What is Structured Academic Controversy?

Initial Publication Date: December 22, 2008

Issues that tend to be based in large bodies of knowledge, confirm or question deeply held private values or beliefs, or create polarized viewpoints, may be controversial. These issues can be of local, national, or international significance.

Using a structured academic controversy (SAC), students will research one or several points of view and then communicate their findings in a structured format. The goals of a SAC are for students to gain content knowledge about issues, appreciate and respect multiple viewpoints, and learn how to build consensus. SACs promote teaching about a controversy without requiring students to take a dualistic stance, straining classroom interactions between students with diverse views, or marginalizing students whose personal beliefs are different from those of the majority.

As part of their presentations, students are asked to state their perspective, compare their perspective with others, and come to a consensus agreement with their peers. The research and discussion stages require students to think divergently, find out more information about the issues, and reason constructively about alternative solutions or decisions. SACs should give students adequate class time to present content knowledge and diverse perspectives, as well as time for clarification questions, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, and consensus-building.

The examples provided in this module are designed for small classes of approximately 16 students. It is possible to adapt these examples for use in larger classes, up to 32 students, either by adding perspectives or by having multiple groups take the same perspective.