Teaching Today

Developing Media-Savvy Students

As our national political dialogue veers toward personal attack and speculation and away from meaningful and civil exchange, we should require our students to read a national newspaper and discuss its content, and then test them on it, writes Susan Siena.

March 21, 2017
 
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While many academics probably grew up reading a newspaper -- or at least observing parents and grandparents who did so -- this daily habit is something that few of our students are familiar with. A recent survey of 200 students enrolled in my National and International Policy course at Indiana University showed that the majority got their news from social media, with the content determined by “whatever friends and relatives post.”

That is not surprising, since a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans get their news from social media. But, of course, social media feeds are filled with material that confirms our biases. Sometimes those posts are simply “fake news” or exaggerations.

Many faculty members in all disciplines are concerned by our national political dialogue, which seems to be veering toward personal attack and speculation and away from meaningful and civil exchange about policy. To counter this trend, those of us teaching courses related to current events should require our students to read a national newspaper, devote a few minutes a week to discussing its content and test students on major news headlines. This simple step can have a significant impact on students’ news habits.

Informal conversation with students suggests that they are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information now available. They also wonder how they can sort out fact from fiction. Faced with this situation, many have simply given up on being informed citizens. When asked in a survey about the stories that they recalled, many cited reports about scandals and natural disasters. Such dramatic stories capture interest but often have little lasting policy significance.

A literature search on using current events in the college classroom turns up decades of articles suggesting clever ways to entice students to read the news. They range from the outdated “clipping file” to requiring that students maintain a news blog. Many of these ideas are inspiring but perhaps unrealistic for those of us with large class sizes -- not to mention other material that students must master in our course.

And the changing nature of digital media makes this task even more daunting for faculty members. How can we understand and master such a complex and rapidly changing field? And how can we make a clear assignment of what to read in a news environment that changes not just daily but also by the minute?

If faculty members do not define the requirement to follow news headlines clearly, many students will give up before they even start. Which headlines should they follow? Even identifying one news outlet will leave students scratching their heads about how they can a monitor continually changing website.

But this problem is fairly easily solved; most national newspapers offer a free, daily headline news service. Faculty members can select one of them and base quiz and test questions on a basic knowledge of those headlines. If the requirement for success is clear and attainable, more students will attempt it. Students who prefer to get their news on a smartphone can also download an app to follow such headlines easily.

A New Teaching Approach

Reading a national newspaper has always been a class requirement in my introductory political science courses. I’ve always included questions about the national news on tests and exams. But current events questions were more frequently missed on tests and exams, and I began to suspect that my teaching method -- required reading -- was not resulting in my desired learning outcome: a lifelong habit of following the news. In the summer of 2016, I set out to figure out why.

I engaged in some soul searching and examined the course requirement itself. Using the principles of backward course design, I looked at my desired learning outcome -- a lifelong habit of following quality news outlets -- and asked myself what students would need to be able to do to achieve that learning outcome. I came up with three basic steps:

  • Students need to become familiar with quality sources of news. Students should learn what quality news reporting looks like; surveys of students show that with time, they will learn to value this content. That is because journalists working for respected national newspapers follow a high standard of excellence. Their articles provide context and are carefully checked for accuracy. Reading this kind of material regularly is addictive.

    After a semester of reading a national newspaper, many students have decided that this, not their social media feed, is the best way to follow current events. One student commented, “I now get my news primarily from the New York Times daily briefing instead of social media. I have developed this news habit because the NYT really seems to be, like, a reliable source of information.”

  • Students need to learn which stories to read. My students reported that “lack of time” is the primary reason they do not follow current events. Reading selectively is a skill they need to develop. Even The New York Times runs many articles that are not hard news. Many front-page stories offer analysis and even at times speculation about what might happen, and a significant percentage are human-interest stories, reporting on the experiences of ordinary people affected by dramatic political events or natural disasters or examining the personalities involved in politics. While those stories provide interesting context, a reader seeking basic information about policy issues can devote more attention to the stories that report hard news.

  • Students must practice reading the news daily. Students are strategic learners, rational actors who will seek the path of least resistance. For many of my students, that means putting off any review of the news headlines until the night before the test. Not surprisingly, the result in my course was that test questions on current events were more often missed. Furthermore, I was not meeting my learning outcome, because students were not developing the habit of following significant national news on a daily basis.

Knowing that active learning engages students in deeper levels of cognition and even changes attitudes about the classroom experience, I realized that the most important thing I could do would be to engage students in small-group discussions related to the current events stories they were required to read. Additionally, I could use a few of those group activities to help students gain insight into how to read the news selectively.

Beginning last fall, students in my course were assigned to complete short team assignments regarding current events. None of those assignments took more than 10 minutes, and I graded them on a simple scale as part of the in-class assignments for the day. On the first day of class, I tasked pairs of students with simply figuring out how to gain access to The New York Times through our library website and with identifying the important stories of the day using predefined criteria that I provided. I also encouraged students to sign up for the New York Times email service. This activity was a first step to helping students understand that they did not need to follow every story in The New York Times and to help them begin to read selectively.

Later assignments included comparing coverage across news outlets, answering specific analytical questions about major news headlines and even writing a current events test question of their own. Requiring students to spend just a few minutes of class time reflecting on the news led to a substantial improvement in outcomes.

Surveys of my students show a significant change in news habits over the course of one semester. Whereas nearly half had received most of their news from social media at the beginning of the semester, this number had fallen by 17 percent by the end of it. Students also reported that they noticed a meaningful change in their own habits. As many as 70 percent of those surveyed reported that they followed the news more frequently at the end of the semester, and 80 percent said they would keep this up even after the semester ended. Students said they found personal value in being more informed about current events.

One student described the value in a regular news habit this way: “The difference in how I get news now is that before I just read news from time to time, but now that I consistently keep up, I see patterns and developments that I never previously expected.” Another stated, “I now focus more on the news and what’s going on around me. I now actually check news sources for my own enjoyment. This class has forced me to, and now I find it necessary and enjoyable.”

At a time when many academics are scratching their heads about our nation’s political situation, we need to get back to basics in the classroom. Simply devoting a few minutes a week to current events and testing students on their knowledge can have a significant impact.

Bio

Susan Siena is a professor at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

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