But what will the rest of the class do during the debate (Part 2)?

A guest post by Steven Johnson *

In an earlier article, I made the case that students can learn a great deal as audience members for classroom debates – perhaps as much or more as they learn from participating in debates.  As promised, this follow-on post outlines how the audience’s experience may be scaffolded to maximise their opportunity for skill development.

As a laboratory for gaining oracy skills, debating holds a special place in the long tradition of practical rhetorical training.  As such, it’s worth keeping a rhetorical perspective in mind. Donald C. Bryant, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa, argued that rhetoric has “the function of adjusting ideas to people and people to ideas” (1953, p. 403). Given this definition, it’s clear why involvement from the audience is necessary: not only are they an essential element of the rhetorical situation, their reaction to the persuasive efforts of the debaters is critical to the pedagogical power of a debate.  

To put it more simply: what’s the point of having a debate if the debaters never discover whether their efforts have been successful? How frustrating it would be to attempt to persuade an audience of your position without ever knowing if you’ve been effective. Moreover, the audience engages in a dedicated exercise of decision-making at the conclusion of a debate. Practicing how to make decisions by evaluating arguments is fundamental to acquiring solid reasoning skills.

Key to a productive audience experience are the logistics of arranging for students to adjudicate the debate they observe, the charge given to them for doing so and the disposition that students are asked to adopt in the discharge of the task. I’ll address each in turn.


An effective adjudication exercise must go beyond “watch the debate and tell me what you think.”  A properly structured exercise will improve dramatically students’ focus and sense of purpose as audience to a debate.

  1. Students should be arranged into adjudication panels of 3-5 members. The small size improves accountability during the panel’s deliberation; no panelist may easily fade into the woodwork during the discussion. An odd number of panelists allows groups to resolve an impasse by voting.
  2. The panel should be tasked with reaching consensus on their decision. This orients the goal of the discussion toward persuading other panelists which, in turn, activates the metacognitive consideration of the arguments offered in the debate.
  3. A limit on the time allocated to the deliberation should be identified. Depending on time available, this is typically 15-30 minutes.
  4. The panel should be required to report and justify their decision. Usually, the chair of the panel will deliver the decision and rationale; alternately, each panel member may offer their own explanation or may reduce that explanation to writing.
  5. A chair of the panel should be appointed to lead the deliberation and, potentially, to explain the panel’s decision.  

The entire class doesn’t need to judge every debate that happens; assigning responsibilities to a panel of adjudicators may be rotated throughout members of the class in the same way that only a few students debate before the class at any given time.  


Equally important is providing the panel a clear charge.  Knowing what they’re expected to do is a prerequisite to the adjudication panel’s successful completion of the task.

It may seem obvious that the panel’s job is to evaluate the debate, but as a charge such instruction is inadequate. Assessing debates actually involves two quite distinct decisions that may be made.

One of those decisions is the resolution of the question posed by the topic being debated. This requires the substantive assessment of the relative merits of the arguments exchanged by the debaters. If the topic being debated is “Tobacco products should be banned,” this decision asks the panel to affirm the topic (ban tobacco products) or to reject the topic (choose not to ban tobacco products) based on the debaters’ arguments.  

Another decision that the panel could be asked to make is the assessment of each debater’s efforts. This is roughly equivalent to awarding a grade to each of the debaters based on their demonstrated competence in their argumentative efforts. Obviously, assignment of grades should be the province of the teacher but the audience may benefit from evaluating each debater’s proficiency. Dedicated rubrics often make this decision easier and more clearly structured for the panelists.

While these two decisions are related, they are not dependent upon one another. In other words, winning a debate does not necessarily equate with a good grade for the effort, or vice versa. A simple thought experiment makes this clear. Imagine a debate between two novice debate teams of low skill. Their presentations are muddled, their arguments are vague and unsupported by credible evidence and their strategies are difficult to discern. In this case, one team will win and the other will lose, though all the debaters – regardless of whether they’re on the winning or losing side – likely would receive low marks for their efforts. Alternately, a debate may be tried by two highly-skilled teams possessed of outstanding skills. Here again, one team will win and the other will lose, even though all debaters likely would receive high marks. Assessing an individual’s or team’s effort is a necessary part of deciding which side wins, but it is insufficient to determine a winner. Similarly, though determining which side wins may inform the assessment of an individual’s performance, it is not deterministic of that assessment.

The panel may be asked to deliberate on either or both of these decisions, but the more valuable exercise, in my opinion, is to charge the panel with resolving the question posed by the topic. Doing so orients the panelists toward appraising the relative merit of arguments exchanged in the debate and engages them in the important metacognitive activity of evaluating arguments. Argument evaluation empowers individuals with the skills to be critical consumers of information. Kuhn et. al. (2017) note that “[t]his reasoning about reasoning – a form of metacognition – is challenging for students to master” (p. 10). I agree, but I also believe that it’s a challenge worth facing.

There’s a great deal more to be said about how the relative merits of arguments may be assessed, but for now suffice it to say that regardless of which side the panel decides has won, the far more important part of their effort is to struggle with the justification of that decision and to articulate the reasons for that decision. As noted in the first post in this series, the exploratory talk engaged in the deliberation happens within a well-defined arena of arguments and features a clear goal for which the panel may strive. These elements increase significantly the likelihood that the panel will meet the challenge of truly evaluating the arguments in the debate. That likelihood increases even more if the panelists are appropriately disposed toward that task.


The final element of creating productive adjudications is to properly orient the panelists to their responsibility. When expressing concern about attempting to teach oracy skills through argument evaluation, Kuhn et. al. (2017) make clear one significant peril:

Thus, a common response by middle-schoolers asked to choose the stronger of two arguments is to choose the one whose claim they agree with, offering as a justification something like “This is a good argument, because what it claims is true.”  When, as in this case, the evaluator confuses the claim and the argument, the problem is that the argument itself gets ignored. This error is most serious when evaluators dismiss an argument because they don’t endorse the claim it supports… (p. 10)  

This is a real hazard to be avoided. Not much metacognition occurs if the panelists’ contemplation of the debate begins and ends with “which side most aligns with my own views?”

Student adjudication panels may be encouraged to move beyond their own preferences and focus on the critical evaluation of the arguments by asking them to adopt two important perspectives from which they may consider the debate.

First, panelists should be instructed to see the debate as an exercise in argumentation conducted in the artificial confines of the classroom laboratory rather than a “real-world” effort by the advocates to persuade. Making clear the educational goals of argumentative practice relieves the audience of the burden of epistemic vigilance, or the inclination to protect our own worldview by scrutinising challenges to that view. Sperber et. al. (2010) explain that epistemic vigilance is an evolutionary imperative, the service of which may lead to to less–rather than more–critical consideration of argument. If our inclination is to distrust information that challenges our own epistemic perspective, then we’re also inclined to like arguments we agree with and dislike those with which we disagree. By liberating adjudicators from the epistemic consequence of preferring one argument to another, their ability to assess those arguments critically and without bias improves.

The second perspective necessary to an effective disposition for adjudicators is that they imagine themselves to be tabula rasa – or a “blank slate” – when encountering the advocates’ efforts. To be free of presumption about positions – and to be dedicated to assessing only the arguments made by the advocates in the debate – is a challenging bit of perspective-taking, largely because the perspective itself is a falsehood. Obviously, no one can truly rid themselves of the experiences, opinions, perspectives and biases that allow them to operate in the world. Indeed, absent those things, no persuasion as practiced in a debate would ever be necessary. However, the commitment to a tabula rasa perspective is a mental exercise that reminds adjudicators to evaluate the debaters’ arguments rather than their own, limiting the temptation to give greater credence to what could have been said than what was said. A common aphorism among seasoned adjudicators is “the debate is all there is,” intended to convey that they should not intervene in the debate to enhance, complete, diminish or refute the debaters’ arguments. Such efforts are the sole responsibility of the advocates; the adjudicators responsibility is to evaluate those efforts, not to debate for the debaters.

Given the limited attention that oracy receives in most primary and secondary settings, it’s imperative that we wring maximum utility from those opportunities to practice oracy skills. Debates provide a wealth of opportunities for students to grow and develop: physical, linguistic, cognitive and social & emotional skills are all enhanced while participating in a debate. One key to maximising these benefits is to pay as much attention to those watching the debate as we do to those who are debating.


Bryant, D. C. (1953). Rhetoric: Its functions and its scope. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 39(4), 401–424.

Kuhn, D., Hemberger, L., & Khait, V. (2017). Argue with Me: Argument as a Path to Developing Students’ Thinking and Writing. Routledge.

Sperber, D., Clément, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G., & Wilson, D. (2010). Epistemic Vigilance. Mind & Language, 25(4), 359–393.

Image: pxhere

* Steven Johnson is the Director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Seawolf Debate Program. He has been President of the US National Parliamentary Debate Association and Chair of the World Universities Debating Council.  His book Winning Debates: A Guide to Debating in the Style of the World Universities Debating Championships is a comprehensive guide to successful British Parliamentary debating

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