How to Ensure Success in Discussions on Controversial Topics: Structure

By Gina Curcio

Of all the useful and informative modules in the ACUE course, the body of techniques discussed in “Planning Effective Class Discussions” and “Facilitating Engaging Class Discussions,” without a doubt, had the most powerful impact on my “Introduction to Corrections” class this past semester.

My objectives

Like many faculty, I sought to facilitate class discussions where students were well prepared, engaged, and would develop a deep understanding of the course topics while simultaneously honing critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills. I wanted to motivate and encourage the quieter students to start speaking up and get the dominant talkers to become better listeners. Despite having a class size of 30+ students, I also hoped that the class discussions would create a sense of community and would help students develop their opinions on controversial topics while also considering other perspectives.

Preparing for the discussions

Drawing on everything I learned in these two ACUE modules, I had students watch a documentary at home on a controversial issue in corrections (e.g., solitary confinement or the treatment of the mentally ill in prison). To ensure that students were prepared, I asked them to take notes as they watched and then write a two-page reflection on the documentary, due before class, that included a summary of the controversial issue(s) discussed, their opinion on the controversial issue(s), and ideas for solutions and reforms.

Ensuring all voices are heard

On the day of the discussion, I provided students with a list of warm-up questions and a set of critical thinking questions to guide and frame the discussions. We had larger class discussions for some questions and small-group discussions for others. For the small-group discussions, I used an online random letter generator to select the “reporter” for the group so all students had to be equally prepared and couldn’t just rely on the dominant talker in the group to report back to the class. While I never took sides or offered my own opinion unless asked, I did offer information about what the available research suggests regarding the issues as well as my own experiences with these issues as a former correctional officer.

Establishing clear expectations

I used a self-grading discussion rubric to communicate clear expectations. After each class discussion, students completed the rubric and I provided detailed, timely feedback highlighting what they did well in the discussion and where they could improve. As another opportunity to demonstrate that they know the material, I gave students the choice to take an optional final exam that could replace their discussion participation grade.

Student impact

For each discussion, I was never disappointed! Students were well prepared, enthusiastically answered the discussion questions, and brought up interesting and thoughtful considerations of their own. In fact, many students shared perspectives that I had never considered! There were many students who had not said one word the previous semester who began regularly chiming in on the discussions, sometimes even getting into friendly debates with other classmates. I also found that the discussions created a sense of community in the classroom. Students learned one another’s names, became comfortable with each other, and learned from each other. Students also developed a much deeper understanding of the issues facing our correctional system and possible solutions/reforms to address these issues than they would have been able to develop by lecture alone.

The anonymous student feedback I obtained both a few weeks into the semester and at the end of the semester was largely positive and reflected many of the outcomes I intended. Nearly all students said that they really enjoyed the discussions because they gave students the opportunity to get to know their classmates, become more comfortable speaking in groups, be more open-minded, and develop a deep understanding of the issues covered.

Reflection for continued growth

While the five structured class discussions were successful overall, based on the anonymous student feedback, I plan on making the following changes to future discussions:

  • Include more small-group discussions to allow the quieter students more opportunities to show that they are engaged and contributing.
  • Provide the discussion questions to students ahead of time so they have more time to gather their thoughts.
  • Incorporate short writing activities during the discussions as an added way to ensure all students are engaged. I could have students submit written answers to some of the questions using the Socrative app and put some of their answers on the projector anonymously so that quieter students have more of an opportunity to feel engaged and included.
  • Include more punctuated lectures and the whiteboard to summarize, emphasize, and organize key takeaways from the discussions.

Structured class discussions have done so much more than increase student learning and engagement; they have also provided my students with the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of controversial issues facing our contemporary correctional system, refine critical thinking and communication skills, and create a sense of community.


Gina Curcio is an assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Salem State University. Her research interests include offender reentry, criminal records and employment, women and criminal justice, and gangs. She has published in Feminist Criminology and Women and Criminal Justice. She completed ACUE’s program in April 2018.

What to read next:
Four Ways to Spark Engaging Classroom Discussons by Scott Ellman


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