Structured Controversy: UNIV 201

Reflecting Diversity in Assessment

“[Students] came away with some really diverse perspectives.” – Robin Mueller

Background

In the Winter 2017 semester, Dr. Robin Mueller piloted a course called UNIV 201: Global Challenges Inquiry I. The entire course was an experiment in inquiry-based learning in an interdisciplinary setting. It centered on one main problem: How will we feed 9 billion people by the year 2050? The syllabus explains the nature of the course in greater detail. There were two sections of the course, each with 10 first year students from a variety of faculties, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. Most students were drawn to the course because they had an interest in social justice, problem solving and making a difference in the world. Dr. Mueller tried several innovative assessment methods in the class, but found that one that was very successful and well-received by students was the Structured Controversy. (Click here to read about how ePortfolios were used in UNIV 201 and here to read more about the course)

Strategy

A Structured Controversy exercise is similar to an adapted debate. It requires students to collect and prepare evidence that supports a specific perspective towards a contentious issue of their choice, relating to a course topic. The perspectives that a student chooses to research may be different to their personal belief towards the issue. The purpose of the assignment is to explore a controversy and uncover how complex and diverse different viewpoints can be. Students also develop skills in finding, interpreting, evaluating, and discussing evidence. It is an exercise in understanding and embracing diversity through an assessment.

Dr. Mueller split her students into small groups. She spent one class facilitating discussion about controversial issues related to their course topic. Each group chose an issue to focus on and brainstormed possible perspectives that people might hold about it. Students had a week to individually collect evidence that supported two of the perspectives. The evidence could be academic or from popular media, provided the student had evaluated the quality of the evidence and appropriateness for use in the context of the assignment. This evidence was prepared and brought to class, where each student had a few minutes to speak uninterrupted about the perspectives they had researched. Their peers had to listen and consider the view being shared with an open mind. Following the exercise, students completed a written reflection on what they had learned and experienced during the activity, if their opinion on the issue changed or not, and what they gained from exploring the other perspectives. The rubric for this reflection was provided with the assignment description, so students could think about throughout the process of finding and delivering their evidence.

One group in the class explored the issue of genetic modification of food (GMOs). One of the perspectives that a student discussed was that of a Christian activist group who said that genetic modification was changing God’s creation and that the use of GMOs was against their religious beliefs. Most of the students in the class had never considered GMOs as a religious issue, and some said they would have dismissed that perspective if they weren’t given the opportunity to listen to it with an open mind.

Outcomes

Dr. Mueller found that the majority of her students had a positive experience with the structured controversy and found it interesting to learn about the multitude of perspectives that exist towards an issue. About half of the students in the Global Challenges course said that their perspective on the issues discussed changed because of the exercise. Others said that while their opinion did not change, they developed a greater understanding and tolerance for the perspectives of others.

Structured Controversy is an assessment method that can be used across disciplines and levels. Dr. Mueller has used it successfully in both large and small classes. Her advice is to remember that implementing new assessments, such as structured controversy, take time and effort and that going from traditional assessments to something does not happen overnight. She encourages her fellow instructors to be reflective about how their assessments are working and finding small ways to make them more effective to gradually improve their courses.

Ashley Weleschuk