posted 22nd February 2023
I'm often asked by students how they can improve at debating, and by teachers how they can help their students improve. There is one simple answer, in one simple word: feedback. Targets for improvement based on observation of performance. Give it; listen to it; act on it.
Teachers know all about feedback. They are constantly giving it, all day, every day, from spontaneous responses to answers and comments from students, to marginal comments on written work, to reports and exam marking. Students know all about it too, as they are on the receiving end of it all the time.
Debating, however, requires a particular kind of feedback, with which teachers may be less familiar. Older students who train younger students and judge competitive debates will not have the experience of regularly giving feedback which teachers have. And just as important as giving feedback successfully is receiving it and using it successfully. So here are some tips on how to make the most of feedback, for judges, coaches and students.
1. Give feedback one by one
Provided you have time, take each speaker in turn. General feedback for each team (or for both teams) is also useful, but individualised feedback is much more powerful.
2. Start with the positive
Debaters are in a very vulnerable position just after a debate. They have just exposed themselves by speaking in public, and by subjecting their arguments to ruthless criticism from the other side. They are anxious about the result, keen not to let their team mates / coach / school down. Although you are there to deliver a result, that is only one part of your function. The other part - more important, really - is to help them to become better debaters. They need to feel you are on their side, helping them to do this, and that, even if they lose this particular debate, they do not need to give up. Take whatever is good about their speeches and make a lot of it. Then they will be ready to listen to what they could have done better and how to fix it.
3. Give specific targets ...
After praise, targets. Make them specific and precise. 'You need to be better at rebuttal' is not very helpful, even if it is true. 'Be more concise in responding to points of information' is more helpful. 'Aim to keep your responses to points of information to no more than 15 seconds' is even more helpful, because it provides the student with a very specific action they can take.
4. ... but also keep your targets generic.
If targets are going to be helpful, they need to be portable; that is, the debater needs to be able to use them in subsequent debates. So don't get too involved in the specific matter of the debate. '50% is too high a tax on junk food because companies will find a way to evade it' may be a very valid criticism of the proposition's mechanism in a debate on the motion 'This house would tax junk food', but is not very helpful to the debaters, as their next debate is unlikely to be on the same motion (and is also doing, too late, the opposition's job for them). 'Ensure your mechanism both makes an impact and is also achievable' is much more portable feedback.
5. End with the positive
Although all the debaters will have had targets for improvement, they need to go away feeling they are good at debating and can keep doing it.
6. Don't tell them the result till the end
As soon as they know who's won (and who's lost), students will stop listening, taken away from what you are saying by their own joy or despair, perhaps also making rapid mental calculations of where this leaves them in the competition / league table. Keep them guessing till the end, and you'll have them hanging on your every word.
All of the above applies, but with the difference that you have a long term relationship with students which a judge does not have. Tailor your feedback to reflect this, recognising that this specific feedback is only one step in the general development of students as debaters, each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. This will include knowing who is willing and able to take on board robust feedback, and who needs gentler handling.
Take Ben. He needs to work on his signposting. 'Ben, you need to get better at signposting' isn't going to help him very much. If Ben, from your knowledge and observation of him, is a resilient student who thrives on straight talking and candour, you can say, ''Ben, as you know, we've been working on your signposting. You did an amazing job of signposting at the beginning of your speech, so much improved from the beginning of term. Next week, let's see if you can do the same at the end of your speech.' If, on the other hand, Ben is very low in confidence and unsure of himself, you can say, 'Ben, as you know we've been working on your signposting, and you've worked so hard at it. You did a totally amazing job of signposting at the beginning of your speech, so much improved from the beginning of term; I can't believe how much progress you've made! I'm going to tell your form tutor how hard you've been working on your debating. I'm really looking forward to next week, when I know you're going to do the same at the end of your speech as well.'
1. Write it down
It can be hard to take in feedback, when you're feeling sensitive to being commented on in public and anxious about the result. So have your pen out and your notebook open. Keep a section of your debating notebook specifically for feedback. Make your notes as specific and detailed as possible
2. Read it
Just before your next debate, read the feedback from the last one and decide how you will act on it in this debate.
3. Act on it
Take one target and implement it in a practical way. So, if the judge / coach said you spent too long on your first argument, make sure you're on to the second argument after no longer than a minute. Have your timer running during your speech to check on this.
4. Measure your improvement
Keep, in your debating notebook, a list of targets you've been given, and check them off as you meet them. So, if you were told in the first debate of term that you take too many points of information, and you then restrict yourself to no more than two in every debate thereafter so no judge / coach ever says that to you again, you can tick that target off. Keep doing this, and you will keep getting better. Which is what feedback is for.