How Does Australasian Debate Scoring Work?

In traditional Australasian debating, each speaker is given a score out of 100, broken down into 40% Matter (the content of the speech), 40% Manner (the way it is presented), and 20% Method (structure, teamwork, and dynamics).

The scores of each speaker are then combined to give a result out of 300. Historically, this led to scores that varied wildly, with different adjudicators giving quite different scores to the same performance.

The Australian Debating Federation has addressed this problem by restricting the score ranges. In Western Australia, Matter and Manner are both phrased as a score out of 40, but the permissible score range is 26-34 points. Method is phrased as a score out of 20, but the permissible score range is 13-17 points, like so:

These scores are secondary to the ‘gut feeling’ of the adjudicator. As Victoria’s chapter of the Australian Debating Federation advises, “Adjudicators do not score each speaker then add up the scores and get a result! The role of the adjudicator is to reach a decision first, and then adjust scores as necessary to reflect the reasons for their decision.”

While the information on score restrictions is available for those students who do their research, speakers are told the average score is 75 and the total score is 100; they are rarely told that the highest possible score is 85. This can be frustrating for students who attempt to use their scores as feedback to improve their skills.

When adjudicators compare results across different debates, such as in large-scale competitions, they look at the point spread rather than the actual numbers.

A team that won 226-224 would accrue two points toward any championship determination, the same amount as a team that won 238-236, even though the latter team would, theoretically, have shown far superior skill. In addition, there is often a cap on the margin a team is allowed to win by (usually 6 points).

There are several benefits to this system, most notably that scores vary little between adjudicators, so debaters’ results across multiple events look consistent, and that all debates appear to be close, reassuring the losers that their learning curve is not insurmountably steep.

Adjudicators are also advised to place little value on evidence such as statistics, examples, and citations of experts. Philosophically this is because a case should be convincing on its own merits, and because there is no way to fact-check claims made during a debate. In practice, this has led to well-researched debates scoring poorly against debates with convincing-sounding but unsubstantiated claims.

More practically, at the higher levels, it is preparation for competitions that involve ‘impromptu’ debates, in which teams are given one hour to prepare without access to research materials.

To best prepare debaters for senior debating, coaches discourage debaters from doing in-depth, topic-specific research and focus instead on themes that can reliably be transferred between topics, such as ‘freedom of choice versus social responsibility.’

How Rise & Shine Adjudication is Different

Rise & Shine debating takes a different approach to traditional scoring. Instead of a winning team and losing team, we award levels of achievement in debates based on a set of criteria. In Rise & Shine debating, teams are awarded a Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum level depending on the skill level they have accomplished. Whilst a student may demonstrate skills across a number of award levels, the majority of their skills will tend to fall into one main level. Adjudicators use their knowledge and experience to determine the level of each individual, and then combine those results to achieve a team award level.

For example, a team may have one student performing at a Bronze level and two students clearly at a Silver level. In this situation, the team would likely receive a Silver award and each student receives a Silver certificate, as the individual efforts of each student are combined for a total overall result. Rise & Shine focuses on skill development first and results second. Debating is seen as a chance for students to learn through experience. The Rise & Shine method focuses on encouraging students to progress in developing their skills. In a Rise & Shine debate event, you may have two teams that achieve the same award or both teams may get a different award. If two opposing teams get the same level, we don’t think of this as a draw, but rather that both teams have demonstrated approximately the same level of skill development. Likewise, if one team achieves a Bronze and one team achieves a Silver, we don’t consider the Silver team to have won. Rather we acknowledge both teams for the level they have accomplished and encourage them to reach for the next level in future debates. With beginning debaters and young students in particular, students all work so hard to prepare and present their debates. It’s a complex activity and something they usually put a lot of effort into. To declare one team the winner and the other the loser is often very disheartening for students, especially when it may be a matter of a few points.

We find that simply announcing a winning team does nothing to help the students grow and improve, whereas whatever Rise & Shine award they achieve tells them what skills they’ve mastered and what skills they need to work on to reach the next level. We also find that with young debaters, students are frequently at a very similar level of development, especially with an in-house debate where students have had the same teacher or coach and are debating against classmates.

As such, when there’s not a lot of difference between the standard of the teams, awarding a winner and loser becomes very much a matter purely of opinion. With Rise & Shine however, both teams can achieve the same award if they are at the same standard, which is much fairer and more encouraging. The Rise & Shine system takes the focus in debating off competition and places it on learning and skill development, empowering students to aim high and do the best they can, rather than trying to destroy the opposition. We invite teachers and debating coaches to let go of their preconceived notions of what debating is, and embrace a new perspective on teaching debating to students – in a way that is rewarding, enjoyable and meaningful for everyone involved!