There are many ideas on what the greatest way to succeed in debate is. Often, debaters turn towards having a huge stockpile of evidence, or an outstanding speaking style. These things are great, but the true answer to this question lies in an oft-overlooked area. The more you think about it, the more apparent it is that increasing your comprehension, both inside and outside the round, is the surest way to succeed.

The “Why”

What do I mean by “comprehension”? In its simplest form, comprehension is correctly understanding the premises and conclusions of each argument, as well as the way the arguments interact with each other in the round as a whole. It’s the difference between hearing what someone says and knowing why they are saying it. 

To illustrate why superior comprehension is so important, I’d like you to imagine a debate round where one or more of the competitors fail to grasp the logic behind their opponent’s arguments. If you’ve watched more than three debate rounds in your lifetime, you probably don’t even have to imagine this scenario. These types of rounds are full of misunderstandings, flawed logic, unaddressed arguments, and confusion. The teams pass in the night, with no clash except between vague points thrown haphazardly at each other. Perhaps the most common example of this is when the negative team misunderstands the affirmative case: the round starts off on the wrong foot, and the 1NC is often wasted on inapplicable arguments or quibbles easily refuted by a quick clarification. I have competed in and watched several rounds like this, and they aren’t enjoyable for the debaters or the judge. 

Alternatively, imagine a round where all the debaters perfectly understand the arguments. There would be no time wasted trying to clarify points, and everyone would speak with complete confidence in their stance, making it a far more pleasant round for all involved. In short, increasing your comprehension boosts the quality of the round as a whole. Think back to your first year in debate. What would you say was the biggest barrier holding you back? Your speaking and research skills have (hopefully) improved since then, but I believe the hardest obstacle for novice debaters to overcome is understanding complex arguments. Once you achieve this, the other pieces begin to fall into place. 

Knowing the basis and goal of any given point is critical for novice debaters and immensely beneficial for experienced ones. It’s something that can be applied while prepping and debating rounds, and even in everyday life. Debaters who understand succeed, debaters who don’t understand fail. Your comprehension can always be improved, no matter how proficient you are.

The “How”

With the importance of good comprehension established, what are the best ways to start understanding arguments and debates better? This is by no means a complete list, but familiarizing yourself with these ideas and committing to them will undoubtedly make a difference in how long it takes for you to fully grasp concepts.

The first and most straightforward step is to simply take prep time to review any arguments that you don’t understand. Taking prep allows you time to review and think about what was brought up in the last speech, even if you think you understand everything. If you have two minutes left on the clock at the end of the round, that means that you lost two minutes that you could have spent ensuring that you know exactly where your opponent was going with his/her argument, and that you know exactly where it falls flat. You may be tempted to leave time on the clock as a way of showing your superiority to the judge, but ultimately the round as a whole will be benefited more by you making sure that you are comprehending everything.

Building off of this, use your prep time to ask your partner if you’re in a Team Policy round. Just because you don’t understand an argument doesn’t mean that your partner is also confused. If you’re stumped, take prep, lean over, and ask them. Hopefully, your partner will have picked up on something that you didn’t and can explain it to you. Good communication with your partner allows for twice as much brain power.

So far, we’ve looked at ways to help with comprehension in-round. However, there are a couple of ways you can start boosting it before the round. Of course, you need to drill, drill, drill. Drills to strengthen your comprehension need to focus on one key thing: eliminating crutches. A crutch is anything that reduces your need to concentrate and think about arguments to understand them. The most common examples are taglines and article titles. While taglines are good for helping to remember your opponents’ arguments, many debaters use them as an excuse to not listen carefully and find the core of the argument. In the same way, the title of the article your opponent is using might not exactly match the point that they are making with that evidence.

Drills that eliminate such crutches force you to listen carefully and understand the core of the arguments and evidence presented. That way, your brain gets to practice comprehending several complex ideas in a short period of time. As always, practice is the best way to improve. In fact, there are many ways to practice building comprehension. Reading more complex literature than you are used to forces your brain to handle more information. Listening to lectures on subjects you know little about and then giving short speeches based off of what you heard is another great way to get practice.

Putting in the effort to reduce misunderstanding will absolutely pay off. You’ll feel more comfortable debating, help create a better round for everyone, and win the respect of the judge. More importantly, it encapsulates what debate is all about: building valuable, real-world critical thinking skills that will serve you for the rest of your life.

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