The “True” Opinion Paper
Posted November 10, 2016
By Sara Branch
Last semester I taught a course on human sexuality.
I love teaching this class. I talk with my students about issues related to gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and more. As I was prepping my course, I wanted to revise my standard “opinion paper” assignment. In the traditional version of the paper, students are assigned a controversial topic (e.g., marriage equality). In it, they are expected to put forth an opinion on the topic and then justify their opinion using empirical literature. But in classes that address complex social issues, people’s opinions and attitudes are not based exclusively on empirical evidence.
The problem with the standard opinion paper
The problem with an opinion paper that emphasizes only empirical evidence is that it implicitly assumes that:
1) students will be convinced to adopt the attitude most strongly supported by evidence
2) students who aren’t convinced by empirical evidence have somehow failed at a critical element of the course.
With the standard opinion paper guidelines, I was concerned about students feeling attacked for their beliefs or creating an assignment for which they were literally unable to satisfy expectations. When students leave my class, I want them to own their attitudes about these complex issues and understand why they hold the attitudes that they do. And I recognize that some students' opinions may be grounded in factors that cannot be empirically supported (e.g., religion) and thus they simply can’t use empirical research to support their arguments.
Getting the perspective of instructors
In an effort to improve the traditional approach to this type of assignment I appealed to my colleagues for their thoughts. Specifically I said that the goals of the assignment were:
1) to get students to form an opinion about issues relevant to the class
2) to challenge them to express and argue for their opinions with evidence (i.e., research), while being sensitive to opinions that may not have empirical support behind them.
My colleagues were as gracious as always in providing their valuable insights. However it was striking that the opinions I received consistently advocated for students to support their opinions with empirical evidence because psychology is, after all, a science.
Here’s the thing: although psychology courses are grounded in science they also deal with important and complex real-life issues. And like most of us, our students’ opinions are not grounded solely in empirical evidence, nor will empirical evidence be the only factor that persuades them. So I shifted my goal for the course. Instead of asking my students to identify the opinion with the most empirical evidence, I asked them to give me their own opinion, and to reflect critically on the existing empirical evidence (even if it did not support their opinion) as well as any other factors that influenced their beliefs.
This approach is directly in line with the research on attitudes. We know that attitudes are based not only on thoughtful cognitive evaluations of evidence, but also on our affective responses to an object, on the function an attitude serves, and on our past experiences with the object, as well as others (Fabrigar & Wegener, 2010). If our students’ attitudes ultimately contradict what is supported by evidence, don’t we want them to have intentionally and thoughtfully considered all the issues involved and consciously decided that in spite of what the evidence says, they are willing to give greater weight to other factors? This might seem contradictory to the goals of higher education where we advocate for rational, critical thought. But if we want to challenge students to expand or critique their beliefs, we have to first let them identify those beliefs.
In the end, I gave students a list of controversial topics. Their task was to write a paper that reflected their authentic personal opinion. They had to include a clear, nuanced opinion on the issue, review empirical research on the topic, and present their arguments for their opinion (with relevant evidence, whatever that may be). If the empirical research contradicted their opinion, they had to explain why they were discounting it. They were told that they would not be graded on their opinion, even if it was not supported by empirical evidence. Instead, their grade reflected the thoughtfulness and complexity of their opinion and their reflection on the factors that underlie it.
In the final course evaluation, a few students spontaneously reflected on the opinion papers. They talked about how the papers allowed them to think about these topics more deeply than they might have otherwise, and recognize the complexity of the issues in ways they hadn’t before. And importantly, multiple students stated that they felt free to express their opinions, without judgment.
Attitudes are important because they (can) predict behavior (see Glasman & Albarracin, 2016 for a review). And they are complex because they are influenced by myriad factors (Fabrigar & Wegener, 2010). If our goal is to have students think critically about their worldviews, we need to stop limiting what are acceptable opinions to only those supported empirically. Our students will hold attitudes that contradict empirical evidence. And when we limit discussion and reflection to only the empirical, we create an environment where students may not be personally empowered by their learning. By asking students to identify their attitudes and reflect on why they hold those attitudes, without fear of judgment or a poor grade, we are asking them to take responsibility for their attitudes and their behavior.
Sara Branch received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Purdue University. She is an Assistant Professor of Personality Psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her research focuses on the intersection of social and cognitive psychology as an approach to scholarship of teaching and learning.