What is the Structured Academic Controversy?

November 15, 2023


Read Time:

Structured Academic Controversy: A discussion strategy to deepen thinking, understanding and engagement

The Structured Academic Controversy is a scaffolded small-group discussion strategy based on the principles of cooperative learning. By intentional design, it is not a debate. Rather, David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, both from the University of Minnesota, developed and researched the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) process to foster critical thinking and understanding of the complexity of issues.

The power of “should” statements in a SAC

Structured Academic Controversies engage students in ethical and political issues – most often structured as a “Should…” statement. For example:

  • “The federal minimum wage should be increased to $25 an hour.”
  • “Genetically modified food should be banned”
  • “Animals should be used for scientific testing.”

The purpose is to structure the discussion so that students dig deeper into an issue, suspending their own assumptions and considering many sides before settling on a position. Using the Structured Academic Controversy in the classroom avoids polarizing debate and instead focuses students on understanding the complexity of an issue. Materials to develop your own SAC already exist. Some suggestions for resources include:

The purpose is to structure the discussion so that students dig deeper into an issue, suspending their own assumptions and considering many sides before settling on a position.

The structure in a structured discussion

Most importantly, it is the tightly structured timing and clearly defined tasks embedded in the Structured Academic Controversy that supports a high-quality discussion, rather than a debate. To accomplish this, the SAC is set up as a binary (pro/con), but by the end of the protocol, binary thinking is actually broken down. From the beginning, students are assigned a position which immediately depersonalizes things and gives students a chance to challenge their own assumptions. Since all the participants know that you may or may not be arguing for your own personal position, students focus on listening and speaking without the emotional intensity of a debate. Having heard many arguments, they are much more likely to hear the nuances and understand a variety of ideas by the time they are permitted to advocate for their personal position.

By design, teachers provide readings that include the basic arguments for the Structured Academic Controversy. This focuses students on the discussion process itself. Of course teachers often modify this discussion structure to support their learning objectives, which may include student research. However, the formal structure keeps the emphasis on developing a deeper shared or collective understanding of an issue, develops discussion and presentation skills and exposes students to multiple perspectives.

Steps to implementation


1 MIN: Brief introductions, no roles 

2 MIN: Silent reading of positions/generating arguments

5 MIN: Pairs prepare arguments/who will say what 

TOTAL TIME: 8 minutes



1 MIN:  Brief introductions, no roles.

2 MIN: PRO presents PRO arguments 

1 MIN: CON re-tells PRO arguments

2 MIN: CON presents CON arguments 

1 MIN: PRO re-tells  CON arguments 

TOTAL TIME: 7 minutes


7-10 MIN: Discuss from your own personal position.

Essential Features Why this feature is important
It’s a cooperative learning activity, rather than a debate It asks students to entertain and support ideas / positions that may not be their own in order to develop a deeper understanding, empathy, and critical thinking skills
It’s timed and orchestrated by the instructor This makes it possible for all groups to end at the same time for large group reflection and also allows students not to have their attention divided by timing and for it to be a fast-paced, focused activity
Requires all students to talk and to listen  Maximizes participation 
Is on a controversial issue, usually a “should…?” question There needs to be no one obviously right answer in order to have multiple perspectives


Three takeaways to help you get started

When a SAC is successful, the benefits for students learning are enormous. In addition to deepening student understanding of course content, using a Structured Academic Controversy in the classroom can:

  • create a community of learners
  • teach skills required for engagement in public life
  • improve academic engagement for all students 

To do this successfully, teachers need to carefully scaffold the skills needed for successful high-quality discussion (listening, asking questions, reading), intentionally craft the timing and explicitly design the task so that students focus on evidence-based perspectives rather than impromptu debate. Teacher planning is the key to success by carefully selecting the “should” prompt, the supporting texts, and establishing the process.

If you are interested in learning more about how to implement a SAC (and other high-quality discussion strategies) in your classroom, please join us for The Discussion Project course, either online or in person. 

Ready to have a discussion?

Submit your information for a personalized course walk-through with The Discussion Project team to better understand how it can support the growth of your instructors, departments, and institution.

Schedule a consult today