DoingCL - Structured academic controversies





Structured academic controversies

To start, the instructor selects a topic with two different viewpoints (e.g., "Nuclear energy should be used more/less in this country."). Students form groups and divide into two pairs. Each pair is assigned an advocacy position, and depending on available time, either receives supporting documentation or researches the topic. If the instructor wishes, student pairs from different groups with the same positions can compare ideas after becoming familiar with their positions. The student pairs highlight the main arguments for their position and prepare a short presentation.

Each student pair then presents their position to the other pair in their group. The students listen and take thorough notes but are not permitted to ask questions, disagree, or debate. After the presentation, the other pair presents their position. After the presentations, the students discuss their positions and provide more supporting evidence. With their notes as a guide, the students switch advocacy positions and prepare and give a new presentation. Finally, students drop their advocacy role and generate a consensus report addressing the original question posed (Johnson, et al. 1991).

Academic controversy can enhance student skills including:

  • researching issues
  • organizing information
  • preparing a position
  • advocating a position
  • being able to rationalize one's position
  • learning to debate
  • evaluating strengths and weaknesses on both sides of an issue
  • seeing issues from other perspectives
  • reconceptualizing one's position
  • synthesizing information
  • reaching consensus
This collaborative learning structure has been thoroughly researched (Johnson, et al., 1991 and references cited within) and many positive academic outcomes have been observed including complex reasoning skills, higher quality decision making, increased motivation and energy to take action. Other positive outcomes are enumerated in Johnson, et al. (1991, 1994) and Millis and Cottell (1998).

Here are some helpful suggestions to give your students:

  • be respectful of each other
  • disagree with another person's position and ideas but don't be critical of the person
  • don't take criticism of your ideas as a personal attack
  • listen to everyone's ideas, especially if you don't agree with them
  • change your mind when the evidence supports this
  • try to understand both sides of the controversy
  • understand the position differences before trying to reach consensus
  • focus on reaching the best outcome, not on winning

Click here to see an example of academic controversy from Karl A. Smith.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W., and Johnson, R. T. (1994). "Structuring academic controversy" In Sharan, S. (Ed.), Handbook of cooperative learning methods.

Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.

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