Maria Rost Rublee • University of Tampa
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s December 2006 edition.
My upper-level political science classes are focused on reading, discussion, writing, and presentations. I want students to grapple with material on their own, analyze it to produce their own insights, and come to class prepared to engage in thoughtful discussion. Sometimes my students fulfill my expectations, but more often than I’d like, they do not. Discussion is stilted as students avert their eyes so I can’t meet their gaze. Hands are carefully kept at their sides so I don’t see movement and think they might be raising their hand to participate. Only a few students contribute and discussion sounds more like a conversation among a few people.
The $64-million-dollar question is how do you get students to read the material and come ready to discuss? As a relatively new faculty member (I began my tenure-track position in Fall 2004), I have grappled with this question for many months. I’ve found a few solutions that produce results, although none work all the time and none work as well as I would like. I’d like to share what steps I have taken to produce richer, more engaging class discussions and then ask for your ideas and opinions.
The first problem is that if students do not read, they will not be able to discuss, so I decided to tackle this first. I required my students to bring two discussion questions to class with them from the reading. Of course, students quickly realized they could scan the main headings and come up with a few questions without doing any readings. I went back to the drawing board and came up with the idea of having students write reactions to the readings in the form of journals. Each Monday, students turn in 500 words they have written about the readings we will cover that week. Even though the editor inside me cringed to say it, I told the students I would not consider punctuation or grammar in grading the journals—rather, I just wanted them to show me that they read the material. Some students tried to write reactions based on the first few pages of the readings. I found that warnings not to do so were ignored, and I had to give very low grades to persuade some students to react to more than just a few pages. Now that I have assigned journals for a few semesters, I have learned to encourage students to simply write their reactions to the text as they read it. For my Nuclear Proliferation class, a reaction might read, “I had no idea the US still had over 6000 nuclear weapons on alert, plus an additional 6000 in storage. Why do we need so many?” For my East Asia class, a student might write, “I knew the Chinese feared instability, but now I know why as I see what Mao did to institutions during the Cultural Revolution.” The point is not for students to create cohesive analytical arguments. Instead, I just want them to read and react to the material in an intelligent fashion. Is this a cop out? Potentially, but since my goal is to get them to read and grapple with the material on their own (as opposed to me spouting the information in lecture), it’s worth it. Journals are normally 20% of the students’ grades, and typically students who don’t do well on the journals do poorly in the rest of the assignments.
If journals seem like they work so well, why am I asking for suggestions? First, students really dislike the journals and complain it’s too much work. That by itself would not bother me. But it is a lot of work for me to grade—if I have 70 students in a semester, that’s 70 students writing 13 journals each. That does not include their 3 short analytical papers, their presentation handouts, and their research papers. Finally, some students are always trying to find short cuts to do the journals—talking about a page in the beginning, in the middle, and the end—and not reading the rest. It’s obvious and I give them low grades, but isn’t there some method that students do not try to find easy ways to escape?
Some have suggested quizzes to me for the weekly readings—10-question multiple-choice quizzes each week would be much easier to grade than journals. If my goal is to get students to read, a weekly quiz might be just the answer. However, I hesitate to do this because I fear a 10-question quiz could ask for arbitrary items—I want students who have done the readings to do well and not miss questions just because they didn’t remember certain specific facts. I suppose I could make sure the questions addressed broad themes, but then I remember that I was trying to get away from tests as a form of evaluation since I want my political science majors to develop their reading, writing and discussion skills.
What I may try next semester is to have short analytical papers on the readings, as well as journals, so that if a student writes a short analytical paper on the readings, he or she will not have to do a journal. However, students currently write their short analytical papers on relevant newspaper articles, and they really like using current material for those.
Even if all my students read, getting them to participate in class discussion can be difficult. Sometimes the class mix is just right, and you’ve got a good number of extroverts who are willing to speak up regardless. Other times, the silence in the classroom is deadly, even when I know most students have done the reading.
Thankfully, I have a better answer to this problem than I do the reading issue: provocative questions. If a student is presenting on material, they must have three provocative questions to end the presentation with—and then they lead discussion. If I am leading discussion, I make sure to have a few thought-provoking questions to use if discussion falls flat. For example, in my World Affairs class, students will ask if the U.S. should invade Iran or North Korea to prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons— even though the U.S. has many thousands of nuclear weapons. In my Political Economy class, students ask how much extra you should pay to ensure your clothing wasn’t made in a sweatshop. By directing the students to think of provocative questions, I find that discussion is almost always lively. (Of course, if students haven’t done the reading, discussion is lively but misguided.)
My goal is to encourage students to sharpen their analytical, writing, and presentation skills so that they can succeed in government, law, or the private sector when they graduate. I also want them to think through issues thoroughly so they create informed, reasoned opinions—necessary to a healthy democracy. Yet, to enhance these skills, I need them to read and discuss. Your thoughts and opinions on better ways to do this are most appreciated!
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