Policy debate

Policy debate
Part of the series
Policy Debate
Policy debate competitions

Inter-Collegiate policy debate

Structure of policy debate · Resolution

Constructive · Rebuttal · Prep Time
Evidence · Flow


Affirmative · Negative · Judge

Types of Arguments

Stock Issues · Case· Disadvantage
Counterplan · Kritik
Impact calculus · Topicality

Argumentative Concepts

Offense · Defense · Turn · Drop · Fiat

v · speech competition in which teams of two advocate for and against a resolution that typically calls for policy change by the United States federal government or security discourse. It is also referred to as cross-examination debate (sometimes shortened to Cross-X, CX, or C-X) because of the 3-minute questioning period following each constructive speech and the physical examination proceeding the first rebuttals. Affirmative teams generally present a plan as a proposal for implementation of the resolution. The negative will generally prove that it would be better not to do the plan or that the opportunity costs to the plan are so great that it should not be implemented.

High school policy debate is sponsored by the National Forensic League, the National Catholic Forensic League, the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association, or one of many regional speech organizations. Collegiate policy debates are generally competed under the guidelines of National Debate Tournament (NDT) and the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA), which have been joined at the collegiate level. A one-person policy format is sanctioned by the National Forensic Association (NFA) on the collegiate level as well.



Academic debate had its origins in intracollegiate debating societies, in which students would engage in (often public) debates against their classmates. Wake Forest University's debate program claims to have its origins in student literary societies founded on campus in the mid-1830s, which first presented joint "orations" in 1854. [1] Many debating societies that were founded at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century are still active today, though they have generally shifted their focus to intercollegiate competitive debate. In addition to Wake Forest, the debate society at Northwestern University dates to 1855. [2] Boston College's Fulton Debating Society, which was founded in 1868, continues to stage an annual public "Fulton Prize Debate" between teams of its own students after the intercollegiate debate season has ended. Other universities continue similar traditions. .

Intercollegiate debates have been held since at least as early as the 1890s. Historical records indicate that debates between teams from Wake Forest University and Trinity College (later Duke University) occurred beginning in 1897.[3] Additionally, a debate between students from Boston College and Georgetown University occurred on May 1, 1895, in Boston. [4] Whitman College debated Washington State University, Willamette University, and the University of Idaho in the late 1890s. [5] Southwestern claims that the first debate held on its campus was between Southwestern and Fairmount College (which eventually became Wichita State University) but that debate could not have occurred prior to 1895, the year Fairmount College began classes. [6]

By the mid 1970s, structured rules for lengths of speeches developed. Each side (affirmative and negative) was afforded two opening "constructive" speeches, and two closing "rebuttal" speeches, for a total of eight speeches per debate. Each speaker was cross-examined by an opponent for a period following his or her constructive speech. Traditionally rebuttals were half the length of constructives, but when a style of faster delivery speed became more standard in the late 1980s this time structure became problematic. Wake Forest University introduced reformed speech times in both its college (9-6 instead of 10-5) and high school (8-5 instead of 8-4) tournaments, which spread rapidly to become the new de facto standards.

Style and delivery


Policy debaters' speed of delivery will vary from league to league and tournament to tournament. The fastest speaking debaters in the nation speak from 350 [1] to in excess of 500 words per minute.[2][3] In many tournaments, debaters will speak very quickly in order to read as much evidence and make as many arguments as possible within the time-constrained speech. Speed reading is referred to as "spread" or simply "spreading."At the majority of national circuit policy debate tournaments, spreading is the norm.

This rapid-fire delivery is sometimes perceived in a negative light. Rapid delivery is encouraged by those who believe that increased quantity and diversity of argumentation makes debates more educational. Others, citing scientific studies such as the Working memory and severe learning difficulties[7], claim that learning to speak faster also increases short and long term memory. A slower style is preferred by those who want debates to be understandable to lay people and those who claim that the pedagogical purpose of the activity is to train rhetorical skills. Detractors further claim that the increased speed encourages debaters to make several poor arguments, as opposed to a few high quality ones. Most debaters will vary their rate of delivery depending upon the judge's preferences.

Many judges are willing to prompt debaters by yelling "clear!" or variants when they can no longer understand because the speed has become too great or because the debater is enunciating poorly.


Debaters utilize a specialized form of note taking, called flowing, to keep track of the arguments presented during a debate. Conventionally, debater's flowing is divided into separate flows for each different argument in the debate round (kritiks, disads, topicalities, etc.). There are multiple methods of flowing but the most common style incorporates columns of arguments made in a given speech which allows the debater to match the next speaker's responses up with the original arguments. Certain shorthands for commonly used words are used to keep up with the rapid rate of delivery. The abbreviations or stand-in symbols vary between debaters.

Flowing on a laptop has become more and more popular among high school and college debaters, despite the reservations of certain schools, tournaments, and judges. Some debaters use a basic computer spreadsheet; others use specialized Flowing Templates, which includes embedded shortcut keys for the most common formatting needs.


Although there are many accepted standards in policy debate, there is no written formulation of rules. Sometimes debaters will in fact debate about how policy debate should work. These arguments are known as "theory arguments," and they are most often brought up when one team believes the actions of the other team are unfair and therefore warrant a loss.

Burdens of the affirmative

Burdens of the affirmative is a basic part of debate. It is an agreement that the affirmative team must prove their points through evidence. This is to prevent the affirmative from creating fake plans which has no evidence on either side therefore the affirmative will always win.

Stock issues

One traditional way to judge policy debate states that the affirmative team must win certain issues, called the stock issues. They are generally interpreted to be as follows:

  • Significance
  • Harms
  • Inherency
  • Topicality
  • Solvency

Hardly any judges today continue to judge debates based on these stock issues alone.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Most affirmative teams today generally frame their case around advantages, which are good effects of their plan. The negative team will often present disadvantages which contend that the affirmative plan causes undesirable consequences. Debaters often, in an attempt to make sure that their advantages/disadvantages outweigh the advantages/disadvantages of the other team, will impact these arguments with a very high magnitude result, such as the extinction of the human race or a global nuclear war.

Negation theory

Negation Theory is a theory of how a debate round should be decided which dictates that the negative need only negate the affirmative instead of having to negate the resolution. The acceptance of negation theory allows negative teams to run arguments, such as Topical Counterplans, which may affirm the resolution but still negate the affirmative's specific plan.

Negative strategy

After the affirmative presents its case, the negative can attack the case with many different arguments, which include:

  • Topicality: The Negative will attempt to argue that the Affirmative team does not fall under the rubric of the resolution and should be rejected immediately regardless of the merits or advantages of the plan. This is a type of 'meta-debate' argument, as both sides then spend time defining various words or phrases in the resolution, laying down standards for why their definition(s) or interpretation(s) is superior. Most yearly topics have at least one or two commonly run Affirmative cases that are only arguably topical, so Topicality is often justified as a check or deterrent on and against such plans, which usually have quite strategic components.
  • Disadvantages: The negative can claim that there are disadvantages, or adverse effects of the plan, which outweigh any advantages claimed. In order to outweigh any positive effects of the affirmative case, impacts are often must be arguably 'larger' than the opposing team's.
  • Counterplans: The negative can present a counter solution to the affirmative case's problem which still goes against the resolution. This is generally accompanied by on-case arguments that the counterplan does not solve, as well as disadvantages that link to the affirmative case but not the counterplan. Counterplans narrow down the on-case arguments to: advantages the counterplan cannot borrow, the inherency, and the solvency. Upon the negative running a counterplan, most debates boil down to the solvency of the affirmative case, and the disadvantages.
  • Kritiks: The negative can claim that the affirmative is guilty of a certain mindset or assumption that should be grounds for rejection. Kritiks are sometimes a reason to reject the entire affirmative advocacy without evaluating its policy; other times, kritiks can be evaluated within the same framework for evaluation as the affirmative case. Examples of some kritiks include ones against biopower, racism, centralized government or anthropocentric viewpoints. Kritiks arose in the early 1990s, with the first kritiks based in deconstructionist philosophy about the intrinsic ambiguity of language. Kritiks today has evolved to include the affirmative advocacy within their alternatives. These kritiks argue that the ontology implied through the reasons to prefer the affirmative are inherently bad and should be rejected. This circumvents the question of the benefits of the plan itself, instead focusing the debate on the representations of the plan. The alternative then serves the steal the affirmative ground through the passage of the plan minus its "bad" representations. This type of alternative is commonly known as a floating PIK (plan inclusive kritik alternative).
  • Theory: Sometimes the subject matter of the affirmative's case will create an uneven playing field from the beginning. In these cases, the negative can resort to making objections as to the procedure or content of the affirmative case. These objections often are "theoretical" in that they try to make objections based upon what bad can/has come to debate from the infraction.


Tubs of evidence (Rubbermaid Roughneck 14 gallon is the standard tub)

Evidence in debates is organized into units called cards (because such evidence was originally printed on note cards, though the practice has long been out of favor). Cards are designed to condense an author's argument so that debaters have an easy way to access the information. A card is composed of three parts: the tag, the cite, and the body. The tag is the debater's summary of the argument presented in the body. A tag is usually only one or two sentences. The cite contains all relevant citation information (that is, the author, date of publication, journal, title, etc.). Although every card should contain a complete citation, only the author's name and date of publication are typically spoken aloud in a speech. Some teams will also read the author's qualifications if they wish to emphasize this information. The body is a fragment of the author's original text. The length of a body can vary greatly—cards can be as short as a few sentences and as long as two or more pages. Most cards are between one and five paragraphs in length. The body of a card is often underlined or highlighted in order to eliminate unnecessary or redundant sentences when the card is read in a round. In a round, the tag is read first, followed by the cite and the body.

As pieces of evidence accumulate use, multiple colors of highlighting and different thicknesses of underlining often occur, sometimes making it difficult to determine which portion of the evidence was read. If debaters stop before finishing the underlined or highlighted portion of a card, it is considered good form to "mark" the card to show where one stopped reading. To otherwise misrepresent how much of a card was read—either by stopping early or by skipping underlined or highlighted sections—is known as "cross-reading" or "clipping cards" which is generally considered cheating. Although many judges overtly condemn the practice on their paradigms, it is hard to enforce, especially if judges permit debaters to be excessively unclear. Opponents will generally stand behind a debater whom they believe to be "cross-reading" or "clipping", as if waiting to take a card (see below), and silently read along with them in an attempt to get their opponent to stop or the judge to notice.

As cards are read in round, it is common for an opponent to collect and examine even while a speech is still going on. This practice originated in part because cards are read at a rate faster than conversational speed but also because the un-underlined portions of cards are not read in round. Taking the cards during the speech allows the opponent to question the author's qualifications, the original context of the evidence, etc. in cross-examination. It is generally accepted whichever team is using preparation time has priority to read evidence read previously during a round by both teams. As a result, large amounts of evidence may change hands after the use of preparation time but before a speech. Most judges will not deduct from a team's preparation time for time spent finding evidence which the other team has misplaced.

After a round, judges often "call for cards" to examine evidence whose merit was contested during the round or whose weight was emphasized during rebuttals so that they can read the evidence for themselves. Although widespread, this practice is explicitly banned at some tournaments, most notably National Catholic Forensic League nationals, and some judges refuse to call for cards because they believe the practice constitutes "doing work for debaters that should have been done during round". Judges may also call for evidence for the purpose of obtaining its citation information so that they can produce the evidence for their own school. Opponents and spectators are also generally allowed to collect citations in this manner, and some tournaments send scouts to rounds to facilitate the collection of cites for every team at the tournament, information which is sometimes published online.


Speaker points

The judge is charged not only with selecting a winner, but also must allot points to each competitor. Known as "speaker points", its goal is to provide a numerical evaluation of the debaters' speaking skills. Speaker point schemes vary throughout local state and regional organizations particularly at the high school level. However, the method accepted by most national organizations such as the National Forensic League, Tournament of Champions, National Catholic Forensic League, Cross-Examination Debate Association, and National Debate Tournament, use values ranging from 1–30. In practice, within these organizations the standard variation is 26–29, where 26s are given to extremely poor speakers, where a perfect score is considered incredibly rare and warranted only by an outstanding performance. Most tournaments accept halfpoint gradiations, for example 28.5s. Generally, speaker points are seen as secondary in importance to wins and losses, yet often correlate with a team's win/loss rate. In other words, the judge usually awards the winning team cumulatively higher speaker points than the losing team. If the judge does not, the decision is considered a "Low-Point Win". Low-point wins usually indicate that the debate was poor, as neither team spoke well; or that the team which lost was ahead overall, but lost on a technicality or minor issue, or by a very slim margin.

In some smaller jurisdictions, the judge ranks the speakers 1-4 instead of awarding them speaker points. Either speaker-point calculation may be used to break ties among teams with like records. Some areas also use speaker rankings in addition to speaker points in order to differentiate between speakers awarded the same number of points.

At a majority of tournaments, debaters also receive "speaker awards," which are awarded to the debaters who received the greatest number of speaker points. Many tournaments also drop the highest and lowest score received by each debater, in order to ensure that the speaker award calculations are fair and consistent, despite the preferences of different judges. The amount of speaker awards given out varies based on the number of debaters competing at any given tournament. For instance, a small local tournament might only award trophies or plaques to the top three debaters, whereas a widely attended "national circuit" tournament might give out awards to the top ten or fifteen speakers.


Experienced debate judges (who were generally debaters in high school and/or college) generally carry a mindset that favors certain arguments and styles over others. Depending on what mindset, or paradigm, the judge uses, the debate can be drastically different. Because there is no one view of debate agreed upon by everyone, many debaters question a judge about their paradigm and/or their feelings on specific arguments before the round.

Not every judge fits perfectly into one paradigm or another. A judge may say that they are "Tabula Rasa," or willing to listen to anything, but draw the line at arguments they consider to be offensive (such as arguments in favor of racism). Or, a judge might be a "policymaker," but still look at the debate in an offense/defense framework like a games-playing judge.

Examples of paradigms include:

  • Stock Issues: In order for the affirmative team to win, their plan must retain all of the stock issues, which are Harms, Inherency, Solvency, Topicality, and Significance. For the negative to win, they only need to prove that the affirmative fails to meet one of the stock issues. These judges are more likely to dislike newer arguments such as kritiks and some theoretical points.
  • Policymaker: At the end of the round, the judge compares the affirmative plan with either the negative counterplan or the status quo. Whichever one is a better policy option is the winner. The better policy option is determined by comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  • Tabula Rasa: From the Latin for "blank slate", the judge attempts to come into the round with no predispositions. These judges typically expect debaters to "debate it out", which includes telling the judge what paradigm they should view the round in.
  • Games Player: Views debate as a game. Judges who use this paradigm tend to be concerned with whether or not each team has a fair chance at winning the debate. They usually view the debate flow as a gameboard, and look at arguments according to an offence/defense structure.
  • Speaking Skills/Communications: This type of judge is concerned with good presentation and persuasion skills. They tend to vote for teams that are more articulate, and present arguments in the most appealing way. These judges usually disapprove of speed.
  • Hypothesis Tester: In order for the affirmative to win, they convince the judge to support the resolution. Conversely, the negative must convince the judge to negate the resolution.
  • Kritikal: Judges that love kritik debates and looks to who most effectively breaks free from a harmful mindset such as patriarchy, racism, orientalism etc.



Most high school debaters debate in local tournaments in their city, state or nearby states. Thousands of tournaments are held each year at high schools throughout the US.

A small subset of high school debaters, mostly from elite public and private schools, travel around the country to tournaments in what is called the 'national circuit.' The championship of the national circuit is usually considered to be the Tournament of Champions, also called the T.O.C, at the University of Kentucky, which requires formal qualification in the form of two or more bids to the tournament. Bids are achieved by reaching a certain level of elimination rounds (for example, quarter-finals) at select, highly competitive, and carefully chosen tournaments across the country based upon the quality of debaters they attract and the diversity of locations from across the United States they represent.

Urban Debate

  • Urban Debate Leagues give students in urban school districts an opportunity to participate in policy debate. There are currently urban debate leagues in 24 of the nation's largest cities.[4]


High school

There is some dispute over what constitutes the "national championship" in the United States per se, but two tournaments generally compete for the title: The Tournament of Champions held at the University of Kentucky, and the National Speech and Debate tournament sponsored by the National Forensic League. For the highest level of competition, the Tournament of Champions is generally considered to be the more prestigious title to hold.


There is no single unified national championship in college debate; though the National Debate Tournament (NDT), the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) and the American Debate Association (ADA) all host national tournaments. The NDT committee issues a ranking report of the top 16 teams in the country ("first round bids") for automatic advancement to the NDT in early February. The report roughly determines a regular season champion called the Copeland Award for the team rated the highest over the course of the year through early February. Additionally, Jon Bruschke's Debate Results site provides additional rankings of teams at http://commweb.fullerton.edu/jbruschke/web/index.aspx


While once attended by only highly competitive policy debaters, many high school students now attend debate institutes, which are typically held at colleges in the summer. Most institutes range from about two to seven weeks.

Many institutes divide students into work groups, or "labs", based on skill level and experience. Many even offer specialized "advanced" or "scholars" workshops, to which acceptance is highly limited.


A resolution or topic is a statement which the affirmative team affirms and the negative team negates. Resolutions are selected annually by affiliated schools. Most resolutions from the 1920s to 2005 have begun "Resolved: that The United States federal government should" although some variations from this structure have been apparent both before the NDT-CEDA merger and with the 2006-2007 college policy debate topic, which limited the affirmative agent to the United States Supreme Court.

At the college level, a number of topics are proposed and interested parties write 'topic papers' discussing the pros and cons of that individual topic. Each school then gets one vote on the topic. The single topic area voted on then has a number of proposed topic wordings, one is chosen, and it is debated by affiliated students nationally for the entire season (standard academic school year).

At the high school level, 'topic papers' are also prepared but the voting procedure is different. These papers are then presented to a topic selection committee which rewords each topic and eventually narrows down the number of topics to five topics. Then the five resolutions are put to a two-tiered voting system. State forensic associations, the National Forensic League, and the National Catholic Forensic League all vote on the five topics, narrowing it down to two. Then the two topics are again put to a vote, and one topic is selected.

  • The 2011-2012 college resolution is:
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its democracy assistance for one or more of the following countries: Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia.
  • The 2011-2012 high school resolution is:
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.

Event structure

The times and speech order are generally as follows:

Speech Time (high school) Time (college)
First Affirmative Constructive (1AC) 8 minutes 9 minutes
Cross-examination of First Affirmative by Second Negative 3 minutes 3 minutes
First Negative Constructive (1NC) 8 minutes 9 minutes
Cross-examination of First Negative by First Affirmative 3 minutes 3 minutes
Second Affirmative Constructive (2AC) 8 minutes 9 minutes
Cross-examination of Second Affirmative by First Negative 3 minutes 3 minutes
Second Negative Constructive (2NC) 8 minutes 9 minutes
Cross-examination of Second Negative by Second Affirmative 3 minutes 3 minutes
First Negative Rebuttal (1NR) 5 minutes 6 minutes
First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR) 5 minutes 6 minutes
Second Negative Rebuttal (2NR) 5 minutes 6 minutes
Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR) 5 minutes 6 minutes

In addition to speeches, policy debates may allow for a certain amount of preparation time, or "prep time," during a debate round. NFL rules call for 5 minutes of total prep time that can be used, although in practice high school debate tournaments usually give 8 minutes of prep time. College debates typically have 10 minutes of preparation time. The preparation time is used at each team's preference; they can use different amounts of preparation time before any of their speeches, or even none at all. Prep time can be allocated strategically to intimidate or inconvenience the other team: for instance, normally a 1AR requires substantial prep time, so a well-executed "stand up 1AR", delivered after no prep time intimidates the negative team and takes away from time that the 2NR may have used to prepare the parts of his/her speech which do not rely on what the 1AR says.

See also



  • Cheshier, David. (2002). Drills to Improve your Debate Speaking. Rostrum. Retrieved December 30, 2005.
  • Gary Alan Fine (2001). Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-07450-X. OCLC 45066311. 
  • Joe Miller (2006). Cross-X. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0374131944. 
  • Dana Hensley and Diana Carlin (2005). Mastering Competitive Debate 7th Ed.. Perfection Learning. ISBN 0-931054-70-2. OCLC 47206277. 
  • Leslie Phillips, William S. Hicks, Douglas R. Springer, and Maridell Fryar (2001). Basic Debate 4th Ed.. Glenco/McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-8442-5981-0. OCLC 34622992. 
  • Glass, David. Former President of NDCA. "The Policy Debate Topic Selection Meeting." National Forensic League. 22 June 2006 [8]
  • Glass, David. Former President of NDCA. "Post-Modern Critiques as Stratagems in the Policy Debate Discourse." National Forensic League. 2005 [9]
  • NFL's Rostrum, policy debate archives
  • U. Vermont's list of debate theory articles

External links

High school debate associations
College debate websites

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