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How to talk about it in class

Why is it useful?

For their assignment, students will need to detail the history of their controversy, understand central arguments within the controversy and identify and examine stakeholders. In other words, they need to contextualize their controversy.
To get your students thinking about how and why background information is useful, start with a conversation about their Wikipedia use. This isn’t about whether or not Wikipedia is reliable, but is about how, when and why they use it. You can use answers to the questions below to generate a list of uses for background information.


  • When you start your research on a topic you don’t know a lot about, where is the first place you go? (someone will say Wikipedia and you can go from there)
  • What do you like about Wikipedia? Or, what do you find useful about Wikipedia? Or, how do you use the information you find there?
  • When in the research process do you use it? (Hopefully this will get at the fact that they use it at the beginning and along the way as well.)

When you are done, you should have the following list of features and be able to explain how they are useful when researching a controversy:

  • A broad overview of the controversy
  • Key terms and definitions related to the controversy
  • Names, dates and events important to the controversy
  • Bibliographies that can lead you to more resources
  • A narrower, more focused aspect of your controversy about which to write
  • Keywords that you can use to search for more information on your controversy
  • A place to identify all the aspects of your controversy so that you can then go out and find viewpoint articles in order to map your controversy thoroughly. For example, if your broader controversy is the right to die, a narrower aspect may be the right to die for terminally ill patients.

Narrowing a controversy

Explain to your students that after they explore and map their broader controversy, they may want to narrow it down for the third paper when they are writing a proposal since they obviously won't be able to propose a solution to such a large controversy in a shorter paper. Gathering background information may help them narrow/focus in on one aspect of the controversy and propose a solution. To continue with the same example, a student could focus the proposal to answer questions such as:

  • Should assisted suicide be legal for terminally ill patients?
  • Should doctors and nurses providing healthcare to a terminally ill patient be allowed or required to assist with suicide if the patient requests it?
  • Should assisted suicide be covered by health insurance?

NOTE: At the point of topic exploration, it's important to intervene if you notice a student working on a topic that is 'unresearchable'. Sometimes topics have marked unpopular viewpoints and students have trouble finding sources to refute a position. Sometimes not a great deal is written on their topic. For example, Should terminally ill children be allowed to elect assisted suicide? This topic is not written about extensively and likely has very few proponents. If you intervene early on and steer your student towards a more feasible topic, the student will have a much smoother research experience as the semester unfolds. 

Where can you find it?

Background information can be found in reference books such as encyclopedias and almanacs. You probably know about general encyclopedias, such as Britannica and World Book. These provide concise overviews. More important for your research are subject-specific encyclopedias, which contain more in-depth entries that focus on how that controversy relates to one field of study or broad subject area. For example, there is a Handbook of Death and Dying that includes entries about assisted suicide.

Gale Virtual Reference Library allows you to search a collection of thousands of articles from hundreds of subject-specific encyclopedias. 

Assignments, Activities and Resources


Explain databases useful for finding background information and how to get to them from home. Choose from Gale Virtual Reference Library, CQ Researcher and/or Opposing Viewpoints, based on your preferences. See Resources for more information about these databases and tips for using them.

TIP for your students! When you are searching one of these databases, think about different keywords you can use to find articles on the larger topics behind your controversy. Ex: If your controversy is ‘should doctors and nurses be required or allowed to assist with suicide,’ search using more general terms, such as 'assisted suicide,' 'euthanasia' or ‘right to die.'


  • Background Information Assignment
    • Use this assignment to get students to look for background information on their broader controversies. It contains explanations and instructions which should serve to reinforce your discussion of background information in the classroom. We suggested a link with some resources within the assignment, but AIs can easily make changes. In addition, feel free to change the example if you feel this is one that your students may choose themselves. You can assign this as a take home exercise or ask students to complete it in class after discussing background information and showing some databases.
  • After your students have found background information at home, have them bring in their background articles and pick out as many keywords as they can find that would help them in future searches for articles/viewpoints on their controversy.
  • Do a search using a sample controversy as a class using your computer, and have the students guide you through different searches until you’ve found different background information articles that would be helpful.
  • Find a broader controversy in Opposing Viewpoints in Context and use the Viewpoints section to identify all the aspects of that controversy. Have the students identify these aspects for you so they can understand how they'll need to find viewpoint articles on smaller aspects of their controversy.


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