From Theory to Obama: Innovative Teaching Methods to Increase Participation

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Zoe Harris, Public Health

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

I have often have had students express concern that what they learn in the classroom is not applicable to the “real world.” During the fall of 2008, my Public Health undergrads were consumed with the upcoming election: from the California Proposition voting decisions, to Obama versus McCain’s margin, to the potential for healthcare reform. As veteran teaching assistant, accustomed to using the same handouts throughout the years, my new challenge was to use the tools and theories from the health policy lessons and apply them to case studies regarding the 2008 election. My goals: to help students navigate the health policy world through calibration to current events, and to encourage participation.

One morning, my classroom was abuzz with a debate over whether to vote yes or no on Proposition 2: Treatment of Farm Animals. Instead of my original lesson plan, carefully typed up with several handouts, I sat and listened to their debate. Students who only spoke when I cold-called them were the center of the discussion. “STOP!” I raised my arms while students glared at me nervously. “Today, we are going to apply Wilson’s theory of concentrated versus diffuse interests to decide which way you would vote on Proposition 2.” (Stunned looks all around.) “Now, who remembers what the theory is?” After a discussion on whether monetary costs of passing the proposition would be borne by agricultural suppliers or the average consumer, and of the various (concentrated versus diffuse) economic and health impacts, I had an idea. At the end of that section, I announced that students could bring in a current article relevant to the election as long as they could relate it to 150D lecture material. Bringing in an article would count for participation points, which represented a major contributor to each student’s grade in the discussion section. I posted relevant articles on [the course website] so students could have their own copy.

Throughout the next week, my inbox was swamped with current event articles. I entered the classroom for Thursday section and students jumped at the chance to share their thoughts. Students explained to each other Kingdon’s policy window of opportunity rather than listening to my repeated attempts to communicate through handouts, chalkboard exercises, small group activities, and humor. Participation was nearly universal, and not limited to a small minority of vocal individuals.

From then on, we spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of every section discussing health policy developments and the election. Sometimes a dozen students would bring in articles, sometimes just one; but the material was always within the current health policy arena. Students engaged in the most complex of the theories and used to them to analyze policy decisions in a manner that a true seasoned policy maker would use. The exercise educated, inspired, and empowered students to take ownership of their own learning and to participate through critically evaluating new concepts.

Did students benefit from this practice? The New York Times was more frequently perused in my classroom than Facebook, and verbal participation in my section skyrocketed. In every evaluation I have seen, students have specifically commented that the current event articles were their favorite part of the course. Participation, I have learned, is not one size fits all, and sometimes students simply emailed me an article to demonstrate their interest. Students who had never spoken up in class sent me articles, indicating a nearly universal element of participation.

Finally, this exercise blurred the distinction between teaching and learning. I will always see myself as a lifelong learner, excited about the prospect of integrating new knowledge and ideas into my portfolio. Now, I get to read new, relevant health policy articles without even opening the paper. And my ultimate test of the effectiveness of my strategy: months after the final exam was given to the students in 150D, they still frequently email me with newspaper articles.