This chapter addresses the role the adjudicator plays in assessing the debate. The
adjudicator adopts the role of the average reasonable person. The adjudicator has
– to decide which team has won the debate;
– to provide an explanation of the reasons for the decision; and
– to provide constructive feedback to the debaters.
1 Role of the adjudicator
The adjudicator adopts the role of an average reasonable person, who has the average reasonable person’s knowledge of the topic but who, unlike the average reasonable person, has expert knowledge of the rules of debate.
Adjudicators must eliminate any preconceived ideas as to the merits of the issue in
debate, and any expert or special knowledge of the subject matter. The average reasonable person is assumed to be intelligent and capable of assessing flaws in arguments; the adjudicator is invested with these qualities.
The assumption of this artificial role is one of the most difficult aspects of adjudication, and imposes a heavy burden on adjudicators. Nonetheless, it is central to the whole notion of adjudication. The alternative of permitting adjudicators to assess a debate from their own personal viewpoint, and to take into account their own expert knowledge, prejudices and preconceptions, would strike at the heart of debating as an exercise in the skills of persuasion.
2 Functions of the adjudicator
The adjudicator has three functions:
1. to decide which team has won the debate;
2. to provide an explanation of the reasons for the decision; and
3. to provide constructive feedback to the debaters.
(a) Deciding which team has won
The first task of an adjudicator is to decide which team has won the debate. The
adjudicator’s role is different from that of an average audience member who asks
“was I persuaded?” An adjudicator asks “which team better performed the process
of persuasion, in accordance with the rules of debate?”
There are at least three possible results – a win for the affirmative team, a win for
the negative team, and a tie. In theory, there is no reason why an adjudicator might
not decide that the performance of the teams was entirely even. However, adjudicators should not award a tie – partly because of the difficulties it causes competition organisers; partly because it provides an easy escape from making a difficult decision; and partly because it will be a very rare occasion where two teams are so evenly balanced that no distinction between them can be drawn.
In many debates, the adjudicator is required to award marks to speakers and teams. The adjudicator must make the decision and the marks should reflect that judgment. The marks exist only as a guide to the adjudicator’s progressive assessment of the debate.
It’s not uncommon in a close debate to find that when the marks are first totalled, they reflect a decision different from the adjudicator’s impression of the debate. If this occurs, it means either that the marks are in error or that the adjudicator’s impression at the end of the final speech is in error. In this situation the adjudicator should carefully review the notes of the debate and attempt to identify where the marks and impressions differ. It might be that the adjudicator will decide that the final impression was too heavily based on a very strong third negative speech – in which case the adjudicator’s decision would be modified to reflect a better weighting for that speaker.
Occasionally an adjudicator will add up the marks incorrectly so that the marks do
not reflect the decision which has been announced. In such a situation, the decision announced remains the outcome of the debate.
(b) Explaining reasons for the decision
In delivering the adjudication, adjudicators should highlight the critical differences
between the teams rather than replay the whole debate. A useful start is to total the marks in each of matter, manner and method for each team, and to use this as the focus for comment.
There may be one or several strategic issues which were critical in the debate; issues on which the debate was won or lost. Focusing on these strategic issues allows the adjudicator to identify the main reasons for the decision.
At the end of the adjudication, the debaters should have a clear understanding of why their team won or lost. Most complaints arise because adjudicators are not able to clearly identify the reasons for the result.
(c) Providing constructive feedback
Adjudicators are in a position to perform a valuable training function. Particularly
with novice or school-student debaters, the feedback offered by an adjudicator is likely to be the most substantial basis for improvement.
Feedback can affect the confidence of individual debaters. Adjudicators must take this responsibility extremely seriously. An overly sarcastic or negative adjudication may undermine the confidence of novice debaters to the point where they are fearful of speaking in public again. Feedback should be couched in constructive terms.
3 The adjudication process
Adjudicators must arrive at their decision after careful consideration. This will include listening attentively to all speakers in the debate, taking notes and applying the rules of debating.
Note taking is important because notes allow an adjudicator to resolve issues which emerge later in the debate, for instance, where there is a dispute over the definition of certain terms. Adjudicators must be wary not to enter the debate while making notes by filtering the comments made by speakers. For example, a speaker may provide an argument which has no clear link to the topic. The adjudicator may infer a link and record this inference in their notes, later crediting the speaker with having made the link.
Adjudicators should mark the scores of the speakers as the debate proceeds. Leaving the marking of scores to the end of the debate can be a perilous exercise in recalling the matter, method and manner of earlier speakers. It may result in the adjudicator overemphasising the impact of third speakers.