9 Ways to Get The Most Out of Debate Camp

Whether your summer camp experience is one of our free workshops (learn more here and here) or a debate camp hosted by a college or university, you want to make sure you get the most out of the experience. How to do that? A few simple steps:

Before camp:

1. Set some goals. What needed work last year? Debate camp is your chance to ask questions and practice skills in an environment where you can receive high-quality, instantaneous feedback. Make a list of things you’d like to improve and focus on them. For instance, if you want to get better speaker points, make it a point to seek help in that area. If you want to work on your research skills, make sure you take advantage of library time. Many camps will offer electives, and you’ll make the best choices if you know what your priorities are before camp.

2. Make sure you have the right supplies. These need not be expensive or even new, but you’ll want to come prepared with at least a notebook and some pens. Consider going low-tech with your note-taking. Writing things down with a pen and paper minimizes distractions associated with typing on a laptop (Angry Birds, anyone?). Also, you won’t need to seek out outlets in lecture. This gives you the advantage of flexibility in where you sit.

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During camp:

1. Make the most of every interaction you have. At most workshops, everyone on the staff knows at least something about the activity you’ve come to practice. Be inquisitive. Seek people out, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some of the junior staff may be very knowledgeable and may also have more time to work with you on the basics than senior lab leaders. At the same time, don’t be intimidated to seek out senior staff. They work at debate institutes because they likely enjoy the activity and have made it a career. They want to help you, no matter how intimidating they seem.

2. Be on time, ask questions, and sit close to the front. Your instructors are there to teach. They have quite a few students at a given institute and, although they want all of them to have a good experience, they love to see students who want to learn. You’ll find that you’ll get more individual attention if you distinguish yourself as a motivated learner. So:

a. Sit somewhere the lecturer can easily see you, so they are more likely to call on you if you have a question.

b. Be on time. Coming in late is distracting to the lecturer and singles you out for the wrong kind of attention. Your instructors only have you for a limited time, so the little things you do are how they get to know you. Highly motivated, talented students that are often late appear to be slackers even if they work hard.

c. Ask questions. Listen carefully to the lecture and take good notes. As questions occur to you, write them in the margins of your notebook. Debate workshops are one of the few times you’ll have direct, in-person access to these experts. If you don’t ask your questions now, you may not have another chance. Just make sure to keep the questions relevant to the lecture itself.


3. Balance social time with debate time and know the difference. Debate camp friendships are a large part of what makes the camp experience so worthwhile. Often, you’ll meet friends you’ll know for years and can look forward to seeing at tournaments. Don’t deprive yourself of that experience. That said, don’t let camp become 100% social time. Make sure that work time is work time and social time is left for truly free times (meals, evenings). Why?

a. Your friends may want/need different things than you do. Choosing electives/research groups according to what your friends want robs you of the chance to seek out those that best fit your goals.

b. If you’re constantly in a social frame of mind, you’re not learning. Absorbing information from lectures requires focus, and you can’t be worrying about where you’re going to sit at lunch while trying to assimilate information.

c. Many camps will offer some individual work time. Hanging out with friends in the library or ducking out of evening assignments will not ultimately benefit you. Individual work time is as important as structured time because it gives you a chance to practice skills, like cutting and formatting evidence, under supervision. In essence, you’re practicing for when you get home and your instructors aren’t there to help. Doing this now allows your instructors to evaluate your work, identify inefficiencies and weaknesses, and give you suggestions to fix them. Without that feedback, you’ll return home with the same bad habits.


4. Learning is much more important than winning. Although this is ultimately true all the time (the skills you learn in debate will help you long after you stop picking up trophies for them), it’s particularly true at debate camp. Many camps offer a tournament at the end or some practice debates. You should do your best at these. Remember, however, that practice rounds and practice tournaments are just that: practice. Balance your desire to win debates with your desire to try new skills in a non-threatening environment. Winning a camp tournament is fun, but you’re more likely to win real tournaments if you use the camp tournament as a place to experiment and practice the things you found the hardest. Never given a speech on a certain argument and want to learn? Now is the time to try it! You may not win, but you’ll gain experience and confidence that will pay huge dividends come the debate season.

5. Make contacts. Want to debate in college? Even if you’re not sure, your instructors will likely have some information about college debate and may also work for a college team. Many students meet their future college coaches at debate camp. Ask them about their team and their contact information, even if you’re not sure you want to debate in college. This information may come in handy, and if you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll have distinguished yourself as exactly the kind of student they’ll want on their team. The same is true even if you don’t want to debate in college. Your friends and instructors may be able to help you during the season, so see if they’re willing to stay in contact to answer periodic questions.



After camp:

1. Review your notes and photocopy them if necessary. Once you’ve digested all that information, it’s easy to forget at least some. Don’t let that happen. Study your notes until you know them well. Take the best suggestions along with you to tournaments. Use them to plan the rest of your summer and school year research.

2. Stay in touch with your friends! Debate camp is work, but it’s also a lot of fun. We hope you enjoy your workshop experience, no matter how you spend it!


About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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