Adjudicating for Beginners

Some time ago, I remember hearing a remark regarding the judges of American idol: “Hey, Simon cant even sing. Why the hell does he think he knows how to comment on those people?”

But then, the same person said: “Hmm, I think the Chris Daughtry sung quite well for a Queen song which is not quite known. I would really prefer him to either sing a more famous Queen song, or perhaps stretch the vocal-work more so we could at least hear the most of Chris’s beutiful voice.”

PS: this friend of mine CAN NOT SING.

It strikes me when I realized that you do not have to be a good singer or music specialist to judge whether you like the song or not.

Quoting also from the manga “Addicted to Curry” and “The Real Master Cooking Boy”, the main characters always say: “Good food is good food. Anyone can tell.”

I think the same should go for adjudicating a debate. It is quite strange to my ears, when in one hand we say:

“Adjudicators must be the most qualified, must undergo accreditations”

But at another occasion we say:

“Adjudicators must perform as an average reasonable person”

Hey, we technically ARE average reasonable persons! So I guess that adjudicating a popular debate such as parliamentary debating does not necessarily have to be identical with the most highly qualified persons. But just like any other things which “can be judged by all” such as food and music, it is still best to give some substantive and constructive guidance so that they know what specific aspects to look out for.

The challenge presented itself in due course. Jogja Debating Forum is faced with a competition which must involve some muggles –completely inexperienced people– to become adjudicators. And we must train them.


So I wrote this guideline, to help them learn (although it must work in tandem with some parts of JDF’s debating handbook, as well as good delivery of materials with an exhibition for practice). I really hope this will help beginners have a kick start in their adjudicating skills.

Before the training starts by the end of this month, I really hope I could get much inputs on this one. Please read and review!



By Fajri Matahati Muhammadin[1]



Other competitions do not bother to have a uniform standard of judgment, but debating does. In fact, debating competitions generally have adjudicator accreditations to ensure who may qualify and who may not. This is true nationally in Indonesia (Indonesia’s Ministry for Education acknowledges this too), and even in almost all international competitions.

The reason why debating societies would trouble themselves this much is because they see debating as an educational process of critical thinking. In education there should be a standardized evaluation, so that participants could actually learn from it in details –not only from their coaches whom are watching, but from the adjudicators which decide victory in competitions.

Skills of critical thinking does not always naturally come to us, e.g. how our society never thanks the government for fuel subsidies but complain vigorously everytime a small portion of it is removed, or how the concept of human rights or welfare economics actually mean and applies in policy making. These skills are important to be trained. But of so many competitions which claim to help harness certain skills of the participants, english debating tradition is perhaps the only one that actually sets a custom to accomodate this aim to the fullest extent.

Debate competitions may be conducted in various formats: Asian/Australasian Parliamentary, British Parliamentary, American Parliamentary, Rapid-Fire, and so much more. But in essence, there are similar principles held erga omnes –by all.


1.      Keeping Notes on the Track of the Debate

Debating is a qualitative competition, as opposed to quantitative. It requires a detailed holistic approach to then compare both teams. It is therefore imperative for an adjudicator to take notes on the how each teams tried to prove their case.

The main purpose of this is so that the adjudicator can remember what has happened in the debate to the most substantive detail necessary. Not only to assist in qualitative decision making, but also so that the adjudicator could answer to participants question as specific as “What do you think about my first speaker’s second argument, how did I prove it, what flaws did you see, and what do you think I should do to improve that point.”

Please note that an adjudicator’s verdict is final and not subject to appeal, therefore it gives a moral burden to explain and live up to that verdict.

2.      Identifying the Debate Contextualization, as Eyes to Perceive the Rest of the Debate

Since the very start of the debate, Team Government must define and contextualize the motion to a specific room of debate. Team Opposition generally must abdicate to the definition and contextualization set by Team Government. This is done to avoid confusions and irrelevancy during the debates.

Motion definitions and contextualizations are not to be confused with “word definition”. Not necessary to define the motion word-by-word using dictionaries, the main purpose of this is just to clarify what is to be debated and what is not.

A motion on THW Privatize its State Owned enterprises, for a example, may be confused with many forms of privatizations. A definition would clarify from the start, which form of privatization is to be debated upon[2]. A definition must be clear, given by the first speaker of government, and must be fair.

Contextualization refers to the divisions of stances between the teams especially in proposal debates. In response to a new solution/proposal brought by Team Government , Team Opposition may opt to say that the status quo is better or that they have another solution –but they must be clear from the start, and be consistent with that stance.[3]

The purpose of this is to make sure that we understand where the debate should be going, that the teams know how to position themselves against each other, and to see whether they are consistent in directing their case.

3.      Focus Not on What Argument/Rebuttal They Bring, But How They Prove Them

The challenge of a debating competition is similar to that of scientific challenges. The statements of teams that “A is bad because it is against human rights” or “B is good because it promotes social wellfare better” are merely hypothesis. The real point is how to prove those hypothesis in order to prove that they are right. Without that, its just like the teams are relying on the adjudicator’s minds and prejudice to try prove both sides of the arguments for them.

The first things which a team must pay attention to is indeed choose a relevant argument which is consistent with their stance. But the real deal is to prove them by providing a hypothesis (or assertion), giving analysis (Das Sollen vs Das Sein or “theory” versus “realtity” or other deduction methods), and giving evidence/facts to support it.[4]

After keeping track on how teams prove their arguments and provide rebuttals towards each other, an adjudicator will be able to see which team has proven their arguments better than the other team (in a constructive, deconstructive, or both ways).

4.      Adjudicators Must Not Use Specific Personal Knowledge

Adjudicators may have specific knowledges in certain motions. For example, a professor of political science would know best about the detailed facts on the Bureaucratics Politics Model application in the United States of America. While judging a motion on THBT the USA should ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the said professor could easily spot out some factual flaws brought by the teams. Or, a very experienced or informed adjudicator can easily prove that a certain argument is wrong.

The adjudicator may provide inputs with his/her specific knowledge. But he/she may not use that knowledge to deduce/give points to the teams. Although debating requires scientific-ways of proving, but this is not a specialized scientific debate competition. This is more of a popular debating competition one would experience in a parliament and viewed by people from various backgrounds and also the society.

Furtherly it is unfair if one team looses because an adjudicator knows that they brought a wrong fact, while a team in the next chamber wins because the adjudicator coincidentally did not know that wrong fact. Plus, if adjudicators unilaterally prove that a team’s argument is wrong then they are no longer neutral.

An adjudicator is a passive person, considering the debate as it is.

5.      Exceptions to Principle 4

There are certain mistakes which can be reasons to deduce a team even when the opponent did not point it out. Also, there are certain facts which the adjudicator may unilaterally penalize because they are wrong. These certain situations are when the mistakes are universally known as a mistake. They would include:

–          Contradictions and inconsistensies between arguments,

–          Irrelevannt arguments,

–          Facts or theories which people would generally know is wrong (e.g. Palestine is a country in South America, with a majority hindu population and aborigine ethnicity)

–          Arguments which are clearly morally incorrect and despicable (e.g. We will reduce the poverty rate by killing all poor people)

Another exception is in context of evaluational and educational purposes. Adjudicators must endeavor to the furthest extent possible to provide feedback even if it has to include using personal knowledge –but it is essential to state a disclaimer that this part is feedback and not part of ratio decidendi (or reason behind judgment).

6.      Public Speaking Skills as a Subjective Element in Proving

Skills of public speaking is essential, but only to the extent of helping teams send their message to the adjudicators. Analogous to handwriting, the minimum standard one would expect is so that it is at least readable and the sentence construction is understandable.

The average public speaker would at least enable adjudicators to understand their speech without difficulty. Nothing impedimenting the adjudicator’s ability to understand, but nothing impressive either.

But just like handwriting. It would be very special if the handwriting is beautiful, the choice of words and sentence construction is so artful that it attracts us further than simply “understanding it”. More skilled public speakers will use their gestures, expressions, intonations, choice of words, etc, to persuade the adjudicators to believe in their arguments.

Then consequently, the final output of public speaking is how well the adjudicators get the message which the teams wish to deliver throughout their speech. Thats all.

7.      Observations of Role-Based Dynamics

In line with Principle 2 and 3, a debate is about how both teams: establish the grounds/platform of their case, provide arguments and prove them well, and try destroy each other with rebuttals. In the end, the adjudicator can see which team’s case still stands stronger.

But it is imperative to know that for the sake of fairness and quality, every speaker in a debate has a role to fulfill –not as a procedural requirement, but for imperative substantive necessity. For example, please refer again to Principle 2. If a definition was brought in the second speaker of Team Government, then only God knows what the first speakers were debating about.

Furthermore, it is unfair if the Reply Speaker of Team Government brings a new argument. Nobody is there to rebuttal them. It is therefore important to know what these roles of speakers are.[5]



First Speaker
  • Define the Motion,
  • Contextualization
  • Provide arguments

First Speaker

  • Clarify negating stance
  • Respond Team Government’s case (rebuttals)
  • Provide Arguments

Second Speakers

  • Respond the other teams (and defend own case from opponent previous rebuttals)
  • Provide extensions: new arguments compared to that of the first speaker

Third speakers

  • Holistic Rebuttals to opponent case
  • Must not bring new arguments

Reply Speakers

  • Comparative summary of case: why their team should win the debate
  • Must not bring new arguments
  • Must not bring new rebuttals


There are a few things which are excluded from the table, but are essential also: team splits, background, and summarizing. These items are matters of ethiquette (or functional) of general public speaking which would be missed but its absence not necessarily fatal to the dynamics of the debate, while the table includes speaker-specific job descriptions which their absence would indeed be fatal.

8.      Qualitative Judgment First, then Quantify

After following and considering Principle 1 to 7, it all comes down to one simple question: which team convinced the adjudicator more?

The aforementioned ‘one million dollar question’ should be answered considerately, responsibly, and accurately. Adjudiators, in deducing the debates from the previous principles, must not only observe each teams individually but also both teams comparatively.

In practice, sometimes adjudicators are faced with easy choices when one team clearly outstands the other. At another other time, adjudicators may face a team with a great argument but no rebuttals at all, versus another team with no arguments but really good rebuttals. It can go harder when one team is at advantage at some arguments, while the other team is at advantage at other arguments –or one team has a really good speaker and two very bad ones, while the other team has three average speakers.

Adjudicators must consider all elements holisticly and fairly. Making their priorities based on the given principles. And it still comes down to that same simple question: which team is more convincing?

Deciding who wins is the first thing that an adjudicator must do. Then, they would fill in the adjudicator’s sheet with scores. Adjudicators must be mindful of the score ranges given in the sheets, as well as the landmarks for guidance to ensure a same standard to the fullest extent possible.

Landmarks for substantive speeches are as follows:

Minimum         : Pure silence/something just as good as pure silence

Average           : The speaker:

– fulfilled their speaker role

– provided relevant and consistent arguments (and rebuttals, if applicable)

– Made logical attempt to prove the arguments, although not yet proven

– Made adjudicators not in need for extra effort to understand speech, but not impressive

– Was not undertime (undertime is less than 6 minutes) nor overtime (overtime is over 7 minutes and 20 seconds). Please be mindful of significancy, e.g. as 7 minutes and 21 seconds is not too far from the limit

Maximum        : This speaker is so convincing that if he/she claims to be a God/Prophet, people will believe him/her


It is apparent that although teams may conduct their own practices with their coaches, but the a great deal of portion in critical thinking education through debate is obtained from one competition to the other. This puts adjudicators on a critical role in this part of education.

It is therefore imperative and essential for adjudicators to live up to such role. They should perform their duties responsibly, by considering the aforementioned principles –carefully, because they will serve as knowledge to the participants.

Apart from substantial matters, it is equally important for an adjudicator to conduct themselves professionally. It is apparent that many debating competitions tend to be less formal (compared to that of Model United Nations or International Moot Courts). Notwithstanding that fact, the author suggests that adjudicators must respect the participants and committees in all ways possible (attitude during or not during adjudicating, choice of clothings, etc).

Having this said, it is the author’s wishes that this short paper would be of good use to assist new adjudicators in preparing themselves. The author equally hopes that adjudicators will also seek further references and never stop learning.

[1] Advisory Council member for Jogja Debating Forum

[2]  For further explanations on definitions, please refer to Fajri M. Muhammadin, Jogja Debating Forum: Handbook for Parliamentary Debating (Second Edition), pp13-16 (

[3] For further explanations on arguments and rebuttals, please refer to ibid, pp24-43)

[4] For further explanations on arguments and rebuttals, please refer to ibid, pp44-88)

[5] Ibid, pp117-121



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