Political Science Educator: volume 26, issue 1
Barbara Robertson, Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, and Tamra Ortgies-Young, Georgia State University’s Perimeter College
Recent political events highlight the fragility of democratic values and the need for the University in creating a framework for civic education becomes more urgent. Our students face the challenge of living in an information age filled with misinformation and an increasingly fragile democratic system. This mistrust of information in politics, science, and pop culture undermines public inquiry within universities and society, and it creates apathy for distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources of information. Educational institutions have been addressing this crisis for decades by equipping students with critical thinking skills (Watson et al. 2011). However, the integration of critical thinking into higher education endured debates over what constitutes critical thinking (e.g., formal vs. informal logic) and fears that teaching these skills might come at the expense of teaching academic content. Jonathan Haber debunks this myth: “Since background knowledge, including knowledge of content related to the academic disciplines, is a vital part of being a critical thinker, understanding content and thinking critically about it do not need to come into conflict” (Haber 2020). In other words, virtually all courses can provide an opportunity to build critical thinking skills.
To address these political and pedagogical issues, three faculty members–two political scientists and a philosopher working at a two-year access college within a large public, urban university–applied for and won an internal innovation team grant. Our proposal outlined an interdisciplinary module to enhance student information literacy while targeting those competencies of informed citizenship. The inspiration and rationale behind our project included:
- the civic responsibility that institutions of higher education have vis-à-vis their students;
- the complex world of information that students must navigate as part of their education;
- the roles that critical thinking and media literacy play in enabling them to do this; and
- the recognition that a wide array of courses can serve as a basis for introducing students to these skills by supplementing, rather than sacrificing, course content.
The module we created, “Critical Thinking in the Age of Misinformation,” gives faculty members the opportunity to integrate critical thinking and media literacy skills into existing core courses. It is interactive and customizable to meet the unique nature of the subject matter, the pedagogical preferences of the instructor, and the desired learning outcomes for the students. The curriculum includes six short lessons to guide students in overcoming common obstacles: evaluating the credibility of information and sources, understanding the makeup and evolution of the media environment, learning to apply reasoning, identifying and avoiding fallacies in written and oral discourse, and understanding the importance of informed citizenship.
The module teaches critical thinking skills of determining the value of information. This is achieved by differentiating between the varying quality of sources, identifying motivations for disinformation, becoming aware of common reasons for misinformation and reflecting on how bad information is a danger to democracy. We determined early on that it was essential to create a module that was engaging by appealing to student culture. The lessons are titled:
- Introduction to Critical Thinking
- Junk Sources
- Zombie Logic
- Social Mania
- Fake News
- Conspiracy Theories
The hook inspired titles of each section carry out through each segment with interactive activities enhanced with theme-based design elements including zombies, junk food analogies, deep fakes, and viral mania.
To meet our goals of effectiveness, efficiency, and versatility we developed the cross-disciplinary learning outcomes, current content, and practice opportunities in a logical and straightforward format easily integrated into an existing course. Therefore, we worked to create an optimal student experience that meets expected learning outcomes, while reducing barriers for instructor implementation and student navigation. Due to the collaborative nature of the content development and pilot, by the end of the Fall term, we recruited 20 enthusiastic instructors to assign the lessons in Spring courses.
To achieve the goals of versatility and flexibility in design and delivery, we created the lesson content, first as PowerPoints and then using the slide content to inform the HTML version of the lessons. For this reason, faculty deploying the lessons in their courses can use the PowerPoint of any of the lessons for in-person or synchronous delivery; or opt to assign the HTML version of any of the module lessons for asynchronous delivery. Once the module is imported into their course section(s), faculty choose the number of lessons and specific assessments.
As indicated above, “Critical Thinking in the Age of Misinformation” is a single module that includes six lessons. The decision to create a single module was based on the goal of an efficient and simplified module easily integrated into an existing course. To maintain organizational simplicity, the module items in each lesson include the lesson content, the conclusion and next steps, and the different assessments for instructors to choose from.
To support learning, the lessons are written to include an instructor voice to guide the students through the content, a lesson objective, a “call to action”, a highlights of important concepts and key terms, a practice activity, and a “want to learn more” section listing additional resources.
The content of the lesson is delivered using text and short multimedia resources. The inclusion of practice activities at the end of each lesson, which are surveys with detailed feedback, allows students to practice critical thinking, media literacy skills, recall of those skills and key concepts. In support of learning, content is interactive, professionally designed, visually appealing and includes professional educational resources. For asynchronous delivery of the module, HTML design templates were used to create content for the university learning management system (Desire to Learn) to convey the same basic text, graphics, and themes used in the PowerPoint versions of each lesson. This also allowed for a seamless transition in look and feel from HTML to PowerPoint.
In addition to content development, project assessment work to date includes student attitudes and faculty feedback for first- and second-year core courses across the liberal arts and sciences that adopted the module. Student surveys show:
- a rise in the number of students that view the need to apply critical thinking and media literacy skills as important,
- an increased student perception of being better equipped to use critical thinking and media literacy skills, and
- a student urgency to use these skills more often in their personal and professional lives than they did before completing the module.
We hope to see the positive impacts of this resource at other schools throughout the US and the world. If you are interested in creating something like this at your home institution, feel free to contact us for additional information on best practices or for more details of this project.
Haber, Jonathan. 2020 “It’s Time to Get Serious About Teaching Critical Thinking.” Inside Higher Ed, March 2, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/02/teaching-students-think-critically-opinion.
Watson, David, Robert Hollister, Susan E. Stroud, and Elizabeth Babcock. 2011. The Engaged University: International Perspectives on Civic Engagement. New York: Routledge.
Barbara Robertson is an instructor of political science at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.
Tamra Ortgies-Young is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.
Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.
Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)
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