Academic Controversy

We’ve talked about Elizabeth Barkley’s Student Engagement Technique book on this blog before (here and here). I thought I’d share another activity from the book that I used in my class last term, along with some thoughts on how the activity went.

Brief description of the activity: “Student partners review material on a controversial topic in the field that has two opposing sides (A and B) and brainstorm arguments to support their assigned position” (Barkley 199). In my experience, it works well as an impromptu class debate on a topic that doesn’t have a clear answer. In my Human Rights class, I had the students debate the U.S. response to the Rwandan genocide. The instructions for the technique suggest crafting mini-cases describing the controversy to print and distribute. I simply distributed one line prompts and expected the students to come up with the arguments based on readings and prior class discussion.

Activity Steps:

  • Distribute two sets of handouts printed on different colored paper, each representing one side of the controversy. Instruct the students to form groups of four, with two students with each colored handout. Students with the same color form a pair within the quad (Pair A and Pair B). These pairs first brainstorm arguments to make the case for their position.
  • Have the students move around the classroom and discuss with other students with the same colored handout, to further elaborate and find new arguments for their position.
  • Students then re-form their original group of four and each pair refines their argument and prepares to present it to the other pair in their group.
  • Then, pair A presents their case while pair B listens, but does not comment. Then pair B has time to ask questions before switching roles (pair B presents their argument while pair A listens).
  • Next, the two pairs switch sides and prepare to argue the other position (Note: I kept this segment relatively short and simply had the pairs prepare the opposing argument rather than have them go around the room again, as the instructions were not entirely clear on this step).
  • Finally, the quads are instructed to come to a consensus on the controversy before engaging in a full class discussion.
  • I began the full class discussion by asking which groups sided with A and which with B and if any students changed their minds during the activity (and, if so, why). These two questions started a good discussion in my class.

Some thoughts:

  • The activity can be fast paced, which I liked: the technique leaves timing open to your discretion and would likely vary depending on the topic you have the students debate. I kept the time relatively short for each step and it meant the students were up and moving quite a bit. It also means that groups or pairs don’t get off topic: they simply don’t have time.
  • The structure of the activity encourages students to think about both sides of an issue, rather than entrench themselves in a previously held belief.
  • Be on the lookout for student fatigue; one reason I kept the segments short was to avoid a lot of repetition of the same arguments. I could sense from the groups that after a few steps, they had all centered in on the key arguments and spending a lot of additional time at each step didn’t have much value-added.

From: Barkley, Elizabeth F. Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

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