The Case for Novice Packets by Lawrence Zhou

Lawrence Zhou is a Lincoln-Douglas curriculum director at VBI and an assistant LD coach at The Harker School. He was the 2014 NSDA LD National Champion and currently attends the University of Oklahoma.

Thank you to Marshall Thompson for his input.


I take the following claim to be uncontroversial: “The educational value of novice debate differs from the educational value of varsity debate”. I also take it as uncontroversial that “if the educational goal of two debaters are different, then those debates should transpire differently”. Using these two assumptions as a starting point, I hope to advance an argument for a very controversial conclusion about novice debate tournaments.

Near the end of the year, talented first and second-year debaters debate for a chance at a novice or JV national championship. Two such tournaments are the Western JV & Novice National Championship and the 1st & 2nd Year National Championships at Woodward Academy. Both tournaments include a novice division for debaters with a year or less of competitive debate experience, and a JV or second year division, for debaters with two or less years of experience. The Western JV and Novice National Championships was a wonderful experience and I judged some excellent novices who show promise and future potential. Some of the novice rounds I judged, which included excellent clash and presentation, were more enjoyable than the JV counterparts. These novice debaters give me reason to hope for the next generation of debate. I was especially pleased watching several novice debaters who defeated ‘circuity’ opponents through high-quality weighing and warrants while maintaining a compelling traditional style.

However, the value of these tournaments is not a reason to think they cannot be improved. Rather, the very value of these tournaments gives us all the more reason to make sure these tournaments are as excellent as they can be.

Having judged at the Western JV & Novice National Championship, and planning to judge at Woodward, I have been thinking on how Novice tournament could be improved. My primary suggestion: novice packets.

This brief article will:

  • outline my proposal to include evidence packets,
  • present my justification for this proposal,
  • and respond to potential objections.

I hope that this article starts a conversation about how tournaments might improve the quality of novice debate.


What do I mean by novice packets? Novice packets are collections of evidence. Novice debaters may only read evidence from this novice packet. They may not read evidence from their own personal files that are not in the novice packet. This does not preclude them from making analytic responses to arguments but does prevent them from reading carded responses to arguments that are not in the evidence packet. A novice packet could be also referred to as a uniform card file.

The novice packet would not be created by the tournament. Instead, each participating school in the novice division would be able to submit evidence to the novice packet a few weeks before the tournament begins. Those schools would submit the prep that they would expect their novice debaters to read and respond to. The novice packet would then be posted some period of time before the tournament. The only guidelines for submission would be that the arguments should be able to be understood by novices.

Novice debaters would then be able create cases and block files using the evidence provided in the novice packet. This would not require novices to write entirely new cases for the tournament as they can submit the evidence that they cite in their existing cases to the novice packet, although novices could certainly construct new cases before the tournament using the novice packet.

This is not just disclosure for novices. There are two primary differences between this proposal and common disclosure practices. First, novices are not constrained to reading only certain cases. The core evidence packet enables novices to construct affirmative and negative cases using the same evidence as every other novice in the pool but add their own unique insight and analysis to the cases. Unlike disclosure, novices don’t have to read the exact same cases as everyone else. Second, novices are not permitted to “break new”. The core evidence packet constrains what novices can read the entire tournament as they may not read evidence outside of the packet. Unlike disclosure, novices are not permitted to read evidence or cases that are not in the evidence packet.

There is a precedent for this type of proposal. Many policy tournaments have the novice division use a novice packet. One such tournament is the JW Patterson Invitational in Oklahoma which is a finals bid in policy debate. On their invite page, it describes how a novice packet would work in practice.

There will be a novice debate evidence packet that must be used at this tournament.  Novice policy debaters are encouraged to using files from the Oklahoma novice policy packet.  I will email the packet to anyone interested (just ask) and post it on this site soon.

If a novice policy team wants to use an Aff case or negative arguments that are not included in the Oklahoma novice packet they MUST email Bryan Gaston (tournament director, the full files (this includes all evidence they might read in the round) by Sept. 22nd.  The files will be distributed to all coaches in the novice division.  In the event that there is no case neg for “X” teams Aff or answers for “X” Neg argument I will allow coaches to send me additional files that answer Affs or Neg arguments until October 1st.  I will then email out the supplement files.  If I do not get an email from “X” teams coach with the non-OK packet Aff and Neg args they want to run by Sept. 22nd it will not be included in the updated novice policy packet and cannot be used.

PLEASE do not abuse my flexibility on this issue by sending me files your novices will likely not read or attempt to flood the novice case list or evidence packet with a ridiculous amount of files.  I want the novice division to be a solid teaching and training ground where there is a decent set of predictable arguments while not forcing everyone out of state to use the Oklahoma packet.

I find this to be a very reasonable example of how a novice packet might work in practice at a tournament. You can download the novice packet as a zip folder from the tabroom page to see how a novice packet might look.

In Favor of My Proposal

Perhaps this sounds like a plausible proposal, but one may wonder what the benefit of a novice packet would be.

Benefit 1: this increases clash in rounds.

Right now, some novice rounds include tons of direct clash, but many rounds lack almost any clash. Sometimes novice debaters read cases neither they nor their opponents understand. This article has a particularly well-written section highlighting the problem of bad arguments in debate. The two types of bad arguments that the author identifies as problems in novice policy debate are “A. Block dumping- this is where a novice team is given a file they know nothing about and just encouraged to read blocks” and “B. Purposefully selecting obscure crap that other teams will not have learned about yet as they are in their first year of debate.” These trends are already seeping into Lincoln-Douglas debate. This occurs because coaches, particularly older varsity debaters interested in proving themselves as coaches, provide their novices with evidence, cases, or blocks that none of the novices have seen before. Alternatively, novices may have been taught about argument types like theory and kritiks, and choose to employ those types to confuse their opponent. Whether the coaches or debaters are to blame, the result is a drastic decrease in substantive engagement during the round.

A novice packet would rectify this issue. By limiting novice debaters to certain core arguments, it would allow debaters to substantively engage in every debate. Novices can ensure they understand each argument being made, allowing a focus just on the arguments themselves. The possibility of obfuscation would largely be eliminated. What value is there in winning a novice round if no one gains any lasting educational benefit?

Obviously, this is not something we want for varsity debaters, where this would obviously decrease innovation and disincentivize research.  These are values that are far less important for novices at the moment than the inculcation of core skills like clash and engagement. Junior varsity debaters should definitely be encouraged to innovate beyond the packet, but there’s little to no reason why novices should be doing this at the expense of in-round clash.

And for those that claim that novices should be ready to debate these positions and just learn how to beat it, I’ll let Scott Phillips respond to this:

And lest you say “this is just some whine, they should learn to beat it” as if I didn’t already explain why that is possible, remember that the students reading these arguments generally HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT. If you really want to argue that point I have nothing else to say to you- I have seen a ton of novice debates first hand and seen the way they read blocks without knowing why or where to read them, read the same blocks regardless of what arguments the other team makes etc. It’s not a defensible position.

Benefit 2: this equalizes the playing field for younger debaters.

Right now, novice tournaments are full of debaters from relatively large programs who can afford to send novices to these tournaments for the extra practice. These novices are able to draw from relatively large varsity files on the current topic. However, smaller schools will also sometimes send novices and these novices would be immediately disadvantaged upon entering the pool, with fewer files and resources to draw from. There are rounds at these tournaments where novices from larger schools have blocks to everything their opponent says including indicts of specific studies. Novices from smaller schools who have done their own work simply can’t keep up with their opponent’s prep.

A novice packet would remedy these inequalities. Larger programs would not necessarily benefit from having massive backfiles and topic prep to draw from. Instead, everyone would have access to the arguments and evidence read at the tournament, which allows novices from smaller programs to enter on a more equal playing field. A large school wouldn’t be able to win a novice round simply by loading their debaters with more prep than a novice from a smaller school. These rounds are more likely to be educational when both debaters are forced to draw from the same evidence and learn how to argue the evidence on a relatively equal playing field. This is uniquely important for novices who have yet to really solidify their research skills in such a way that would properly reward increased prep.

Benefit 3: this helps maintain the pedagogical integrity of novice debate.

Think about how any educational activity works. If you want a student to learn calculus, you don’t teach them all the math they need to know in their first year. Instead, you teach them in stages which slowly increase in complexity. Encouraging a student to try and learn all the principles of mathematics at once, will result in the students not learning any of them as well. Debate is no different. If you want students to learn core skills, such as flowing, argument generation, weighing, and crystallization, then you want to allow them to debate in a context where they can focus on those skills, rather than focus on trying to comprehend arguments they are not yet trained to understand.

However, the immediate goal of coaches and students is to try and win, not try to learn. Debaters choose strategies that they think will help them win, not that will maximize their long-term education. Perhaps this is lamentable, but it is a clear reality we need to consider. And given this reality we should take positive steps to structure tournaments to encourage sound pedagogical practices, so that coaches are not forced to choose between their students learning and their students winning.

Perhaps some have considered banning progressive arguments in the novice division. There is perhaps some value in considering this idea, but this doesn’t really get to the core of the issue I have with current novice debates. It’s not necessarily that they read progressive arguments, but that they read positions that they clearly don’t comprehend in a manner that’s anti-educational and try to spring new positions on other novice debaters to confuse rather than engage them. I have no qualms with a counterplan being read, I just have qualms with surprise counterplans that novices can’t engage. This is something that only a novice packet can deal with.

Additionally, this proposal seems far less enforceable than a novice packet. A judge can quickly determine with a control-f whether or not a piece of evidence was in the packet. Determining what counts as a kritik or a counterplan or an alternative becomes rather tricky. It also isn’t particularly easy to enforce because many judges in the novice division are varsity debaters who either don’t care enough to enforce such a rule or proactively encourage novice debaters to read progressive arguments. Finally, it’s unenforceable because novice debaters will just disguise these arguments as NCs or responses on case. In the end, a novice packet seems more enforceable and is better at encouraging education.

Responding to Objections

Certainly, this idea has its drawbacks and I aim to address some of these potential concerns here.

Objection 1: this discourages novices from cutting their own evidence.

One of the most important things that novices can learn is research skills. The ability to find, read and process high-quality academic research on both sides of an issue is an incredibly valuable skill. Learning research skills also incentivizes novices to stay in the activity. It’s part of what hooks novices into the activity as they discover new subjects of interest. There is real worry that novice packets would disincentive novice research.

The first thing to realize is that it’s happening now. Big schools with large varsity programs are already producing evidence for their novices to read in novice rounds. These novices are already not reading their own evidence in rounds and are merely reading what the coaches or varsity debaters of these larger teams are telling them to read. This isn’t speculation but empirically confirmed. Many novices are entering rounds trying to read disads, counterplans, and kritiks they barely understand because they haven’t cut them. Minimally, there is almost no chance this proposal discourages novices from cutting their own evidence any more than the status quo does. Even debaters without resources will likely still continue to produce evidence in general since the disincentive remains relatively small and the benefit of increasing resource equity seems to outweigh.

Second, this proposal most likely will incentivize novice debaters to cut more of their own evidence for the novice packet. When the value of stolen varsity prep becomes significantly lowered, novice debaters can no longer rely on the larger files of the varsity debaters to carry them through the tournament, especially when lots of varsity prep like advanced disads and kritiks won’t fly in the novice division. This forces novice debaters to return back to the core issues in the topic and will likely incentivize novice debaters to cut evidence directly related to the central issues of the topic that they can submit to the novice packet. Given a lot of varsity debaters or coaches won’t be heavily incentivized to cut tons of new cards for the novice division and the novice packet, novice debaters will likely have to cut at least some of their new prep for the packet which only benefits those novices. It also won’t result in novices not cutting their own evidence because ultimately, novices will write their own cases using evidence in the packet.

Finally, even if this does slightly discourage novices from cutting their own evidence, that’s mostly an issue for the schools sending their novices who should be requiring their novice students to do at least a significant amount of the novice prep they submit for the evidence packet. Ultimately, it’s a coaching practice that tournaments don’t really have any control over one way or another, and the benefit of increasing clash in rounds should trump any small risk that coaches won’t force their kids to cut cards.

Objection 2: this discourages novices from thinking on their feet.

If novice debaters only have to read evidence from the packet, then you can functionally script every novice speech in a way that really prevents novices from thinking on their feet. This objection alleges that such a packet decreases in round creativity.

As with the previous objection, this is something is already happening. It should be obvious in the case where novices are reading varsity arguments they clearly don’t understand that they aren’t really thinking on their feet, they are really just reading the frontlines in the file or repeating taglines from the cards without understanding anything about them. This is hardly ideal debate.

Second, this isn’t unique to a novice packet. All novices will have some blocks and prep to draw from and so regardless of the existence of a novice packet, novices will end up reading prep and not thinking on their feet as much as we would like.

Third, I think a novice packet would actually increase thinking on the spot. The better debater has to distinguish themselves from every other novice debater by correctly reacting and interacting with arguments. Merely reading the blocks and evidence from the evidence packet that everyone has access to will not be sufficient. Recall that the evidence packet doesn’t stop debaters from coming with analytic responses both before and during the round. This is where thinking on the spot and hard work are still rewarded. Good analytic responses in round that are directly responsive and comparative to what was said in round actually increases thinking on the spot relative to a world where novice debaters rely on their “special varsity” blocks and aren’t incentivized to come up with in round responses to distinguish themselves as the better debater. Novice debaters are also rewarded for making smart choices about card selection. Since not all evidence is created, this forces novice debaters to parse through the evidence packet and select the best evidence for the situation.

Objection 3: this punishes novices who have learned advanced argumentation and rewards novices for not learning more about debate.

If novice debaters can’t read a lot of different arguments or types of arguments, then it seems to unnecessarily punish novices who have put in the extra effort to learn more about the topic or advanced argument types like theory or kritiks. We wouldn’t punish a TOC-qualled debater for reading a kritik that their opponent doesn’t understand at a bid tournament, so why should we punish these novices?

First, if a novice really wants to practice their newfound skills or demonstrate their mastery of advanced argumentation, there’s nothing stopping them from entering JV at these tournaments where these practices are allowed. Novice debaters who are truly advanced enough to competently read and defend advanced arguments probably shouldn’t be in the novice division anyways. Maybe they want to win a novice tournament, but that is hardly a reason to deny so many other novices an educational round.

The second problem with this objection is it doesn’t take seriously the differences between varsity and novice. Even though both varsity and novice debaters are focused on winning, there is a difference between what varsity and novice debaters should be learning. These novice debates shouldn’t be focused on rewarding debaters for learning a kritik, but for cementing core debate skills like learning how to engage arguments substantively and directly.

Third, this doesn’t encourage novices to not learn more about debate. Should novices need a forum to learn about advanced arguments in round, many other opportunities to encounter a disad or kritik will present itself to those novices when they enter JV or varsity. There’s no reason why novices need to encounter these arguments as novices when they’re still trying to develop core skills. It’s similar to when overzealous varsity debaters try to teach their novices about advanced theory concepts when their novices are still having trouble understanding the difference between offense and defense. Those varsity debaters will defend their actions by claiming “they’ll encounter these arguments soon, better expose them to it now.” However, this practice clearly just hurts these novices in the long run who fail to solidify core debate skills. There’s a reason why you start with learning speech times before you learn about RVIs.

Finally, the ultimate impact of the objection is just that judges would not be truly rewarding who did the better debating because you’re failing to reward debaters who have mastered advanced arguments. However, I think that a novice packet actually does a better job of rewarding who did the better debating. If both sides have access to the same arguments and the same evidence, the better debater is the one who can win by demonstrating stronger core debate skills like weighing and warranting. Ultimately, in the novice division especially, this seems like a much stronger test of who does the actual better debating.


A world where novices are just taught to write their own stock cases and coaches encourage novice debaters to focus on fundamental debate skills like clash would likely be preferable. I personally would prefer such a world. However, given the competitive incentives at a debate tournament, it leads debaters and coaches to engage in practices that maximize the short-term potential for winning at the expense of the long-term benefit of long-term education.

Ultimately, I think that novice debate tournaments, especially these larger “novice championships”, could be significantly benefited from the introduction of a novice packet. This isn’t a totally new proposal given its roots in novice policy debate. But I think it’s a proposal that should be taken seriously by novice tournaments to truly help improve novice debate.