”Good,” “well done” or “I enjoyed this” are phrases often written on ballots, or critique sheets, filled out by judges for speech and debate competitors to rank them in a round. However, when the coach and student reach the end of the ballot, they see the contestant has been given last place, with little or no indication as to why. This happens so often that it has become a common joke heard among coaches and competitors… “ Great energy! I loved it! You did so well!” … Ranking: 6th (last) place.
While frustrating, the bigger problem with subjective contests like speech and debate is that all scores rely solely on the perception of the judges. Despite guidelines and critique sheets with rubrics and guiding questions, the contest is judged based on one standalone performance. What one did at another time in another round or at another tournament is not relevant to the performance at hand or the score received for that performance.
With so much emphasis on the personal perspective of the individual judge, it falls to educators and sponsors to teach students how to use the criticism/feedback they are given. In extreme cases, coaches may “lose” a ballot that would be actually hurtful to a student because of the unprofessional comments it contains. But almost always, coaches can help them decide what criticism is worth heeding and what criticism deserves being ignored by providing sound advice.
In the end, those who adjudicate contests for students need to remember to give constructive criticism by being specific, providing solutions, and pointing out positives along with the negatives. We need to think about how we communicate and to do so clearly. We need to remember that this is an educational experience for students, and our end goal should be to help them become better at what they love to do. By preparing our students to learn from their ballots and critiques, educators can teach this life-long lesson of giving and accepting criticism.
Mellessa Denny of Amarillo (Texas) High School has coached high school speech and debate for 23 years, with students participating on the local, state and national levels. She is the past president of the Texas Speech Communication Association, and in 2018 was selected as TSCA Secondary Teacher of the Year. In 2019, she received the NFHS Section 6 Outstanding Educator Award.