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Rock On! Debate: A Primer for Judging Lincoln-Douglas Debate w/ Coach Lawrence Zhou

Hey, debaters! University of Wyoming Debate assistant coach and 2014 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas Debate - Lawrence Zhou is the guest host for this episode of Rock On! Debate. He provides a helpful overview and guide for those tasked with judging LD debate.


Thank you to Lawrence for sharing this excellent resource with the Speech and Debate community! I think this will be a valuable way to help prepare judges for LD debate rounds.


Full Transcript:

Judging LD Debate: A Primer

Hello everyone and welcome to the One Clap Podcast, I’m your guest host Lawrence Zhou. Over the last 7 years, I’ve judged over 1,000 debate rounds in both the US and abroad, from preliminary novice rounds to late elimination rounds. I’m here to share some of the tips that I’ve picked up over judging way too many debate rounds.

This is going to be an episode on how to judge a Lincoln-Douglas, or LD, debate. So, whether it’s your first time judging a debate this weekend and someone sent you this podcast episode at the last minute, or you’ve judged a few rounds but you’d like some tips on how to improve at judging LD, this is the episode for you.

The rest of this episode will be broken up into three parts. In the first part, we’ll cover the three most important principles of judging. In the second, we’ll briefly go through the components of an LD debate. Finally, we’ll talk about the process of making a decision and the questions you should be asking yourself as you decide a winner.

Part one: Three principles of judging.

Before we jump into all the nitty-gritty details of judging, there are three key principles of judging that you should keep in mind because these core principles should inform your entire judging process.

The first principle: Substance over style.

I’m going to start with the most important part of judging—you are voting on arguments, not on presentation. You should avoid voting for debaters that simply sound good and should try and vote for debaters that make good arguments. It is very easy to assume that the better debater sounds better. This is generally true. Often, the better debater will sound more confident, they will often have a nicer speaking voice, and they will often carry themselves in a way that conveys that they are winning. These are often good clues about who is winning. But, this is an unreliable guide. Sometimes, the better debater making the better arguments will sound worse. Try to disregard the style and focus more on the substance. This is a debate competition, not a speech competition.

The second principle: It’s the debater’s job to persuade you, not your job to persuade the debaters.

A lot of judges often feel out of their depth when judging. Often, debaters will be talking about topics and subject areas that you may not personally know a lot about. That’s to be expected. However, many judges don’t want to admit that they are out of their depth or they don’t want to appear like they aren’t knowledgeable compared to high schoolers. I often feel this pressure myself—I’m supposed to be an experienced debate judge, why should I appear like I don’t know what’s going on?

However, I want to assure you that it’s okay to admit that there are some things that you don’t know. It is ultimately the role of the debater’s in front of you to persuade you. If you do not understand an argument, it’s not your fault—the debater failed to explain the argument in a way persuasive to you. If you do not understand an argument, do not feel compelled to vote on it, do not feel compelled to give it more credence than it deserves, and do not feel compelled to pretend like you understand it. You are the judge—the debaters must persuade you that they have won.

However, we cannot take this principle too far, which leads to the third and last principle of judging: Do not intervene.

Although each debater must persuade you, you should avoid interjecting your own personal opinions about a subject into the debate. For example, if students are debating about tax policy, you might already have strong prior opinions at what the optimal tax rate is. Do your best to separate your personal opinions out.

Like a juror in a criminal trial is instructed to remove as many of their personal biases from their decision-making process, you should also do your best to separate out your personal opinions from the quality of the debating done by the debaters in front of you. You should only try and consider arguments as they were presented in the round, not how you wish they were presented. As long as an argument forwarded by a debater could be accepted by some reasonable person—in other words, it has a plausible warrant for its truth—you must consider it. If a debater says “Higher taxes reduce economic growth” and the other debater does not respond to it, it does not matter if you personally believe that higher taxes increase economic growth, you must evaluate the argument as it was presented and debated in the round.

Remember, debaters have to switch sides and debate for and against the topic. It would be unfair to them if they simply lost every round on one side. It is also antithetical to the nature of this activity which is to teach students to explore both sides of an issue.

In summary, you should focus on substance over style, it is the debater’s job to persuade you, and avoid intervening as much as possible.

Part two: The parts of an LD debate

Debate, like many academic activities, has developed a set of insular jargon that is overwhelming at first and presents a barrier to easily understanding the content of a debate. However, once you understand these terms, it actually creates clarity about the different functions of arguments in a debate. Here are the key terms you need to know.

In order to give context to these terms, we’ll use a hypothetical resolution. Here, resolution refers to the topic that the debaters will debate. Our hypothetical resolution will be, “Resolved: The United States ought to increase its income tax rate.”

Now, each debate will have two debaters. One will be affirmative and one will be negative. The affirmative, or aff, debater will affirm, or agree with, the resolution, or topic. The negative, or neg, debater will negate, or disagree with the resolution.

The debate opens up with the affirmative debater reading their affirmative case. This speech is six-minutes long and is often called the AC. The case is a scripted speech that is usually separated into three components: An introduction, the framework, and one or more contentions.

The introduction will usually contain an opening quote, a statement of the resolution or topic, and any definitions required to understand the topic. Using the taxes topic introduced above, an introduction could sound something like the following: “Because higher income taxes reduce inequality, I affirm the resolution, ‘Resolved: The United States ought to increase its income tax rate.’ Before I continue, I define the income tax rate as…”

Next comes the framework. The framework is usually divided into two parts: A value and a criterion. The value is the ultimate good in the round, what both sides are striving to be. Usually this value is morality or justice. The criterion tells us what the value means and how you, as the judge, should weigh impacts.

You should treat the framework as a mechanism for understanding what impacts should have priority in the round. For example, if the criterion is “Minimizing suffering,” then arguments that are about minimizing suffering should take precedence under the criterion. However, if the criterion is “Reducing inequality,” then arguments that affect equality should matter more. The framework answers the question of what values matter most in the round.

Using the taxes topic, one possible framework for the affirmative could be a value of “morality” and a criterion of “reducing inequality.” Here, the affirmative is arguing that what the United States ought to do is be moral and that reducing inequality is how the United States could act morally.

Finally, the case will contain one or more contentions or arguments about the topic. These will explain why the resolution is true. Each contention can, but does not have to, contain one or more subpoints which will usually be thematically similar. Each contention will contain arguments usually consisting of a claim—a statement—a warrant—why the claim is true—and an impact—why the truth of the claim matters. Continuing with the example, the affirmative contentions would usually have impacts related to reducing inequality since that is what the framework has established has priority.

After the AC, the negative debater will cross-examine the affirmative debater. This is a three-minute questioning period. As a judge, you do not need to take notes during this period.

Following the cross-examination, the negative debater can either choose to use some of their preparation time—a set of four minutes given to each debater to use as they see fit to prepare for their speeches—or to give the negative constructive speech, a seven-minute speech often called the NC.

In the NC, the negative debater has two responsibilities. First, they must present their own case. Like the affirmative case, it will usually have an introduction, framework, and one or more contentions. Usually, the negative debater will present a competing framework. For example, they might share the value of morality but argue that the appropriate criterion is “promoting economic growth.” The negative debater will then present contentions to show why higher income taxes would hurt economic growth.

The second responsibility the negative has is to rebut, refute, or attack the affirmative’s case. After the negative presents their case, they will then refute the affirmative’s framework and contentions, usually by offering several responses to each key affirmative argument.

After the NC speech, the affirmative will then cross-examine the negative debater for three-minutes.

The remainder of the debate will have the affirmative give a four-minute rebuttal speech called the 1AR where the affirmative will both extend their initial arguments in their case and rebut the negative’s case; a six-minute speech called the NR where the negative will extend their own case arguments, continue refuting the affirmative’s case, and present key voting issues, or arguments that the debater thinks the judge should use to decide who has won the debate; and finally, a three-minute 2AR where the affirmative often just presents key voting issues as to why they have won the debate.

Overall, each debater will speak for 13 minutes, will have a cross-examination period of three-minutes, and will have four-minutes of preparation, or prep, time. A debate should last approximately 45 minutes. In a debate, each debater will present arguments for why their side of the resolution is either true or false.

Part three: The process of judging

The previous section threw a lot of terminology and jargon at you in a short amount of time, so there is a link to a document with a glossary of those terms in case you need a refresher. You might also consider relistening to that section using the timestamps listed below.

This section will talk about the process of actually judging a debate round. This can be separated into three steps: Step one is flowing the debate, step two is deciding a winner, step three is communicating your decision.

The first step is to flow the debate. Flowing refers to note taking in debate. Flowing both tracks arguments within and between speeches. How you want to take notes is up to you, but I generally recommend that you try and have two pieces of paper: One for the affirmative case and one for the negative case. I would only write down key arguments made by the teams. In particular, I would focus on getting down the value, criterion, contentions and any subpoints in each case, as well as any major responses or rebuttals against those key arguments.

To take notes within a speech, you should generally flow the speech down in a column or vertically. As each debater presents their arguments, you should take notes about those arguments going down the sheet of paper. To take notes between speeches, you should flow across horizontally so that rebuttals line up next to the argument they are responding to. It is difficult to communicate how to flow through a podcast; however, any current debater or judge should be able to give you a visual demonstration of how to flow.

The second step is to determine who has won the debate. The formal process is generally to decide who has won the framework debate, i.e. determining which values are the most important, and then determining who has won the contention debate, i.e. determining which facts are the most relevant given those values. You should use your flow that you’ve taken to keep track of the arguments made in the round.

Going back to the taxes example, you should first determine what matters more: Equality or economic growth. Then you should determine what the effects of higher taxes are: Do they promote equality or economic growth? If the affirmative debater wins that equality matters most, then only arguments about equality should be weighted heavily in your decision. Then you should look at the arguments in the various contentions to determine what effect higher taxes would have on equality. If higher taxes reduce inequality, then the affirmative should win; if higher taxes increase inequality, the negative should win. Same is true for the flip side. If the negative debater wins that growth matters most, then arguments about economic growth should be weighted heavily in your decision. If higher taxes promote economic growth, you should vote for the affirmative; if higher taxes decrease economic growth, you should vote for the negative.

As a side note, you should generally only vote on arguments that appeared in the last speech given by each debater. So, for the affirmative, that would be arguments in the 2AR and for the negative, that would be arguments in the NR. You generally should not reward debaters for making arguments earlier on in the debate but failing to bring them back up in the last speeches. You should also try and only vote on arguments that are labeled as voting issues.

The third and final step is communicating your decision to the debaters. Usually, you will be given a ballot that you can use to communicate who won or lost to the debaters. This ballot can either be electronic and distributed using a website like or it can be a paper ballot. Regardless of the type of ballot you receive, there will be several common steps to filling out a ballot.

First, you need to indicate a winner. You usually need to note the code and side of the winning side. Make sure these align; in other words, ensure that the code of the debater you selected as the winner corresponds to the side that the debater was debating on.

Second, you need to give each debater speaker points. Tournaments use different speaker point scales, but you usually want to give the debater you thought spoke better the higher speaker points. This is usually, but not always, the debater that won the debate. Try to stay within the averages for your individual tournament—you can always ask someone at your local tournament what an appropriate range of speaker points would look like. Try and reserve high speaker points just for those who truly impress you.

Third, you need to write down a reason for decision, often abbreviated to RFD. This is where you write or type out why you voted for the debater you thought won the debate. This can be of variable length, but usually you want at least a few sentences so that the losing debater can understand what you voted on and why.

Fourth and finally, you need to give some feedback or comments that can help each debater improve. I would generally shoot for a ratio of one positive comment for every two negative comments and would try and give about six comments per debater. These comments do not need to be incredibly long or in-depth; sometimes, the comments can be as simple as “Great speaking voice, but I would slow down a little” or “I think you could further expand on your second contention in your case.” While the debater who loses should probably receive more in-depth comments, every debater can improve, including the one you voted for! I would also try and include at least one comment to the losing debater about how they might have been able to win your ballot; in other words, provide a comment or two that can explain what the debater could have changed to win the debate.

This process is easier said than done. Often, debates contain many arguments that are difficult to resolve. Debaters also frequently don’t weigh or compare arguments, so determining which values matter most or trying to determine the net effect on economic growth is no easy task. Here are three tips to make judging easier.

First, decisions should be justifiable to the loser. Since the winner of the debate will rarely disagree with your decision, you should focus on making sure the loser understands why they lost. You should also feel comfortable saying that you did not understand arguments and that is why the debater lost.

Second, write down comments on the ballot as the debate progresses. It is difficult to keep track in your head of all the small mistakes or issues that arise throughout the course of the debate, so you should use the preparation time of the debaters to write down short comments to the debaters such as “Use all your speech time” or “You should explain this argument in more detail.” This also helps you keep track of relevant missteps and arguments throughout the debate and will help you construct a high-quality decision.

Third, debate your own decision. My process often involves trying to construct two RFDs, one for the affirmative debater and one for the negative debater. The RFD that I feel is the most logical, requires the least intervention, and is most consistent with the arguments as they were explained in round is the one that I usually settle on. My minimum threshold is that if I cannot explain to the losing debater the nature of my decision in a way that seems acceptable by a reasonable observer, then I will likely not vote on it.

To wrap it all up, there is a lot of jargon and terminology here and you probably won’t get everything down on the first try. The best way to get familiar with judging is just to go out and judge! There is no substitute for experience! Finally, I recommend visiting where there will be a full transcript of this episode available as well as some resources like a glossary (in the works) that you might find useful. I hope this episode was helpful; good luck and good judging!


Thanks so much to Lawrence for putting together this excellent episode. This is some great stuff, and I hope it has been helpful to judges, coaches, and debaters.

There is a smorgasbord of One Clap content in the works: like E.C. Powers talking Policy Debate and the novice areas of the current resolution, Lizzy Cozzens jamming about Original Oratory and sharing one of her fabulous speeches, a great interview with YuYu Yuan about platform events from this summer… and a whole lot of other good stuff. I’m hoping that I can get caught up on editing and packaging all this useful content from awesome folks over the holiday season.


Shout outs: thank you to everyone who is a patron of One Clap Speech and Debate. Your kind gifts help me keep this show going. Thank you to Marcus, Londe, Debbie, Missy, Ashley S, Ashley M, Beth, Laura, Brenda, Aaron, Terry, Tina, Allen, Matt, and Joel for your continued support. Check out our patreon page (HERE) if you’d like to join in support of One Clap Speech and Debate and partner with me on this journey.

If you have an idea or a request for Rock On Debate, shoot me an email at or reach out on the website or social media.

Debaters, don’t stop Rockin’!


Our One Clap and Wyoming Speech and Debate community mourns with the Kramer family and the many others who loved and appreciated Mack Kramer - a Rock Springs and University of Wyoming debater who was tragically taken away from us too soon. Mack was a kind, hard-working, hilarious, brilliant soul, and they will be deeply missed. Rest in peace, Mack.


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