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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Bridging diversity to achieve engagement: "The Sentence is Right" game show rip off

Jaimie P. Beven
School of Law
Murdoch University

Increased access to higher education for under-represented groups does not, in itself, constitute educational equity. In addition to increased access, effort needs to be directed toward facilitating the retention and success of these students. Unlike traditional groups of students, equity groups are likely to endure additional difficulties in higher education which impact on the probability of these students being engaged in educational activities. The current paper outlines the use of the popular television genre of 'game shows' to engage a diverse group of first year undergraduates in a sentencing lecture.

Diversity in Australian universities

A fair chance for all (NBEET, 1990) set equity targets for access to higher education for under-represented groups. According to Gewirtz's (2001) reconstruction of social justice, educational equity is about both the distribution of education and the interrelationships involved in education. It is not sufficient to simply ensure access to educational opportunities for increasingly diverse groups of students, the relational aspect of university education must be addressed also. Teaching is often constructed around assumed prior experience and learning which may be unfamiliar to increasing numbers of students (Lawrence, 2005). Additionally, by ignoring the relational aspects of higher education it is also likely that motivational influences in academic achievement will also be ignored. Motivation is likely to be influenced by factors such as a lack of self-efficacy (Sternberg, 1997) and the unfamiliarity of higher education could function to undermine self-efficacy in some students. Engaging students, on the other hand, may help them to feel more confident in contributing to class discussion. The challenge, it seems, is to facilitate engagement in diverse groups of students while at the same time maintaining educational veracity.

Student engagement

The learning context is one of the major influences on whether a student engages in deep or surface learning (Biggs, 1999). Learning contexts that facilitate student engagement are associated with a deep learning style and more effective learning outcomes. As Ramsden (2003) points out, there is a difference between simple factual knowledge and higher-level objectives such as critical thinking. Lecturing has been a traditional learning context in universities since it enables an efficient dissemination of information to a large number of students (Print, 1993). However, the humble lecture has received strong negative criticism since it provides a passive learning environment and its ability to foster deep learning outcomes is questionable (Jenkins, 1992). Additionally, lecture environments make it difficult to determine whether students are having difficulties with the lecture content and the discipline language.

Jenkins (1992) has proposed the use of a 'structured lecture' format - one in which students' activity is equally to that of the lecturer - in order to overcome some of the shortcomings of this particular learning context. After all, "lecturing itself ... does not lead to poor learning", the effectiveness of lecturing is determined by how the lecture is used (Ramsden, p.148). So we don't necessarily need to throw out the lecture concept; and let's face it, with increasing student numbers it would be economically impossible to do so. But student groups are growing more diverse as well as simply growing in numbers and we need to ensure student engagement for all students. Achieving student engagement with diverse groups of students does pose further challenges.

Diversity pedagogy

According to Lawrence (2005), academia has traditionally assumed that entering students possess similar levels of preparedness - an assumption which has led to a deficit ascription as student diversity increases. Academic staff view the widening range of degrees of preparedness as a problem (McInnis, 2000), and a problem that has little to do with teaching practice within the classroom (Asmar, Brew, McCulloch, Peseta, & Barrie, 2000). Teaching needs to engage with students' prior experiences, but as student populations become more diverse, so too does the diversity of those experiences (New London Group, 1996). Lawrence argues for a move away from the deficit approach to student diversity, instead adopting a framework aimed at increasing student engagement. This framework acknowledges three challenges faced by new students; the need for flexibility, time pressures, and dealing with unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity is most relevant for diverse groups of students.

Each student enters university with their own unique set of prior experiences, yet "transition [to university] is more difficult for those students whose capital may not be in tune with mainstream university discourses" (Lawrence, 2005; p. 248). Universities have a peculiar culture - one which has formed progressively over a long history (Hill, 1998). It is a culture which emerged from a democratic ideal, but was kidnapped by a society reliant upon class distinction. Educators must become aware of the role of multiple discourses in modern learning environments, begin to address the diversity of students' socio-cultural experiences and implement appropriate teaching practices to facilitate engagement and inclusion of all students (New London Group, 1996). The development of teaching strategies suitable for diverse prior experiences along with the facilitation of discussion and debate is one way to increase academic engagement (Krause, 2005). Still, while theoretical and practical recommendations are available, there is a "prevailing sense of anxiety" and uncertainty about how to proceed (New London Group; p. 61). How do we bridge the diversity gap?

Cheesy TV: A diversity balancer?

Buckmaster and Craig (2000) report the use of a television paradigm assessment to facilitate engagement in accounting students. They argue that the use of television created a "shared cultural structure" for the students, many of whom were identified as Generation X. It seems safe to assume a commonality among new students in their exposure to popular media - or at least safer than assuming a commonality in preparedness for university! If television does provide a medium for engaging diverse groups of students, then research into the relative popularity of different television genres is likely to benefit educators as well as advertisers.

A fair amount of research has been conducted in an attempt to maximise advertising expenditure. For example, Lloyd and Clancy's (1991) positive effects hypothesis suggests that the more engaging a television program, the more likely viewers are to remember the advertising embedded in that program. While the reliability of this finding is debated by some media researchers (Danaher & Lawrie, 1998) it does, to some extent, parallel the assumption of student engagement and the associated learning outcomes. So, which television genres do people find the most engaging?

Using two measures, the percentage of minutes viewed (PMV) and the proportion of viewers that watch 80% or more of a program (P80+), Danaher and Lawrie (1998) identified the top three television genres as (1) news programs, (2) soap operas, and (3) game shows. Interestingly, information shows rated as the least engaging.

"The Sentence is Right" rip off

The sentence is right game was a direct replication of the game show "The Price is Right" seen on Channel 9, Perth. Although several 'games' are played during the course of the show, the final showcase always involves the same format. That is, contestants are faced with a list of items which they need to rank according to price. There is a great deal of audience participation as they 'help' the contestant make their choices. The format of this game was suitable for sentencing, since the underlying principle of sentencing in Western Australia is proportionality, and proportionality is reliant upon the concept of ranking the seriousness of offences. Therefore, in the sentence is right game, the 'contestant' is required to rank the offences from lowest maximum sentence to highest maximum sentence - with lots of audience 'help'.

Civil and uncivil law

The 'sentence is right' game has been played out in guest lectures by the author for the past two years in a unit designed to give first year students an introduction to law, justice and social policy. Specifically, students are introduced to the concept of civil and uncivil laws (Hogg & Brown, 1998) focusing on the influence of politics in the creation of laws in the area of criminal justice. The specific objective of the sentencing guest lecture is to highlight to students the distinction between offences that are serious, and offences that are taken seriously. Additionally, this lecture needs to link back into the unit theme by raising awareness of 'knee-jerk' reactions to criminal offences, doing so by presenting deterrence theory and the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of deterrence in reducing offending behaviour.

Serious offences and offences taken seriously

The 'sentence is right' game was played twice during the lecture, each time with a new volunteer contestant. On the first run the offences were relatively easier to rank, while the second run involved offences which were more difficult to order (see Table 1). While neither contestant usually 'won', the prize package was awarded to both contestants (consisting of a chocolate bar and items 'acquired' from the school stationery cabinet).

While the contestant was trying to rank the sentences, the lecturer encouraged as much participation from the audience as possible. There was a lively amount of yelling from the class as individuals waved their hands indicating which offence they thought went next.

Once the game show had ended, discussion and debate was initiated regarding the associated sentences for the offences. Most students were taken aback by the relatively minor sentences associated with offences such as child stealing, deprivation of liberty and stalking, while the severity of the sentence for burglary was also a topic of hot debate. Perspectives on the relative seriousness of the offences were elicited from the students, along with their understanding of why certain offences were taken more seriously than others. This gave students concrete examples to use while consolidating Hogg and Brown's (1998) assertions of an increased reliance on uncivil law and order policies.

Table 1: Offence categories and associated maximum sentences used
in The sentence is right game (offences not aggravated)

Game Run 1Game Run 2
Possession of bullet proof clothing$6,000Fighting in public2 Years
Impersonating a police officer2 YearsStalking3 Years
Deprivation of liberty10 YearsForgery7 Years
Burglary (residential)18 YearsAssault occasioning grievous bodily harm10 Years
Child stealing20 YearsManslaughter20 Years
Wilful murderLifeArmed robberyLife

Student perceptions

Feedback from students indicated that they found the embedding of the game in the sentencing lecture not only entertaining ...
"The game was great fun. It was much more interesting than learning that sort of stuff out of textbooks, where it might be tedious. And it was great to see everyone getting into it."
... but engaging as well:
"I thought that was a great way to get us students to actually listen and pay attention, it made us more involved so I guess, well, taking my own experience, we learnt more that way rather than you just standing there and telling us about the sentences, so it sinks in more."
Students also indicated that they found the content easier to remember than if they had relied on readings or a standard lecture:
"I remember what we learnt in that game still today. Like who knew that owning a bullet-proof vest was a crime? So it was a really different, fun and interesting way to learn about something that could potentially be really boring."
More importantly, the activity appeared to foster a deeper level of understanding and appreciation of the concepts of civil and uncivil laws as well as the presence of extraneous influences in the area of criminal justice:
"I thought the sentencing game was great, certainly made me think about how inappropriate some sentencing laws are and further to this how wrong it is that they can be so black and white without looking at the circumstances of the crimes / events and influences in the cases."
The response from one student was reminiscent of Northedge's (1976) description of education as personal growth:
"The views I had early July are fast evolving and challenging my perception of the society I live in and the views I have today. No doubt these will continue to evolve throughout the learning process, games such as yours lighten the learning process at times but manage to get the message through very effectively."
Although a couple of students reported that they had not seen the specific game show before, all students were familiar with the game show genre. Additionally, one volunteer admitted that she had been reluctant to speak up in class and feeling generally uncomfortable and though that she didn't 'fit in'. When I asked her why she had volunteered, she said that she had become caught up with the excitement in the room. It may be that there is less pressure to 'get it right' with this type of activity, while a direct question can seem to just hang in a room of people not wanting to 'look stupid'.

Personal reflections

I have enjoyed using this activity immensely. Rather than lifeless eyes blankly staring down from their raised position in the lecture theatre - threatening to take that last final leap into the sleepy abyss - the students are alive, awake and really loud! They participate with such enthusiasm and vigour; one could be excused for thinking I am actually giving away a sports car! Some aspects of the activity have posed logistical difficulties. Keeping track of the sentences and offences while moving around small overhead cut-outs to mimic the actual television show is difficult, doing so while winding up the audience can be exhausting. The second time I ran this activity I had another member of staff help engage the students. This made everything flow better, and given the whole thing takes only about 15 minutes it wasn't a big impact on their time.

The energy spent pays its dues though, when I later present the arguments and evidence associated with mandatory sentencing laws. Students are more engaged with this section of the lecture; while they haven't acquired the associated jargon yet, they now have opinions on the underlying issues. They have also engaged with their peers during the game and feel confident to express these opinions [even in a class of 200].

Concluding remarks

Engaging students from a diverse range of backgrounds can be extremely challenging. It is difficult to find that shared cultural structure described by Buckmaster and Craig (2000); however popular media is so ingrained in modern society - crossing the boundaries of both class and culture - that it provides a medium for disseminating information for both advertisers and academics. University language and culture may be unfamiliar to many first year students, particularly as diversity among students increases (Lawrence, 2005) and finding a means of communicating complex ideas using a common language helps students to feel as though they are able to participate and engage with those ideas. It may also be that finding some common ground for diverse groups of students will help them to feel more confident with new material and to engage in debate with their peers. Lawrence (2002) recommends the use of interaction and discussion to foster the transition of diverse groups of students, and at the same time ensuring that all students are engaged with the material in a supportive environment. In this way, changes to teaching practices within lectures can facilitate engagement of diverse groups of students while maintaining educational veracity.


Asmar, C., Brew, A., McCulloch, M., Peseta, T., & Barrie, S. (2000). The first year experience project report. Institute for Teaching and Learning: University of Sydney.

Biggs, J. (1999). Constructing learning by aligning teaching: Constructive alignment. In J. Biggs (Ed.), Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press: Buckingham.

Buckmaster, N. & Craig, R., (2000). Popular television formats: The Student-as-consumer metaphor, acculturation and critical engagement in the teaching of accounting. Accounting Education, 9(4), 371-387.

Danaher, P.J. & Lawrie, J.M. (1998). Behavioural measures of television audience appreciation. Journal of Advertising Research, 38, 54-65.

Gewirtz, S. (2001). Rethinking social justice: A conceptual analysis. In J. Demain (Ed.), Sociology of Education Today. Palgrave Publishers: London.

Hill, B.V. (1998). Development of the mind or professional training? A philosophical/ historical perspective on higher education. Unpublished manuscript, Murdoch University.

Hogg, R. & Brown, D. (1998). Rethinking Law & Order. Pluto Press: Annandale, NSW.

Jenkins, A. (1992). Active learning in structured lectures. In G. Gibbs & A. Jenkins (Eds), Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education: How to Maintain Quality with Reduced Resources (pp. 63-77). Kogan Page: London.

Krause, K. (2005). Understanding and promoting student engagement in university learning communities. Paper presented at the James Cook University Symposium, 21-22 September, Townsville/Cairns. [verified 18 Jan 2007] http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/pdfs/Stud_eng.pdf

Lawrence, J. (2002). The 'deficit-discourse' shift: University teachers and their role in helping first year students persevere and succeed in the new university culture. Paper presented at the 6th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference, 8-10 July, Christchurch: New Zealand. [verified 18 Jan 2007] http://www.fyhe.qut.edu.au/past_papers/papers02/LawrencePaper.doc

Lawrence, J. (2005). Addressing diversity in higher education: Two models for facilitating student engagement and mastery. Paper presented at the 28th annual Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference, 3-6 July, Sydney. http://conference.herdsa.org.au/2005/pdf/refereed/paper_300.pdf

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McInnis, C. (2000). The role of academics in Australian Universities. Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs: Canberra.

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New London Group, (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Northedge, A. (1976). Examining our implicit analogies for learning processes. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 13(4), 67-78.

Print, M. (1993). Curriculum Development and Design (2nd Ed). Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest.

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Author: Jaimie Beven received a BA (Hons) in Psychology from Murdoch University in 1998 and then went on to complete a PhD entitled Interpersonal Emotional Responses in Violent Offenders: (Re)examining the Role of Empathy in the School of Law. Jaimie began teaching in 1999 in the School of Psychology and moved to the School of Law in 2005 where she now teaches in the areas of Sentencing and Penology, Criminal Behaviour, and Criminology. Postal address: School of Law, Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch WA 6150. Email: J.Beven@murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Beven, J. P. (2007). Bridging diversity to achieve engagement: "The Sentence is Right" game show rip off. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/beven.html

Copyright 2007 Jaimie P. Beven. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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