James C. McCroskey

It has long been an open question whether contest discussion is an activity destined to become a permanent part of the nation's forensic program or one that is destined for extinction. This paper, in an attempt to provide an answer to this question, will trace the development of this activity from its inception to its status in 1963-94 as revealed by research recently completed and briefly look at its potential for the future.


Probably the earliest instances of discussion on an interschool basis were in the numerous student congresses and legislative assemblies which began in the late twenties and early thirties. Most significant of these was inaugurated by Syracuse University in 1927.1 These congresses and assemblies, however, used discussion as only an incidental part of their program. Their main interest was legislative, or parliamentary, debating. The discussion included in these programs was closed-group in nature and was more closely related to discussion in modern contests than the type involved in the next step in the evolutionary process.

This step was to contests in public discussion. One of the earlier of these was conducted by the National Forensic League at their National Speech Tournament at Sioux City, Iowa, in 1932. Oddly, the contest was among coaches, not students! The topic being "Is democracy breaking down?" led one writer to give this evaluation of the event: "The main defect in the contest was that it almost turned out to be a patriotic oratory contest."2

Contests in public discussion grew and spread throughout the country during the 1930's and 1940's. These were frequently oriented toward radio discussion, probably as a result of the very successful network discussion programs of that period. An early contest of this type was held in 1993 by three Iowa high schools--East High School of Sioux City, Ames High School, and North High School of Des Moines. In this contest each school was represented by two speakers. The student spoke at their local radio station. WOI at Ames picked up the entire program and rebroadcast it so that the public and the judges could listen without changing stations.3

From a peak in the late thirties and early forties, contests in public discussion gradually declined in importance. As we will see later, they are virtually extinct today.

Shortly before World War II a movement to encourage interaction in the discussion contest gained momentum. Closed-group, problem-solving discussion contests received considerable impetus from a recommendation by Elwood Murray in 1938.4 Murray's emphasis on the Dewey thought pattern and the progression, or series, of discussions was accepted and has continued to the present.

High Schools incorporated this type of discussion into the debate tournaments and state leagues. An early tournament including a closed-group discussion contest for high school students was held at River Falls State Teachers College, Wisconsin, in 1940.5 By 1946 an extensive high school discussion program was sponsored by the Wisconsin high school league.6

In the early 1950's contest discussion seemed to be well established. Fourteen states had adopted discussion as a part of their state high school league programs.7 Phifer and Ellingsworth indicated that discussion had found "a small but growing place in Southern intercollegiate forensic activity.8 However, some were concerned that the quality of the contest was not what it should be. Larson expressed concern that discussion was too often treated as an after thought in extra-curricular work.9 Keltner contended that "in almost every state where the discussion method is being brought into the speech contests there are unreasonable variations and confusion of methods."10 This confusion and variation may have been the result of severe criticism of debate and other speech contests which was present at that time.

This criticism was prompted by two very influential non-speech groups. The National Association of Secondary School Principals' contest committee criticized debate and recommended panel, forum, and symposium discussion to take its place.11 The North Central Association severely criticized speech contests, particularly debate, and recommended discussion as an alternative.12 Some of the criticism was moderate and well-founded. Much, however, approached the absurd.13 The effect was to increase the number and type of discussion contests on both the high school and college levels. Seemingly, everyone wanted to increase the use of discussion, but no one seemed to know the best way to do it.

While discussion contests grew and diversified, the forensic community became more and more concerned about the activity. Its value and place in the forensic program were challenged and defended in several articles in the Speech Teacher and other journals. Some of the weaknesses attributed to contest discussion include:

1. Topics are given to students rather than selected by them. Thus, there is little chance for personal involvement in the topic.14

2. Students do not practice good discussion in contests. They fail to exercise reasonable selection in reading, to evaluate their own material, to evaluate the contributions of others, and to follow the discussion formula.15

3. Unprepared students can win honors in discussion contests.16

4. Genuine groups are not established.

5. Competitive individual ratings distort relationships among discussants.

6. Participants are not sufficiently motivated to effect thorough preparation.

7. Sufficient time is not provided for the event.17

8. Judging is difficult at best.18

Few writers have denied that these problems exist. Several have made specific recommendations for improvement. Some of these include:

1. The group as a total unit should be judged on the quality of the decisions produced by that group.19

2. The coach should change his attitude and teach discussion. He must consider the discussion contest to be important, not just another event, primarily for those who can't handle anything else.

3. The event must be made equal to debate in tournaments or have tournaments for discussion separate from those in debate so that the participants will be motivated to prepare.

4. Judges must be selected who are trained in discussion and "who can properly evaluate skillful analysis and reflective thinking, as well as recognize sincere efforts to promote the best interests of the group."

5. Check sheets with well developed criteria for judging each aspect of discussion must be provided. There should be no rankings of participants. Leader should be judged on a different scale than discussants.20

6. The group-action approach should be adopted.21

7. Literary discussion should be adopted.22

While their instructors were questioning the value of contest discussion and trying to find ways to improve it, the students involved seemed to be very pleased with it. In two surveys of students participating in discussion at the Eau Claire Speech Meet, Walsh found overwhelming support for it. In her first survey 89 percent of the 158 participants were in favor of continuing the contest.23 The following year Walsh found that 84 participants favored continuing the contest while 19 favored dropping it.24

In the second survey the students were also asked to rank the various events in the tournament as to popularity and value. Of the six events in the tournament discussion was the third most popular, following debate and extemp. But, most significantly, the students considered it second only to debate in value.25 Olbricht in a study conducted at the Pi Kappa Delta National tournament in 1957 obtained similar results. Sixty-six percent of the students either preferred discussion to debate or gave them equal preference.26

With this much support from the students it is not surprising that Norton found that 21 percent of the tournaments listed in the American Forensic Association's Forensic Calendar for 1956-57 included a discussion event. He reported that the forty tournaments including discussion were "distributed over twenty-one states from Louisiana to Wisconsin and from New York to California."27

Thus, over a thirty year period, discussion grew from a small incidental part of a student congress to a major intercollegiate contest event.


To determine the present status of contest discussion the writer chose to survey the directors of tournaments in which discussion is an event. The first indication of that status came while attempting to formulate a list of tournament directors to whom to send the questionnaire. Of the 77 tournaments reported in the 1961-62 Intercollegiate Speech Tournament Results only five, or 6.5 percent, included a discussion event.28 Eight, or 5.6 percent, of the 142 tournaments listed for 1962-63 included a discussion event.29 The subjects finally selected for inclusion in the survey were the directors of the sixteen tournaments including a discussion event listed in the American Forensic Association's Forensic Calendar for 1963-64.30 There are likely other tournaments which include discussion events. However, the director surveyed were asked to list other tournaments including discussion events which they attend. None, other than the original sixteen, were listed.

At this writing, fifteen of the sixteen directors have responded. Two of these indicated that the discussion event in their tournaments had been cancelled. One reply was not useable. Of the tabulated replies, three came from Illinois, two each from Iowa and Texas, and one each from Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana, and South Dakota.


1. Nine tournament directors consider the discussion event a major portion of their tournament. However, only two respondents consider contest discussion a major event in their area (Iowa and South Dakota).

2. The number of students participating in the discussion event ranges from 18 to 150. The median is 68.5, the mean 72.0.

3. Nine tournaments use closed-group problem solving discussion. Two are group action tournaments and one is a "discussion-progression" (3 rnds. disc., followed by 2 rnds. of advocacy speaking, followed by a 3 hour legislative session). None of the respondents indicated the use of panel, symposium, or other audience type discussion.31 Eleven of the respondents indicated that groups in their tournaments had eight or less members. One allows a maximum of nine. In eleven of the tournaments the discussants stay in the same group for the entire tournament. In one they change for the solutions round.

4. The selection of leaders in the groups follows no set pattern. In three tournaments the leaders are chosen by the group, in four the tournament director appoints the leaders for the first round and the group chooses the leader thereafter, in three there are no selected or assigned leaders, and in two the director appoints the leader for all rounds.

5. In group action tournaments only the end-product of the discussion is judged. In the other tournaments the discussants are evaluated by a single judge each round. One tournament includes "floating" judges who listen to several groups during the tournament. In four tournaments the students rate each other. In one the designated leader rates the discussants. In only five tournaments are the leaders evaluated separately from the discussants.

6. Awards are given to top discussants in seven tournaments, to top groups or teams in three, and to both individuals and groups in one. In one tournament, one of the larger and apparently most successful, no awards are given.

7. These tournament directors express only moderate support for discussion as a contest event. While six believe it to be an excellent contest event, four are undecided, and two question its value.


The future of contest discussion is far from secure. Only one respondent indicated that he believed that contest discussion will grow in importance in the forensic program. The remaining respondents were divided between those believing that it will remain at its present level and those believing that it will decline in importance.

The trend is clearly downward. Only 14 of 146 tournaments listed in the 1963-64 AFA Forensic Calendar were found to include discussion. This is less than half the number indicated by Norton in 1957.32 If this trend continues, contest discussion will no longer exist in the very near future.

Several factors contributed to the decline of contest discussion. Respondents made reference to three of these--competition, judging, and motivation.

Twelve years ago Keltner indicated that he felt that the competitive element discussion need not be bad. He wrote:

The essential nature of the contest requires that some one person or several persons be recognized as superior to others. This appears to be a contradiction of the discussion philosophy which emphasizes cooperation. Actually it is nothing of the sort. The elements of competitive behavior are as present in discussion as in any other form of life. It is not an 'ivory tower' exercise in its proper form and application.33

Nevertheless, the competitive aspect of contest discussion has been assailed relentlessly. Even the supporters of discussion events express concern over this problem. The attitude of many members of the forensic community was expressed by one respondent who contended that:

Contests of all forensic types generally beget misplaced values both motivational and interpersonal . . . Discussion, of all events, ought to minimize competition.

Judging problems have received more attention from writers in the journals than any others. These problems do not seem to have been completely overcome as yet. No uniform procedure for judging has been adopted. Experimentation in this area is still going on.34 The one respondent who felt that contest discussion would grow in importance qualified this position by saying, "if we don't have better judging this year than we did last, it is doubtful whether we will continue the contest in the future."

The final problem mentioned by respondents concerns the lack of motivation on the part of students to really prepare for discussion. Two of the three respondents who believed contest discussion to be an excellent event qualified this by adding, "if the students prepare properly." Unfortunately, one wrote, "such preparation is the exception rather than the rule."

In the opinion of this writer, means of overcoming all of these problems are already available. Three steps are necessary. 1) The group action approach should be universally adopted.35 2) Judging should be mostly, if not entirely, on the end product the group produces. 3) The national topic should be abolished.

It seems unlikely that the evil aspects of competition can be eliminated so long as discussant A is competing with discussant B who supposedly is working with him on a common problem. This seems to be an inherent contradiction. However, when group A is competing with group B to see which group can come up with the best end product of several hours of discussion, the competition should stimulate interaction rather than hinder it. One respondent who directs a group action tournament states:

The proven value of motivation derived from group rather than individual competition adds value and impetus to the deliberation process.

While it would seem that the competition factor can be controlled by the group action approach, the reader may question the soundness of making the prime factor in judging the end product of the discussion. Research recently reported indicates that contest discussants are not evaluated upon the same basis upon which discussions in the classroom are evaluated. Reflective thinking, a major concern in the classroom, does not receive similar treatment from the contest judge.36

This research suggests to the writer that it may not be realistic to attempt to judge an individual on a competitive basis in an inherently cooperative process. What would be more realistic? In "real-life" when a group is assigned a task they will not be evaluated on how well they cooperate, how much information they bring out, their powers of analysis, etc. Rather, they will be judged on how well they accomplish the assigned task. Such a procedure in contest discussion would require fewer skilled judges. A panel of judges could judge several groups. It should, therefore, make the operation of the tournament easier and the quality of judging better. If the tournament director is an ardent supporter of the one judge per round system, and he has the judges available, the two systems could be combined. Or the "traveling judge" system used by Pi Kappa Delta and the Iowa Forensic Association could be used in conjunction with this system. In short, the "end-product" judging systems can be combined with most other methods or used alone. The effect is to stress the successful completion of the task by the group rather than individual performance.37

Finally, the national topic should be abolished. With so few discussion tournaments being held, it can hardly be considered necessary. But even if there were many more, a national topic, separate from the debate topic, really contributes little or nothing. This writer would suggest that using the debate topic would aid in overcoming the problem of lack of preparation in the part of the participants. Three respondents indicated that they are presently using the debate topic rather than the discussion topic. One of them, a director of a group action tournament, replied that:

We have found that a group tournament on some aspect of the national debate topic held early in the season resulted in much interest and a great deal of valuable research for all participants.

Another respondent stated:

We have finally overcome the preparation problem. This year we used the national debate topic. I think we should stop selecting a national discussion topic. Most of the students entered are debaters anyhow, and they just will not research a second topic for discussion.

The reader may accept the idea of using the debate topic early in the season but question the wisdom of such a policy later in the season. However, to this writer, it would seem much better even late in the season to use the debate topic rather than the national discussion topic. While it would certainly be desirable for students to research more than one topic, to expect the majority to do so is to ignore past and present practices in contest discussion. Many students aren't prepared. To expect some miracle to change this does not seem reasonable. Since most students who participate in discussion are also debaters, a high degree of subject preparation is insured if the same topic is used for both events. If another topic is chosen, it should be something within the student's field of knowledge so as to require little, if any, additional preparation. In the opinion of this writer, the choice of a separate national topic for contest discussion has been significant contributing factor in producing inadequate preparation on the part of students and, in turn, has produced the "know-nothing," windy, pooling of ignorance that commonly characterizes contest discussion.

Can we conclude that by accepting the three changes recommended above contest discussion can be saved? The writer would hope so, but is far from certain. The writer suspects that the real cause of the decline of discussion contests is the growth of discussion courses in the curriculum. It is difficult to find much that contest discussion in its present form adds to a speech program when a discussion course is offered. Most contest discussion does not provide reinforcement for what is learned in the classroom. It does not provide the laboratory element such as contest debate provides for the argumentation course. Rather it presents the student, all too frequently, with a situation which contradicts what he has learned in the classroom. He will find more opportunity to practice what he has learned in the discussion course in other campus social, political, and religious groups than he will in the forensic program; and his practice will be in a "real life," not a laboratory, situation.

If the growth in discussion courses that Keltner and Arnold reported in 1956 has continued, by now most institutions should offer at least one course in discussion.38 If this is the case, there may be little need for contest discussion in 1963-64. One encouraging sign, however, is the use of a program similar to the group action discussion recommended above by business and industrial organizations in their training programs. This program is recommended by the American Management Association and several individual industries.39

What then is the future of contest discussion? If there is still a need for it and if the suggestions recommended above are adopted, it may be saved. It may even flourish. Otherwise it will probably slip into oblivion. The process of evolution follows one clear-cut rule--survival of the fittest. Contest discussion may not be fit to survive.


1. A. Craig Baird, Discussion: Principles and Types (New York, 1943), 245.

2. Earl S. Kalp, "The Discussion Contest," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XX (November, 1934), 546.

3. Ibid., 547.

4. Elwood Murray, "The Forensic Experience Progression," The Gavel, XX (May, 1938), 56-58.

5. William E. Buys, "Extracurricular Discussion in the Secondary School," Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, XXXIII (May, 1952), 100.

6. Ibid., 94-95.

7. Ibid., 91.

8. Gregg Phifer and Huber Ellingsworth, "Intercollegiate Discussion in the South: 1951-52," Southern Speech Journal, XVIII (December, 1952), 124.

9. P. Merville Larson, "Whither Discussion? Or Will Discussion Wither?" Speech Activities, V (Spring, 1951), 27-28.

10. John Keltner, "Discussion Contests: Sense or Nonsense?" Speech Teacher, I (March, 1952), 96.

11. George A. Manning, "A View of Speech Contests," Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, XXXII (January, 1948), 210-211.

12. Buys, 91.

13. See for example, Mark F. Emerson, "Discussion vs. Argument," Social Education, XVI (December, 1952), 382.

14. Buys, 93.

15. David W. Shepard, "Some Observations on High School Discussion," Speech Teacher, IV (September, 1955), 191-195.

16. Grace Walsh, "Tournaments: For Better or Worse?" Speech Teacher, VI (January, 1957), 66.

17. Wayne E. Brockriede and Kim Giffin, "Discussion Contests Versus Group-Action Tournaments," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XLV (February, 1959), 59-62.

18. David W. Shepard and Forrest L. Seal, "The Discussion Contest: Requiescat in Pace," Speech Teacher, VI (September, 1957), 221-223.

19. Keltner, 98.

20. Robert S. Cathcart, "The Case For Group Discussion Contest," Speech Teacher, VI (November, 1957), 315-318.

21. Brockriede, 62-64.

22. James R. East and Howard Streifford, "Competitive Discussion: A Literary Approach," Speech Teacher, XI (March, 1962), 136-140.

23. Walsh, 67.

24. Grace Walsh, "A Report on Student Reaction to Intercollegiate Discussion," Speech Teacher, VII (November, 1958), 337.

25. Ibid., 338.

26. Thomas H. Olbricht, "Discussion at Brookings--A Questionnaire," The Forensic, XLIV (January, 1958), 38-40.

27. Larry Norton, "The Present Status of Intercollegiate Discussion," The Gavel, XXXIX (March, 1957), 63.

28. Donald W. Klopf, Intercollegiate Speech Tournament Results, I (1961-62).

29. Ibid., II (1962-63).

30. Richard D. Rieke, "College Forensic Calendar, 1963-64," The Register, XI (Fall, 1963), 1-10.

31. There was one tournament listed in 1962-63 that included a symposium discussion contest. It was not listed for 1963-64.

32. Norton, 63.

33. Keltner, 97.

34. For example, the Iowa Forensic Association has recently experimented with a "traveling judge" procedure.

35. For information on how to operate a group action tournament see Brockriede and Giffin, op. cit.

36. H. Charles Pyron, "Reflective Thinking and the Problem of Evaluating the Participant in Competitive Group Discussion," Speaker and Gavel, I (January, 1964), 59-63.

37. If the end product is the prime factor in judging, this writer does not believe that the "team" approach recommended by Brockriede and Giffin would be essential. Groups composed of members from several schools should work as well.

38. John Keltner and Carroll C. Arnold, "Discussion in American Colleges," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XLIII (October, 1956), 250-256.

39. Jay R. Greene and Roger L. Sisson, Dynamic Management Decision Games (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1959).

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