.

Not every individual has the ability to inspire and motivate. But all adjudicators do have a tremendous responsibility in ensuring that their judgment and criticism and advice that they give perform an educational function in debating. Sound advice from good adjudicators make substantial differences to debating careers. As pointed out earlier, the nature of advice offered should vary with the experience of the debaters. Criticism should invariably be delivered in constructive terms. To a novice speaker for whom the debate itself may have been a traumatic event, there is a world of difference between “The things that you did badly were….” and “The ways in which to improve your debating are….”. No adjudication should be scathing, sarcastic or derogatory. You have an obligation to be constructive, supportive and encouraging.



One of the fundamental aspects in assessing matter is that the matter presented by a speaker must be logical and relevant to the topic under debate. Logic is the chain of reasoning used to prove an argument. This involves stating, explaining and illustrating the argument. Relevance is established by tying the argument in to the topic under debate.


An example that has been used at the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championship at Monash in 1995 illustrates the point about reasoning of arguments logically. The issue under consideration in the example is that cigarette advertising should be banned. The structure to a team’s case could be as follows:

State an argument in favor of the topic: Cigarette advertising should be banned because it entices young people to smoke by making cigarette smoking look like a glamorous activity.

  • Explain the argument: Young people see images of sports heroes and models endorsing smoking. They are insecure and in need of some affirmation, so they turn to cigarettes, assuming they will achieve the happiness they believe the sports heroes and models enjoy. This is how they will get addicted.
  • Use examples: Cigarette companies aggressively advertise in glamorous sports like Formula One. Marlboro spends $50m a year to ensure that McLaren team can have ‘Marlboro’ plastered all over its livery. Their product is seen on the drivers and models that parade around like advertising billboards trying to sell their products, often to kids who are impressionable.
  • Tie the argument back into the topic: So as you can see, cigarette advertising entices young people into smoking by giving them glamorous images to aspire to. Cigarette advertising is therefore dangerous and it should be banned.


Part of your function is to assess the quality of the argument. This requires you to distinguish a strong argument from a weak argument, from the viewpoint of an average reasonable person. A weak argument remains weak whether or not the opposing team points out its weakness. You should not wait to see whether the opposition attacks an argument before judging whether it is weak or strong. Taking on the role of an average reasonable person does not prevent you from being critical and intelligent in your analysis of the matter presented to you.


Use of examples and references to experts

Properly used, examples are an important aspect of matter. Usually they will be most effective when used to illustrate or bolster an argument that has been constructed already, rather than as the foundation for making an argument. Similarly, authorities cited should only support the argument and not substitute the argument. The fact that an expert holds an opinion holds minor weight in the process of persuasion unless the reasons for that opinion are explained and independently assessed.

Invalid cases

An invalid case is where the team does not prove what they are required by the topic to prove. For instance, on the topic ‘That cigarette advertising should be banned’, if the affirmative team argues that smoking is harmful, they have not addressed the fundamental issue of the debate – cigarette advertising. Such an approach should be penalized heavily.


Hung cases

Sometimes, the structure of the argument is such that at the end of the first speaker’s case, it is not possible to draw any conclusion. This is known as the ‘hung’ case. It occurs when the first speaker doesn’t affirm or negate the topic in itself. The speech is left ‘hanging’ until the second speaker completes the case. It is neither convincing to rely on another speaker to prove the entire case nor fair to ask a first negative speaker to refute a case that is not complete yet. Therefore such an approach should be penalized in both matter and method. An Australasian example is, when on the topic That Capitalism will fail without religion, the first affirmative argued that capitalism will fail and the second speaker argued that capitalism will fail without religion. Here the second speaker was the only speaker to address the topic.

Distinguishing Matter from Manner and Method

In matter, you must assess the quality of the arguments irrespective of how well they were organized. In method, you must assess the quality of organization. When assessing matter, it is important to shed all the effects of manner, namely vocal style, use of gesture and quality of oratory. You should understand and maintain this distinction and prevent the same strength or weakness from being double-scored.

New Matter from third negative

New matter consists of an entirely new argument that has not been canvassed in the debate before. Fresh evidence to support or further extend an argument is not considered as new matter.

It is a firm rule of debating that the third opposition speaker in the debate may not introduce any new matter. The purpose of this rule is to prevent unfairness in the debate because an issue raised at this stage does not allow the opposing team to respond to it or comment on it sufficiently. Hence, the final speaker’s argument must be directed to issues that have already been raised in the debate. In general, new matter consists of entirely new issues that have not previously been canvassed in the debate. Introduction of new matter should result in penalties on both matter (as the speaker should be spending time on rebuttal) and method (as the team should have organized and prioritized its argument more effectively). The use of fresh examples to further illustrate an earlier argument or any argument directed to rebuttal of an opposing argument or to defense of the negative case is not new matter.

An example of new matter on a topic That UN is a waste of space is where the first five speakers have been arguing the effectiveness of the UN as a peace keeper and peacemaker and then the third negative decides to discuss at length the humanitarian arms of the organization.

In this context, the rule is not so clear about new matter from the third affirmative. It is a matter for discretion, where you should weigh the value of the matter as substantial material against the detriment suffered by the team in not introducing this earlier in the debate and possible time lost in rebuttal.


Humorous arguments

There are instances where one team adopts a humorous or ‘send-up’ approach and the other team delivers a perfectly serious debate. In the former, you must assess whether the ‘send-up’ has caused the audience to accept or reject the spirit of high farce which pervades such cases. You should assess the ‘send-up’ in the context of the ‘send-up’ reality. Then this is compared with the quality of argument presented by the opposing team in its own context. The adoption of a humorous line does not relieve the team of the necessity to structure its humorous line in the form of an argument.



Method consists of the effectiveness of the structure and organization of each individual speech, of the team case as a whole and the extent to which the team reacted appropriately to the dynamics of the debate. Each of these three elements will be further elaborated in the following paragraphs.


Method of an individual speech

An effectively structured speech will have the following features (neither compulsory nor exhaustive):

  • an interesting opening which captures the attention of the audience or helps it to warm to the speaker
  • a reasonably clear statement of the purpose and general direction of the speech
  • a logical sequence of ideas which shows a clear development of the speaker’s argument
  • a proportional allocation of time to the speech as a whole, and to each major point, which enables the objective of the speech to be accomplished
  • a conclusion or summary of the major points made in the speech


Over-time and under-time speeches

Speakers should quickly finish the point they are making after the time limit and conclude. A small leeway of no more than half a minute may be allowed. Matter delivered after the time limit does not attract matter marks. The speech will incur a severe penalty in method for continuing significantly after the time limit.

There usually is no penalty for finishing after the first bell but before the time limit (unless the speaker was clearly ‘padding’ the speech in an attempt to make time, without adding anything to the content of the speech). Finishing before the first bell indicates poor organization and usually attracts a method penalty. But this should be assessed with regard to the completeness or paucity of the argument and other aspects of the debate such as whether the opposing team ran a truism and prevented rebuttal.


Method of the team

In considering team method, you are assessing whether the team structured its overall approach to maximize its effectiveness and whether the individual speakers adequately fulfilled their part in the team presentation. In general, a ‘thematic’ team structure will be more effective than a structure consisting of a series of independent arguments. The former approach gives the appearance of being a total body of argument while the latter approach represents a series of isolated points without any link or consistent foundation.

The roles played by each speaker in a team presentation are summarized as follows:

First affirmative speaker

  • define the affirmative’s interpretation of the topic and specify the essential issues in contention
  • give an outline of the team structure, indicating the basic theme of the team’s case and the aspects to be dealt with by each speaker
  • deal with those elements of the case allocated to him or her


First negative speaker

  • identify the major areas of initial disagreement (including definition issues if appropriate) with the affirmative case up to that time and engage in rebuttal
  • give a clear outline of the negative’s team structure
  • deal with those elements allocated to the first speaker


Second affirmative and negative speakers

  • rebutt opponents’ case and arguments
  • argue in defense of one’s own case against rebuttal by previous speaker
  • deal with those elements of the substantial case allocated to him or her


Third speakers on both sides

  • present an overview of the debate, rebutting the important aspects of the opposing team’s case and defending one’s own team’s case
  • summarize his or her arguments


Reply speeches

  • provide an overview that compares and contrasts each team’s views of the central issues of contention in the debate
  • Response to the dynamics of the debate

This element of method requires you to assess whether a speaker has reacted appropriately to the strategic requirements of the debate as they emerged. The following are examples of such dynamics:

When a negative team has a problem with the affirmative definition, it is important strategically to deal with this at the first negative speech (as well as the second and third) so that the definition does not proceed without dispute until much later.

A method failure results when a speaker argues a point that has already been conceded (thus failing to acknowledge the concession) or a point that is not being contested or relevant to the debate.

In administering a method penalty, you should be careful to note the distinction between matter and method. A speaker who commits a strategic error may be given full credit for the quality of the argument in matter, but a penalty will be imposed in method. On the other hand, if a speaker reacts appropriately to the dynamics of the debate, he or she may be rewarded in both method (for identifying the issue) and matter (for convincingly tackling it).



Manner is concerned with the mechanics of public speaking and presentation of the debating case. Good manner will enhance the argument; bad manner will distract or detract the audience from the argument. The most important thing to remember when you assess manner is to ask the question “Was it effective?”.

The elements of manner:

  • Vocal style: Volume of delivery should be audible; enunciation should be clear and plain; pace of delivery should be neither too slow nor too fast; vocal style should have variety and appropriate pauses for relaxation and emphasis; delivery should be reasonably fluent, confident and authoritative (but not arrogant or hectoring)
  • Use of language: Speakers should not vary from normal conversational language; they should beware of the use of slang or jargon of some field of specialty unfamiliar to the audience.
  • Use of notes: Notes should be unobtrusive, small enough to be held in one hand and contain only key words or headlines.
  • Use of eyes: Debaters should attempt to make eye contact with the audience.
  • Gesture: Gestures should be natural and appropriate and not laborious or distracting; mannerisms should be avoided.
  • Stance: Speakers may move around or stand still and you should assess the effectiveness of the stance by whether it aided the argument or distracted you from the argument.
  • Dress: Dress may only be taken into account in the assessment of manner where it is so incongruous that it affects the credibility of the speaker.
  • Impression of sincerity: A more sincere approach will make the speaker more believable and effective.
  • Personal attacks on opponents: Derogatory comments will not be tolerated and will suffer manner penalty as such remarks distracts the audience from the argument and also make the speaker lose the sympathetic ear of the audience; speakers should also not refer to the personal convictions held by opposing debaters.
  • Humor: Humor should be appropriate and may even be used at a crucial time in a serious debate.


Adjudicators must note that manner is assessed as the total impact of all its various elements – not as some aggregation of fixed categories according to rigid weightings.


Definitions are an important aspect of a debate. They play a large role in determining whether a debate is focused and enjoyable, or waywardly meandering and unclear.

Definition rules

Definitions must be reasonable. There must be a clear and logical link between the definition and the topic. A negative team may only challenge a definition on the grounds that it is truistic, tautological, circular or wholly unreasonable. Squirreling and time setting are absolutely prohibited.

Truistic, tautological and circular definitions are those that allow the affirmative team to use indisputable truths as evidence, thereby not allowing the negative team to dispute. For example, on the topic “That we should eat and drink and be merry”, if an affirmative team defined this topic to mean that we should eat something because otherwise we will die of starvation, we should drink something because otherwise we will die of thirst, and we should be happy because being sad is not a good thing, it leaves the negative team with no grounds to debate on. Wholly unreasonable definitions are those which seek to make the negative’s argument scarce or weak. Squirreling is where there is a reasonably obvious issue to be debated and one team decides to define the debate in a less than obvious way. An example would be, if on the topic “That Elvis is alive and well”, the affirmative defined Elvis to be Elvis Martini, an Italian hairdresser known for his sideburn trims. The obvious issue for debate here is of course Elvis Presley. When the debate is set into a particular time, it constitutes time setting. Debates should take place in contemporary society though evidence from the past may certainly be used in argument.

The correct approach to definition is the ‘issue-based’ approach, rather than the ‘individual words’ approach. Many inexperienced debaters will give a careful and detailed definition of each word in the topic, and then string those definitions together into a sentence. It is of course frequently necessary to concentrate on one or more keywords in a topic, but at least as frequently the topic may be defined as a whole by looking at the context. Even with topics in which it may be deemed necessary to consider the nature of an individual keyword, the ultimate objective of definition is to be able to state a clear issue arising out of the examination of the individual words.

You must not start with any preconceived notion of the meaning of the topic (except to the extent that the average reasonable person shares such a notion). Like all matter, you should not wait to see if the definition is attacked before deciding whether or not it is persuasive. The definition is assessed with its supporting arguments when it is delivered.


Competing definitions

When the negative challenges the definition put forth by the affirmative (on the grounds that it is truistic, tautological, circular or wholly unreasonable), there is no rule that says that the proposition’s definition is automatically invalid. It is just that the affirmative faces the difficulty that an average reasonable person would regard such a proposition as being unreasonable and unlikely to be what was in the mind of the person who set the topic. But the onus is on the disagreeing team to show that the unreasonable definition is heavily biased against their case and cannot be argued against. It is not enough to utter protests that would become a copy of self-pity. The issue is to be resolved by argument. The speakers must argue the relative merits of the competing definitions, not merely assert the merits of their own.

The definition issue is not decisive of the outcome, and the team that loses the definition issue will still have its subsequent arguments assessed on their own merits. When there is a significant divergence of definitions, you should expect teams to engage in an ‘even-if’ argument. That is:

“Our definition is correct and theirs is incorrect for the following reasons. But even if their definition was correct (which it is not), their case does not stand scrutiny even under their own definition.”

This should be followed by an attack on the merits of their opponent’s case. In this way, a team is likely to score more matter marks, and the sterility of the definition debate is avoided. This issue is important enough for the absence of an ‘even-if’ to be penalized in method as a strategic error, if the competing definitions are widely divergent.


Rebuttal is any argument that logically tends to the conclusion that the opposing team’s arguments should be accorded less weight than is claimed for them. It may consist of:

  • showing that the opposing argument is based on an error of fact or an erroneous interpretation of fact
  • showing that the opposing argument is irrelevant to the proof of the topic
  • showing that the opposing argument is illogical
  • showing that the opposing argument, while itself correct, involves unacceptable implications
  • showing that the opposing argument, while itself correct, should be accorded little weight


Matter marks should be used to indicate whether or not the rebuttal was persuasive, irrespective of the structure of the rebuttal. On the other hand, whether or not a speaker has structured the rebuttal so as to make it appear that the entire opposing case, or at least the main issues, has been called into question is an issue of method marks. Sometimes, a more global and thematic rebuttal is adopted over a point-by-point rebuttal of the opposition’s arguments. It is a simple case of focusing on the forest as a whole rather than the trees.


Reply speeches

You must understand the difference between the third speeches and the reply speeches. The replies are not merely tedious repetitions of the key parts of the third speeches. The third speakers should concentrate on detailed rebuttal and leave the summarizing to the reply speakers. The third negative should be especially cautious not to give anything more than a cursory summary at the end if his or her speech because a detailed summary is about to ensue from the reply. Third speakers who embark on extensive overviews and summaries (especially third negatives) should generally score lower marks in matter (for forgoing the opportunity to engage in detailed rebuttal of points) and method (for misunderstanding the role of the third speaker).

The ‘no new matter’ rule applies with a vengeance in reply speeches. To introduce new matter in a reply is a cardinal sin. It misconceives the role of a reply speech, which is a broad overview and not an examination of detail. New matter in a reply speech should be heavily penalized.



Misrepresentations are where one speaker inaccurately sets up an argument in order to attack it. This is a serious offense and should be penalized as it often happens during the third speeches and leaves the opposing team little chance to reply. Misrepresentation occurs when one speaker reiterates an opponent’s argument incorrectly or concentrates disproportionately on weaker aspects of the opposing argument, neglecting important issues. Be cautious when assessing misrepresentation to go through your notes and to rely less on memory. It is therefore essential that the information you record during each speech is comprehensive.

Team slides

A team slide is when a team starts off arguing a theme and then widens or narrows that theme under pressure from an opponent or in order to claim the matter being used by the opponents. This is unreasonable. You should pay extra attention during the first few minutes of the first speeches from both sides so that you are able to identify a team slide later in the debate. Team slides should be distinguished from concessions that, if not too substantial, will allow the debate to proceed on the contentious ground. For instance, it would not be an unreasonable concession for a negative team to concede, on the topic, That smoking should be banned, that there is a recognized link between smoking and disease. Such a concession would allow the debate to proceed upon the more contentious issues surrounding prohibition.



Ties must not be awarded in the tournament. There is no exception to this rule.



Substantive speeches

Substantive speeches are marked out of 100

  • the average mark is 75
  • the lowest possible mark is 67 and the highest possible mark is 83
  • most marks will be between 70 and 80
  • matter and manner are marked out of 40, method out of 20


Reply speeches

Exactly half of the substantive speeches

  • the average mark is 37.5
  • the lowest possible mark is 33.5 and the highest possible mark is 41.5
  • most marks will be between 35 and 40
  • matter and manner are marked out of 20, method out of 10
Matter and Manner Method Meaning
27 13 Very poor
28-29 14 Below average – Poor
30 15 Average
31-32 16 Above average – Very Good
33 17 Excellent


Margin in points Meaning
1-4 A very close debate with only minor differences separating both teams
5-9 A relatively clear decision with one team having an obvious advantage
10-12 A very clear win with the losing team probably having failed in one or more fundamental aspects of its argument or presentation



You should give a clear and firm decision of who has won, the reasons for that decision, and constructive comments to each speaker. A summary of the decisive issues in the debate and how each team dealt with or used these issues to their advantage or disadvantage may be in order here. Constructive comments made to each speaker should be brief and positive, especially to those who have not debated much before. You have around 5-7 minutes to deliver your adjudication and comments.


November 17, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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