How to Teach with Structured Academic Controversy

Initial Publication Date: December 22, 2008

Structured academic controversy demo This is a scene from a structured academic controversy activity at the 2007 workshop on The Role of the Affective Domain in teaching Geoscience. Watch the video
Science educators, either actively or passively, are involved in formulating contemporary cultural views of what constitutes "science." The structured academic controversy technique provides an opportunity for examination of dominant and alternative perspectives of issues that are important inside and outside of the classroom. Moreover, this approach focuses on scientific, cultural, and social factors that contribute to the controversial issue.

The structured academic controversy should be introduced near the beginning of a course, such as in the syllabus. The instructional goal should be clearly stated, with the intent not to change anyone's mind or challenge personal beliefs, but the examination of interrelationships between science and society. The structured academic controversy should be held after the classroom community has had time to develop, so that students and instructor know each other well enough to feel comfortable during the exercise.

During this exercise, it is important that students be asked to suspend their personal beliefs in the public forum. The suspension both protects students from either dominating the discussion or feeling marginalized for an unpopular view. Randomly assigning a particular perspective to a group of students minimizes the chances that students will feel as though their personal beliefs are being threatened. At the same time, however, the suspension of personal beliefs gives students the chance to question their own assumptions.

Depending on the selected format, each group of students is assigned one or two specific positions to research. The amount of outside research expected from the students to prepare for a perspective may also affect choice of format. In switch-format structured academic controversies, students first advocate one position as another team presents a counter position, then both teams switch roles (Johnson). In a double switch format, each group of students presents one view to another group with an opposing view, then switch the groups switch positions and discuss the issue with a new team.(D'Eon, Proctor, & Reeder). In a no-switch version (Khourey-Bowers, 2006) students research one position and are responsible for learning about the other points of view from the other teams.

Assessment of group work should include a variety of strategies, including individual and group assignments, and written and performance components, to encourage equitable contributions from group members. It is also reasonable to have group members evaluate their teammates' contributions. Make sure to establish the assessment plan when you assign the SAC so students know what your expectations are. However, SACs generally are intrinsically motivating. In my experience in using SACs at the college level for the last 6 years, I have had very few students try to "ride" on their peers' efforts. Most students put an extraordinary amount of work into their preparations, and the performance component, the Town Hall, typically demonstrates deep understanding among the students.

Etiquette for Effective Structured Academic Controversies

  • 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.

General Protocol for Cooperative Group Strategies for Structured Academic Controversy

  • Form cooperative teams of 3- 4.
  • Define the issue or problem and identify the two positions.
  • Assign each team a unique position, if possible.
  • Each team researches their position and articulates the main ideas and details.
  • Questions go back and forth among the teams.
  • Each team switches perspectives, summarizes the others' positions.
  • All teams come together to state a consensus position, based on information and perspectives of each team.
  • Each individual writes a justified personal opinion as to which position to support.

Additional Resources

There are some challenges inherent in presenting controversies in the classroom. Here are a few additional resources for addressing specific issues that may arise: