Today’s post is by Skip Gridley, FIRST® LEGO® League Global Judge Advisor

A common question we receive every year during tournament season is something along the lines of “Why didn’t we receive an award or advance to the next round? Our team worked so hard, we had an amazing robot, our Innovation Project had a huge impact, and our robot scored at or near the top in the Robot Game.”  Sometimes the question will include “…plus, we won the Robot Design trophy” or something similar. Coaches, parents, and most importantly, students may feel confused and hurt as to “what went wrong?” or even worse, “what are the judges hiding, surely there was a mistake?” We hope this blog post will help explain how FIRST® LEGO® League judging works so you will better understand the process and not feel so disappointed – though there still may be some of that, and that’s perfectly understandable!

Let’s begin by explaining how judging works. Teams are seen by judges and ranked in each of the areas (Robot Design, Innovation Project, and Core Values). Teams that are ranked highly in an area are considered for an award. This year, the “formula” for Champion’s Award (which is also used to determine advancing teams from qualifying tournaments) is that all three judged areas are treated equally along with a team’s performance in the Robot Game. Some people call this the 25% rule, or something similar. From a judging process standpoint, it means that ranking in Robot Game is combined with the rankings in each of the three judged areas for an overall ranking, with each ranking being weighted equally.

For a team to advance or win the Champion’s Award, they must be well-rounded in all three judged areas, plus score well in the Robot Game. Since this system is based on rankings, this also means they must do well in all the areas as compared to other teams at their tournament. This is an important factor to consider – your team can achieve all sorts of wonderful accomplishments and have the best day ever at the Robot Game and still not win a trophy or advance.  This is because other teams have also done well or achieved great things.

This is sometimes a hard thing to explain or process. “We did so well, how could we not advance?” That’s part of our competition and part of what makes FIRST® unique.  We know this may sometimes lead to disappointment, but we hope teams will learn to reshape “winning” as doing your best and growing and learning.

Another common request is for all ranking and judging information to be released “so our team can get better and improve.” The reality is, knowing where you rank relative to other teams does not help you improve. Every team is different. On any single day, one team may stand out for things your team may not have.  Even teams that have the exact same “score” on the rubrics can be different and will be ranked relative to each other. For example, two teams could have the same score in robot design, but one excels in programming and the other excels in mechanical design. The judges have the difficult job of determining which team to recognize with an award.

Your best approach to improve is to see where you are relative to the objective criteria on the rubrics. Some will say the criteria is “too subjective,” however; we strive to have a fair and objective process to assess teams. The judging criteria has been used for many years and is what FIRST LEGO League considers to be key takeaways from the experience. They’re also very consistent when applied correctly according to the way we train judges to evaluate teams. Judges will make mistakes – they are human and volunteers. In general, by applying consistent rubrics with a rankings-based approach, the “right” choices are made the vast majority of the time at tournaments when it comes to award winners and teams advancing.

We hope describing how the process works and explaining some of these details to coaches, parents and team members can help them gain some understanding and perspective, and maybe turn the frustration and disappointment into recognition of all the team has accomplished during the season. Most importantly, try to resist comparing yourselves to other teams that have advanced or won or criticizing their accomplishments. Set goals for your team like learning new skills, realizing the Core Values, and, especially, have fun! Then, do all you can to reach them.

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Celebrate what you’ve achieved and realize that if you’ve done your best, that’s a VERY BIG deal and it means that you’re truly practicing Gracious Professionalism®.