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Helping Students Learn from Speech and Debate Ballots

By Mellessa Denny on September 10, 2021 hst Print

”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.

  • First, control your immediate reaction. Remember that the judge’s perceptions are based on their reaction to that specific performance at that specific time and place. There may be parts that they missed or that they perceived as a different level of importance than you do. They may have less background experience or depth of knowledge than you. Their critiques are from their perspective.
  • Don’t take it personally. Try to reframe your perception about the comments. Look at them as feedback from the judge’s experience and not so much as criticism of your performance. Feedback is simply information a person gives you about their reaction to what you have done. If we look at comments as simply the thoughts of the person instead of an indication of our weakness, then we can better judge their value to us.
  • Consider the source. We often see the critic or judge as an expert and thus feel their perception represents the only “right” way. Sometimes that may be true. If you receive the same feedback more than once, you need to heed it. Critic judges for official meets are chosen with great care, balancing expertise, geographic location and other factors. But the critic can be wrong. Sometimes it is just a difference in opinion about what is “right.” Look for a grain of truth in what the critic says and look for patterns. And some judges – especially at early invitational meets – are community volunteers who may have had some recent training or instructions for judging, but little other experience.
  • Look at all criticism as an opportunity to learn something, even if you disagree. This helps you to see other potential ways that an audience will perceive your performance in the future. If you compete in various parts of your state or across the country, you will likely find many differences in the preferred style of speaking or the preferred approach to oral interpretation or performance of literature. These preferences may affect the critic’s comments.
  • Seek the advice of others. Oftentimes, our emotions affect how we interpret communication. Don’t be afraid to ask others, especially your coaches and sponsors, how they interpret the feedback you are given.
  • Finally, move forward. Don’t dwell on what the critic said. Take what you can use from their comments, let the rest go, and focus on what you are doing next.

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.