Academic Controversy Activity

An Academic Controversy activity (Johnson & Johnson, 1997) is a cooperative learning activity used to explore two sides of a provocative topic. The purpose is to increase knowledge and try to gain a better understanding of both sides. It’s a good way of starting the conversation.

This post will describe how Academic Controversy activities can be used to discuss the topic of statistical significance in a classroom, but this technique can work for any controversial topic. We will present the activity using the steps outlined by Johnson and Johnson. 

Step 1: RESEARCH AND PREPARE A POSITION

  • Preparation: Address whether participants should prepare ahead of time. For example, are there some readings that would help stimulate their thoughts about the topic?
  • Present sides: Present the topic briefly, summarizing both sides of the controversy.
    • We should keep the term “Statistically Significant.
    • We should abandon the term “Statistically Significant.
  • Form groups: Form groups of two to three individuals, ideally using random assignment, and randomly assign half of all groups to each side of the controversy.
    • Tip #1: To form random groups, you could hand out playing cards to each participant. Participants with “like” cards (e.g., the same number and color such red two’s) would get together to form the small group. The color of the cards might indicate which side of the argument they are on. 
    • Tip #2: We would recommend you use random assignment of sides as that allows people to feel more comfortable in sharing their ideas since they do not have to share their true feelings about the controversy. 
  • Develop argument: Groups discuss and develop an argument in favor of their assigned side. 
  • Optional: Seek additional ideas from groups arguing the same side.

Step 2: PRESENT AND ADVOCATE THEIR POSITION

  • Merge groups: Two groups of opposing sides merge to form one large group. 
  • Present argument: One at a time, each group presents their developed arguments (without interruption).

Step 3: ENGAGE IN AN OPEN DISCUSSION

  • Refute the opposing position and rebut attacks on their own position.
    • Tips: Evaluate sides! Do not criticize people and their ideas. 

Optional Step: REVERSE PERSPECTIVES

  • Groups split back into original groups and reverse assigned perspective to identify new arguments/ideas.

STEP 4: SYNTHESIZE AND INTEGRATE THE BEST EVIDENCE AND REASONING INTO A JOINT POSITION

  • Prepare large discussion: Groups prepare to discuss both sides with the larger group of participants.
  • Reach a consensus: All groups come together and attempt to reach a consensus.
  • Wrap-up: As a large group, process the activity.

Reflection on Activity (by Laura Ziegler)

We carried out this activity on statistical significance with approximately 50 faculty and students, including statisticians and non-statisticians. What we loved about the activity is that it stimulated discussions. People realized that there are others who truly believe in sides different than their own, and that both sides have pro’s and con’s. It was also great to have non-statisticians involved so the statisticians could learn what they do in practice and what training they need from us regarding hypothesis testing. In general, people enjoyed the activity and were very animated in their discussions. The one thing people struggled with is that in the end, many people wanted a final decision; they wanted to know which side was correct! However, it needs to be clear that this academic controversy was created to start the conversation, not end the conversation.

References: Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, T. J. (1997). Academic controversy:  Increase intellectual conflict and increase the quality of learning. In W. E. Campbell & K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

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