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Debating Controversial Crime Control Issues: Guidelines for Structuring
Student Group Presentations

Jana L. Pershing

Department of Sociology
San Diego State University


Assigning oral presentations as student group projects may seem unwieldy to faculty balancing teaching, research, and service activities (Bruffee, 1993), but it can succeed with planning and structure. I have found that it need not be time-consuming nor affect teaching evaluations to assign group research projects teaching students the major arguments supporting each side of several long-standing, controversial crime control issues.

The debate projects in my senior-level criminology courses must benefit students but also be manageable for me, with three classes per semester of approximately 50 students each. This paper explains the assignment and how to adapt it to other classrooms.

Structuring the Project

The group debate assignment meets pedagogical goals to:

  • reinforce class material through integrating new information;
  • increase student participation and motivation;
  • facilitate collaborative learning; and
  • promote critical thinking, oral presentation, and research skills.

I selected collaborative debates for their effectiveness in teaching controversial or uncomfortable topics (Jakubowski, 2001). The teaching literature suggests that debates increase student participation and promote critical thinking skills since students are expected to challenge and critique one another (Bruffee, 1993; Crone, 1997; Green & Klug, 1990). Likewise, Silberman (1996) contends that “a debate can be a valuable method for promoting thinking and reflection, especially if students are expected to take a position that may be contrary to their own” (p. 84).

Indeed, my students often request crime control topics about which they feel strongly (Appendix A), but some must argue the side opposite their personal views. For example, of four students requesting the gun control debate because all were National Rifle Association members opposed to all gun control, two were to present evidence in its favor. While reluctant, both students indicated that they learned more by arguing that side, and even ended up supporting some gun control to reduce crime.

Additional benefits of debates as collaborative learning include the “practice it gives in leadership, group interaction, and public speaking” and how it draws on “the rich diversity of students at many of today’s colleges and universities” (Bruffee, 1993, p. 167). My students have had conflicting personal experiences with the criminal justice system, depending on age, gender, race or ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and they often use personal examples to illustrate presentations.

Rau and Heyl discuss problems associated with collaborative learning: “1) how to keep groups ‘on task,’ 2) how to eliminate ‘free riders,’ and 3) how to reduce the number of students who are either dominants or isolates in their groups” (1990, p. 141). To prevent problems, other researchers suggest that groups be structured and managed (Bilson, 1986; Rau & Heyl, 1990), and that students “will better accept collaborative work as ‘serious learning’ if the teacher explains how the task relates to course goals” (Bean, 1996, p. 154). Woodberry and Aldrich recommend detailed guidelines, keeping “instructions concrete and specific” and providing “a specific series of steps” and timelines (2000, p. 243). Moreover, they argue that student progress must be carefully monitored, and detailed feedback provided.

Group Debate Assignment

The first day of class, I emphasize that students will spend a significant amount of time on a collaborative debate project. They read a comprehensive seven-page set of guidelines (Appendix A) for completing the assignment, including library research and source documentation. Upon learning the course requirements, a few students withdraw, but several others tell me at the end of each term that, although initially reluctant, they were glad they “stuck it out.”

My assignment is based on the 32-volume Dushkin/McGraw-Hill Taking Sides series, but the specific issues (Appendix A) differ from those in Views on Controversial Issues in Crime and Criminology (Monk, 2000). My students can choose among debate topics, directly related to the course material and having sufficient academic support available for either side. To provide a sense of ownership, students may submit their top three preferences. Some topics (e.g., gun control, juvenile offenders) are more popular than those perceived as less controversial (e.g., pornography), which are assigned to the few students not expressing a preference.

Students, working in teams of four, research their issue and present their findings as a classroom debate. After arguments are presented on one side, those points are rebutted or critiqued by a student on the opposing side (Appendix A). Groups of fewer than four may receive extra credit for assuming the work of an additional section or may eliminate one or more rebuttal sections.

Group members work together selecting arguments for two or three main points that can be supported with both theoretical and empirical studies. Rebuttal sections should focus on critiquing those points rather than introducing additional arguments. In group meetings, I review and comment on outlines to help students narrow their focus. For example, one group receiving an “A” had narrowed its focus on the legalization of prostitution to three points on the “yes” side: (a) prostitution is a victimless crime that involves consenting adults, (b) legalization would allow for increased government regulation, and (c) legalization would allow sex workers to organize to protect their rights and to receive employee benefits. The opposition raised two arguments against: (a) legalization would legitimize the abuse and objectification of women, and (b) legalization would potentially increase the international trafficking of women. Similarly, rebuttals were confined to academic evidence critiquing each main point.

Rather than an accompanying research paper, individual students must provide an annotated outline of their main points as well as an annotated bibliography listing academic sources. Group members are required to project or photocopy outlines for the class, and each student writes a critical evaluation of their group’s presentation explaining which point on each side they think is the most convincing and which the least.

Because considerable course time is spent addressing students’ misconceptions about crime, the debate project links student research to the course objective “What myths surround crime and criminal justice, and what are the sources of these myths and misconceptions?” (See Appendix B, syllabus). In the written assignment, students are asked how their personal opinions about their topic have changed or been reinforced through their research.

Monitoring Progress and Grading

Group grades are given for presentations, but I evaluate students individually for other aspects of the project. In five class periods over the semester, I monitor group progress. At the first two meetings, students review preliminary outlines and bibliographies, and I address questions and concerns. Students discuss and finalize their research at mid-semester meetings and typically give practice presentations to their groups during the last meeting. Attendance on group meeting and actual presentation days is checked and counts toward final course grades (Appendix A).

Because up to 12 debates are presented during the last 3 weeks of a 15-week semester, 2 groups deliver presentations during each 75-minute class period . Each group is allotted 35 minutes, and individuals present for 5 to 7 minutes, leaving 5 to 10 minutes for questions from the class. Supporting materials are collected from both groups during the first five minutes of class.

Alternative means of encouraging class participation and assessing student learning, including written student critiques and quizzes were tried, but I settled on monitoring attendance and awarding extra credit for participation during the discussion period following each presentation. Given the large number of students and the short time for discussion, participation is not formally required.

Debate Grades

Assigning group grades for the presentations encourages collaboration in producing a well-rounded debate, and the project is a debate of ideas rather than an individual competition. Group grades also provide an incentive to Students 1 and 3 to complete their research earlier in the semester, thereby leaving sufficient time for Students 2 and 4 to research their rebuttal sections. Although I encourage collaboration, students are also aware that I may occasionally assign individual grades when exceptions arise. For example, if a group notifies me that a member is not cooperating I may assign an individual grade to the “problem student” and a group grade to the rest. Likewise, I have rewarded individual grades to students giving exceptional presentations relative to their teammates. Consistent with research suggesting that explicit criteria and standards promote learning (Bean, 1996; Walvoord, 2004), I use a standard evaluation form for grading each student. While content and organization are primary considerations, delivery is also taken into account. A five-point score key is used as a general evaluation of each student’s section, and I provide open-ended individual comments. Yes/no questions indicate whether outlines and bibliographies, required but not graded, are submitted on the presentation day. The group grade is entered and more detailed group comments provided. I revisit the evaluation of each debate upon receiving students’ written critiques, which are usually markedly consistent with my own observations. Evaluations are then photocopied and returned to students along with their written critiques.

Student feedback regarding concerns and problems with the debate project in its earlier stages resulted in a deduction system using this “prerequisite” DO-list:

  • DO incorporate a minimum of three academic sources in your presentation and annotated bibliography.
  • DO turn in an annotated outline and bibliography on your presentation day.
  • DO present an outline to the class by either displaying an overhead or providing photocopies.
  • DO attend all class meetings set aside for group projects.
  • DO show up on time on your presentation day.
  • DO talk to the class rather than read from a script.
  • DO stay within your time frame.

So long as students fulfill each item, presentation grades are based exclusively on content and clarity. Individual deductions depend on what was not completed (Appendix A). For example, a presentation awarded a B+ would be reduced to a C+ for a student in a group failing to turn in an annotated outline and bibliography. Since introducing the prerequisite DO-list and corresponding deduction system, I have rarely imposed deductions.

Despite my initial reservations about such structured guidelines, students have responded favorably, expressing that the format allows them to concentrate on content and delivery (see Appendix C). I have been pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of their debates, and not only do the majority of students enjoy the project, but some groups have also been very creative. For example, each member of a group debating whether juvenile offenders are treated too leniently assumed the role of a “player” in the system: juvenile court judge, probation officer, juvenile offender, and high school teacher.

Applications and Conclusion

While this assignment directly applies to criminology, juvenile delinquency, social problems, and criminal justice courses, it is appropriate for social science disciplines addressing controversial social issues, unanswered questions, or multiple perspectives. It would even work in theory classes comparing and contrasting various theoretical orientations. For social science faculty, I recommend the Taking Sides series on topics addressing crime, mass media, race and ethnicity, gender, human sexuality, politics, and education. Each volume summarizes pro and con arguments for 18 to 20 debates or issues from leading social scientists and educators.

Anyone finding the project format overly rigid and structured should remember that student feedback and my experience teaching 150 students per semester were factors in its development. A colleague who adapted this assignment for a race and ethnic relations course indicated that by the end of the semester, she realized why I had provided such detailed guidelines. Another colleague teaching large classes commented that although she had previously assigned pro/con informal group discussions, the quality improved dramatically after using a modification of my guidelines.

For smaller classes, there is certainly room for more flexibility. For example, while the guidelines are for four-person teams, smaller classes could have two-person teams, eliminating the rebuttal sections or requiring students to rebut one another’s arguments. Formal research papers could work, especially where faculty have graduate student assistance in grading. To enhance participation, an entire class period could be devoted to one debate followed by discussion.


Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bilson, J. M. (1986). The college classroom as a small group: Some implications for teaching and learning. Teaching Sociology, 14, 143-151.

Bruffee, K. A. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jakubowski, L. M. (2001). Teaching uncomfortable topics: An action-oriented strategy for addressing racism and related forms of difference. Teaching Sociology, 29, 62-79.

Monk, R. C. (Ed.). (2000). Taking sides: Clashing views on controversial issues in crime and criminology. Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Rau, W. & Heyl, B. S. (1990). Humanizing the college classroom: Collaborative learning and social organizations among students. Teaching Sociology, 18, 141-155.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Walvoord, B. E. (2004). Grading and assessment: A worthwhile grading process promotes student learning. NEA Higher Education Advocate, 21, 5.

Woodberry, R. D., & Aldrich, H. E. (2000). Planning and running effective classroom-based exercises. Teaching Sociology, 28, 241-248.

Posted July 29, 2005.
Modified August 29, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Jana L. Pershing.

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